Salt Face Mule grows North Buncombe’s craft beverage scene

FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE: Ray Dobens, Salt Face Mule Brewing Co. head brewer, works the business's 10-barrel system as a team of one. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

Where is Salt Face Mule Brewing Co.?

It’s an excellent question and one with an answer that only perpetuates the riddle.

“We are actually in Woodfin, with an Asheville address, on Weaverville Highway,” says principal owner Anthony Randolph with a laugh. “I think that’s why people get confused. But we’re just glad we’re here.”

Randolph is a managing member of the Twisted Laurel Restaurant Group, which has establishments in downtown Asheville and Weaverville. But while that business’s name is fairly straightforward, what exactly is a salt face mule?

Randolph says it’s a tribute to his longtime Yancey County friend, Sam Jones. Among Jones’ numerous mountain colloquialisms was, “I’m thirstier than a salt-faced mule,” which he’d utter on particularly hot days. Randolph loved the phrase and promised Jones he’d somehow put it to use.

A little over 30 years later, Salt Face Mule Brewing Co. opened Sept. 13 in the former Play Station amusement center, further growing the suddenly bustling northern Buncombe County craft beverage scene. Its addition comes roughly a year after Weaverville’s Leveller Brewing Co. and Woodfin’s Outsider Brewing Co. joined the ranks of Zebulon Artisan Ales and Zillicoah Beer Co., giving residents just outside Asheville a range of sudsy options.

Mountain path

Salt Face Mule lead brewer Ray Dobens got his start in the brewing industry in the early 2000s at Harpoon Brewery in Boston. There, he worked under a production manager who created an environment where employees were encouraged to experiment, and failure wasn’t punished.

“I learned a lot and had a lot of opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them,” Dobens says. “As long as you didn’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again, you’re pretty safe. So, it was a great place to learn to be a brewer.”

After seven years at Harpoon, Dobens moved to Eastern North Carolina to work for Duck-Rabbit Brewery. While he loved the brewery and his colleagues, Dobens wasn’t as fond of the climate in Farmville.

“I’m just not made for that kind of heat, man. It’s like 100 degrees from April to November. I don’t remember any comfortable time there,” he says. “I like to ride motorcycles, and the roads are all flat and straight. I was just like, ‘Well, this is pointless.’”

During that time, Dobens attended the Brewgrass Festival at McCormick Field and became enchanted with the western part of the state. The area reminded him of the rural Appalachia of his native Pennsylvania, and the cooler temperatures and bike-friendly mountain roads further appealed to him and his family.

“Right when we started looking at ways to move out here, Oskar Blues [Brewery] announced that they were moving here and then they posted a job that directly fit my skill set. So, I applied there and got that job right away,” he says. “It was basically a filter operator job. There’s not many people that know how to use this particular filter that they were using, so it kind of narrows down the candidates pretty well.”

One-man band

Most of Dobens’ background in brewing is technical brewing management, which involves overseeing the process of moving from fermentation into a brite tank or packaging. While he’s long known how to brew and enjoys the process, he says his skill set has historically fit better in a management role at larger corporate breweries like Oskar Blues.

“I’ve always applied for brewing jobs but every time I did, they’re like, ‘Honestly, you’re going to do better if you just continue on the path you’re on. You’re not going to have fun in the brew house,” Dobens says. “And I’m like, ‘All right. Whatever. I know I will.’”

Dobens stayed at the Brevard brewery from 2012-17, then became an independent consultant, which is how he met Randolph and the Twisted Laurel team. While visiting Play Station after the go-kart, bumper car, mini golf and arcade venue closed in spring 2021, Randolph and his team asked Dobens if he thought the space would be suitable for making beer.

QUALITY CONTROL: Ray Dobens pours a sample from one of Salt Face Mule Brewing Co.’s brite tanks. The fully automated 10-barrel brewery allows him to perform all work-related tasks on his own. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

“I said, ‘Absolutely! This would be a great brewery,’” he recalls. “From the word ‘go,’ we kind of agreed on the concept, and that’s when I decided that I’d try to become a partner with them. And luckily, they accepted my pitch.”

Dobens says that it’s rare to come across an opportunity like Salt Face Mule, where investors are willing to build a fully automated 10-barrel brewery. Housed where the bumper cars used to collide, the brewing system allows him to work alone and brew a beer while he cleans tanks and kegs and performs other tasks.

“I tend to do really simple, understated beers. I don’t do anything real fancy,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of room to be creative within a pretty broad range of styles.”

Among the recent offerings are a pre-Prohibition corn lager, a 4% ABV session IPA and a German-style festbier. The accessible brews pair well with food from the operation’s kitchen, which features an entirely different menu from that of Twisted Laurel. The sophisticated Southern cuisine ranges from braised beef dishes and shrimp and grits to plentiful vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options — including the rare sight of collard greens without pork.

Fun and games

Though the space has transformed significantly since its Play Station days, vestiges remain intact. The ownership team kept the property’s 36 holes of miniature golf, which Randolph sees as an outlet for family-friendly entertainment as well as fundraising events for charitable causes.

“We really try to be a part of the community and make a difference,” he says.

Plans are also underway to transform the adjacent former go-kart storage building into a spot where people can race remote control cars. The space will be a family-friendly area during the day, then turn into what Randolph calls “a hip space” that he intends to be for patrons ages 21 and older after 6 p.m.

Randolph aims to have the go-kart area complete sometime this winter. The space will bring 60-70 additional seats to the property, which currently includes roughly 120 seats.

Once the indoor addition is complete, Salt Face Mule’s attention will shift to turning the former outdoor batting cages into a beer garden. Randolph envisions adding new picnic tables, shade sources and possibly some boccie courts.

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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