There’s a term — conversational cul-de-sac — that describes a conversation that has met its end and has nowhere else to go. On April 4, 2021, Jason Crowe and his wife, Stephanie, were standing in their cul-de-sac talking with friends and neighbors Spencer Welborn and his wife, Blair; and Natalie Rice and her husband, Judd Welborn. This conversation, though, was just getting started.
Jason and Stephanie, who own N.C. Drainage, were talking about what to do with their commercial property that was left vacant when they moved their fast-growing company to a larger location in Alamance County. An idea was floated to convert their building that sits at the backside of the Eno River Mill, into a brewery. The group decided to take a quick field trip.
“Me, Stephanie, Judd, Spencer, Blair all went over there and looked at it,” said Jason Crowe. “Lightbulbs went off. This could happen.”
The feeling was so serendipitous as they walked around the two-acre property that snuggles right up to the Eno River, that a name was settled on: Eno River Brewing. The idea born in a cul-de-sac was quickly on the road to reality.
Although some of the details haven’t fully taken shape, at some point in the early part of 2023, Hillsborough will again be home to a full-fledged craft brewery. The onsite building will be upgraded and reconfigured to house brewing equipment and a tap room. New bathrooms will be installed, and two giant pull-up garage doors will be added and open to a large outdoor seating section that will look over about 1,000 feet of the River Walk and the Eno River. The outdoor canopy area will have heaters and fans to extend opportunities for its use. Seating capacity for the brewery, inside and out, will top out at about 80.
The building will be painted, and the brewery’s name will adorn its side. Sections of the fencing that now surrounds much of the property will be removed to open to the natural scenery.
“Most of our seating will be under the patio canopy and then maybe wrapping around the side of the building,” said Natalie Rice, who is a co-owner of Eno River Brewing, and has handled a variety of early-stage duties. “We do think we’ll have some creative seating options for people outside, whether it’s big boulders or things like that so we can bring in the Riverwalk feel onto our property. It’ll be kind of bringing nature to our site.”
The owners believe the rolling property and its connection and proximity to nature and natural resources are key to creating a brewery with an atmosphere that will appeal to families, and help make it a destination point.
“I think the property definitely drove this project, for sure,” Crowe said.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in the Triangle area,” Rice added. “In western North Carolina — where I’m from — there are concepts that are very similar, in some ways, but not here.”
Barely a month after the words “Eno River Brewing” were lofted into the air, the group of owners launched its efforts to find a brewmaster who shared a vision for mixing a nature-focused, family-friendly establishment with craft beer-making talents.
That tall order was filled when they hired Alex Leonard, who first moved from St. Louis to Raleigh in 2018, to take job at Trophy Brewing Co. as the lead experimental brewer. Leonard knew he wanted, ultimately, to be a brewmaster, but those opportunities were few and far between in the craft beer industry. He learned of the Eno River Brewing position while helping a friend find work, and was immediately intrigued.
“Everything was just perfect,” Leonard said. “Meeting with a group of people who were very well informed about what they were doing. They knew the risks and the troubles, and just what it’s going to be like to open a brewery. We have this amazing property, and we were all really connected on what we thought this business could be focusing on: taking care of employees; doing things as sustainable as possible; engaging with the community; and making a space where people feel comfortable and want to come back to and feel at home. That’s what really got me involved in this. It wasn’t necessarily the job itself or the ability to make beer. It was these people coming together on this project. I think we’re doing it for the right reasons and have the right goals in mind, and the fact that we were so aligned on all that is what’s really special about this. You don’t see that a lot.”
The owners — and the company’s brewmaster — are quick to point out their desire to become immediately involved with the community, with efforts to support the arts and other businesses. Plans are for beer brewed at Eno River Brewing to be sold at Hillsborough venues and other nearby restaurants. But that’s not the only way the brewery intends to partner with local businesses. While food will not be made at Eno River Brewing, customers will be able to order and have meals delivered from the Colonial Inn and Radius Pizza. The partnerships are partly a result of how impressed the group of owners have been with the craft beverage community.
“It’s amazing what I’ve learned in the craft beer industry, about how supportive of each other these people are,” said Crowe. “I mean, talking to Botanist and Barrel, and they’re like, ‘Come on out. We’ll help you help us and make Hillsborough stronger.’ We’ve met breweries in Danville, we’ve met the folks at Steel String (in Carrboro). They’ all have all been very supportive. You talk with the the owners at the Colonial Inn, the owners at Radius, and they all say they’d love to have our product to help us out. We believe that can work both ways.”
Elise Tyler, who co-owns and is general manager at the Colonial Inn, echoed those sentiments. “To have a place where people may be interested in having some food and grabbing drinks, that kind of supplements what we have here. We have always believed that what’s good for greater Hillsborough is always good for us. We’ve always tried to operate in that space.”
Eventually, there will be space and opportunities for food trucks to set up and sell food on the premises of the brewery.
Initially, the staff at Eno River Brewing will be small, likely having around three to four employees on payroll at any given time. A variety of original craft brews will be offered, and on the whole, Eno River Brewing will have a solid offering of low-alcohol and non-alcohol beers.
“I want to have a quality beverage that tastes great and is interesting and evocative,” said Leonard. “But I also want to go home safely. I want to get up and go to work. I think a lot of the craft beer consumers are looking for that because we’re all getting older. And nobody really wants a 10 percent IPA every day. Well, some people do, and that’s fine. We’ll make one of those occasionally, but having beers that are drinkable and delicious and intriguing. I think having a strong offering of low AVB beers is important for us to be a place for families.”
Some of those low AVB beers, along with more established beverage brands, will be sold at the brewery.
Being an establishment that is welcoming to families is key to the owners of the brewery as it aims to distance itself from being considered a bar.
“We have four kids and Natalie has three and Spencer and Blair have two,” Crowe said. “We go out a lot locally here in Hillsborough, and we always ask the kids, ‘where do you want to go?’ We want to be that place they want to go and hang out by the river. Take a picnic blanket. Play whatever games we have for the kids and enjoy the cool, outdoor space. It’s very important to us because we have four kids. We’re not hiring a babysitter to go out.”
One of the more well-known characteristics of craft breweries is the names for the brews invented by the brewmaster. It’s also common for the establishments to pay tribute to local history, landmarks, and lore.
“Natalie and Judd spent a lot of time brainstorming river- or water-theme names, and it’s like, ‘Sweet, all of these are taken,’ Leonard said. “So yes, we want to have some fun beer names that reflect where we are and what we’re doing, but the ones that I know for certain I don’t want to share just yet.”
The owners do not plan to bottle its products, and expects to distribute on a very limited scale. It will offer a canning line for customers to take home Eno River Brewing beers.
The owners are working with Mauer Architecture for the design and layout of the brewery. Wilmington-based Creature Theory is in charge of the branding, and Surface 678 from Durham will handle the landscape design.
Hillsborough has been without a brewery since 2018, when Mystery Brewing Co. closed its operations after seven years in business. In January, the News of Orange reported Hillsborough native Levin Brown’s plans to open a nano-brewery at the corner of Churton and King streets in downtown. Renovations have begun, and late summer/early fall is still the target for opening.
Eno River Brewing will be at 329 Eno Mountain Road in Hillsborough. For more information, go to www.enoriverbrewing.com