Carolina Beer Guy: Rural breweries face distinct pandemic challenges

MASKED MAN: Homeplace Beer Co. owner John Silver requires customers at his Burnsville taproom to wear masks, a decision that's led to backlash from visitors from states without such mandates. Photo courtesy of Homeplace Beer Co.

Regardless of its size, every brewery has faced an assortment of challenges during the long COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s true with the busy South Slope breweries in downtown Asheville and with small-town rural breweries, which have faced their own set of issues as they push into the cold winter months.

Masks have been required since June for all North Carolina businesses. Just before Thanksgiving, Gov. Roy Cooper strengthened the law, and at restaurants and breweries, customers must keep a mask on at all times unless actively drinking or eating.

In Asheville and Buncombe County, officials have made it clear that violations could lead to fines or even temporary closures. But in outlying areas, guidance has not been as clear, and it’s been mostly up to business owners to require masks — often for customers from other states without mask laws. Some drinkers have not wanted to don a mask and have sometimes strongly objected to putting one on.

In Burnsville, the lone wet town in otherwise dry Yancey County, business bounced back at Homeplace Beer Co. after reopening in May. “We laid off all our staff in March, but we were able to hire back almost everyone,” says owner John Silver.

Before the pandemic, Homeplace could accommodate about 200 people indoors, but current restrictions limit its capacity to around 40-50 with an additional 150 outdoors, the same as before the pandemic.

Initially, Silver notes that he only “strongly suggested” that customers wear masks. “Our county government has not enforced [the state mask law],” he says. “[North Carolina] seems to be leaving it up to municipalities to enforce it.” But now, he’s requiring masks inside.

“I would say that 90% of the people who come in wear masks,” he says. “We knew that when we decided to do this, it would alienate some people. We’ve had instances with people storming off or getting confrontational. Most of the issues we have had are with people from Florida and South Carolina.”

For Jackson County-based Innovation Brewing, which has taprooms in Sylva, Dillsboro and Cullowhee, pub business is about 50% of what it was before the pandemic, says co-owner Nicole Dexter. The tasting rooms are open but with limited seating and no bar seats.

“[During the pandemic], we’ve always been masks-on anytime you are standing,” she says. ­”When you are seated at a table is the only time you can take a mask off. It’s not optional. If you don’t want to do that, you can’t stay.”

She continues, “Everybody locally has been fine [with wearing masks]. The only issues have been with people from out of state, where they don’t have the same requirements we have in North Carolina. ­We’ve had a few outbursts from people. It’s just them yelling at us, then leaving.”

Thanks to spacious open-air covered areas at all three locations, Dexter says that most of the business at Innovation is from outdoor sales — and 100% at the Cullowhee taproom, which is not currently open indoors. With colder weather moving in, she’s anticipating “a lean winter,” but expects a decent amount of sales via the brewery’s canned beer, which is distributed through Budweiser of Asheville.

When the pandemic began, Whiteside Brewing Co. in Cashiers, also in Jackson County, had a “tough time of it,” according to brewery owner Bob Dews. The brewery also has a restaurant, which he notes has been a big boost. “We are very rural and we have a big green area [for outdoor business],” he says.

Despite the public health crisis, Dews says that tourism in Cashiers “spiked” during summer. (“People were looking to get outside and go hiking,” he says.) But he also knows there are a significant number of people who have “hunkered down” and are not getting out as much as before the pandemic.

As for indoor business, seating is spread out, and all employees are masked. Dews has seen some visitors who do not want to wear a mask, “but it’s pretty rare. We recognize that people are in a tense situation, and tempers are easy to flare.”

Over at Mad Co. Brew House — which now makes beer at its sister company, Laconia Ale Works, in Sparta — bartender KeKe O’Regan reports that business has been steady. “In Marshall, there really aren’t other [pubs],” she says. About 50% of the brewery’s customers go outside to enjoy beer or pizza, and Mad Co. requires masks to be worn while moving around indoors.

“We’ve been pretty strict about that,” O’Regan says. “We’ve only had two people where we had to turn down service. People who come in here have been very compliant.”


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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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