For years, small, upstart breweries have seen experiences and sales through their own taproom as an integral part of their business plan. With closures having stayed well below expected averages, it’s the kind of advantage these companies need to thrive in their little corner of the industry.
But lately, the own-premise revolution has started an evolution. If everyone has a taproom, what can be done to make a visit more than just a drink or two?
“There will soon be close to 7,000 breweries, distribution is collapsing, and things are coming back to local markets,” says Mark Doble, owner of Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina’s Aviator Brewing Co. “I think you now have to extend your brand culture to people because, if you’re not, you’re just going to miss out on a lot of dollars that keep you in business.”
In November 2017, Doble announced a $4 million plan to create what he’s calling a “beer entertainment complex” that will build a new 36,000-square-foot space and extend a footprint that already includes two restaurants and a bottle shop. A former tobacco warehouse will be torn down for an expansion into 109,000 square feet for four bars and production space that will include a barrel program. There will even be a distillery and an outdoor amphitheater for music performances. It’s all set to be completed in about a year.
Due to state laws that forbid self-distribution for breweries making above 25,000 barrels a year, Aviator will intentionally stay below the cap. About 80% of its beer goes into distribution right now, but Doble hopes that with all the new associated business and activities, people will come, stay, and drink more on-site.
“You go to Disneyland and everything is there,” he says. “That’s the model we have. Other people just want to brew beer and go home. We want to make something interactive and exciting.”
North Carolina might just be the perfect place to do it. The state has added nearly three million residents in the last 20 years with Fuquay-Varina growing 302%, adding almost 20,000 people over the same timeframe. About half that addition has come since Aviator opened in 2008. On top of that, the amount of own-premise sales across the state more than doubled from 2015 (52,073 BBLs) to 2017 (113,168 BBLs), per TTB estimates.
According to town manager Adam Mitchell, Aviator has been a big part of that, and it’ll only play a bigger role in the future. Like many North Carolina cities, Fuquay-Varina once relied on tobacco as an economic driver. Mitchell says having an anchor like Aviator has led to additional commercial and residential investment. Mitchell pointed to a mixed-use building adjacent to Aviator’s downtown taproom, Varina Station, as a great example. With commercial and residential spaces, it might have taken longer for such a thing to become established, if at all.
“Aviator promotes multiple reasons for the public to visit and create a vibrancy across our downtown space,” he says. “Without the investments Mark’s company has made in Fuquay-Varina, we would be a different community today. Aviator is a big part of who we’ll be.”
In this case, the “big part” happens to be both figurative and literal. In a similar way that Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing saw an opportunity to become something special within the industry and for its hometown, Doble wants to replicate that success. He named Surly as an inspiration, as well as Tröegs Independent Brewing, which expanded operations in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 2011 to include additional capacity and a full-service brewpub.
“A brewery isn’t just about tours and it doesn’t have to be just a bar or restaurant,” Doble says. “We want a more immersive experience.”
No matter how romantic the idea of a neighborhood bar may be, America has long been more geared toward at-home drinking. But what can slowly shift some dollars—much to the chagrin of some of those neighborhood bars—is the ability to create and define a special place for one-of-a-kind experiences. If a taproom becomes a ubiquitous location for friends to share some beer, it eventually opens up the need for innovation and change, which is exactly what businesses like Surly, 3 Floyds, and Aviator are doing. Serving beer people enjoy is an entry point, but these companies and others are doubling down on what happens within their businesses to create greater potential for their bottom line. The residual effects to the municipalities they call home are also a welcome bonus.
“Mark’s investments in the community and downtown district have been a significant catalyst for many of the great things we have to offer,” Mitchell says.
Growing Up, Growing Out, Pt. 1 — Breweries Expand Beyond the Taproom
Growing Up, Growing Out, Pt. 2 — Small-Town Indiana is So Metal
Growing Up, Growing Out, Pt. 3 — North Carolina’s Interactive Beer Disneyland