Ever since launching the French Broad River Festival in the late 1990s, Chris Donochod has spent a lot of time in Hot Springs. And over the last two decades, a perennial question has nagged the festival founder and his wife, Amy Rubin, who previously worked as a sales representative for Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard. “We said to ourselves, ‘Why hasn’t someone put a brewery in this town?’” Donochod says.
Three years ago, after a pair of side-by-side buildings became available, the couple decided to answer the call. In December, Big Pillow Brewing hosted its soft opening, making it the third craft brewery in Madison County, joining the Mad Co. Brew House in Marshall and the Hickory Nut Gorge Brewery in the restored Mars Hill Theatre in Mars Hill.
The brewery’s name is a nod to the area’s large rapids. “We wanted to give it a name that told a story specific to us,” says Rubin. “Chris is a whitewater boater and used to be a [river] guide.”
Big Pillow’s head brewer is Carl Herman, previously of Oskar Blues and Deschutes Brewery. The company uses a 10-barrel system to turn out such beers as High Side Pale Ale (5.2 ABV), Kind People Kolsch (5.4 ABV), Bluff Mountain Porter (5.8 ABV), Roof Dog IPA (6.3 ABV), Hunker Down Winter Warmer (8.3 ABV), Appalachian Fog Hazy IPA (7.2 ABV ) and Hazy Nugget Experimental IPA (6.6 ABV).
The brewery also serves as a northern outpost of The Grey Eagle Taqueria, which has temporarily closed its original River Arts District location for the winter with plans to relaunch in April.
“It’s a nice fit — the cuisine paired with craft beer,” says Sarah Keith, who owns The Grey Eagle Taqueria with her husband, Russ. Working with breweries, she adds, is a growing part of the pair’s business. The Keiths also operate a taqueria at Bearwaters Brewing Co.’s Creekside location in Maggie Valley and have vended food at Wedge Brewing Co. and Green Man Brewery, both in Asheville.
The food menu at the Big Pillow outpost is similar to the taqueria’s other locations, featuring tacos, burritos, quesadillas, rice bowls and salads. But each venue has a few unique selections. “We’ve highlighted specialty tacos at Hot Springs and Maggie Valley,” Keith explains.
So far, the brewery’s taps and food selections, in tandem with the nearby hot springs, is an appealing combination, notes Rubin. “This is where you want to be when it’s cold outside,” she says. And once the weather warms up, Rubin adds, Big Pillow plans to feature live outdoor music and movies.
Beyond selling beer, Rubin and Donochod want Big Pillow to be a big part of the Hot Springs community. They’ve already raised funds for a victims of a recent house fire. And they’ve built strong friendships, especially with other local business.
“My husband and I love this town,” Rubin says. “We want our community to know that we are there for them. We are pledging to give back and pay it forward anyway we can.”