The Hand and The Heart is a collection of stories about people who follow their passions to bring something unique and beautiful into this world. I profile craftswomen and men that are driven to create and share their creations with others. These are inspired people living inspiring lives, providing authentic experiences for their friends and neighbors through their approach to craft. I invite you to join me for the journey. Words and pictures by Bryan Luukinen
When you meet Ben Woodward and Dawnya Bohager, you feel like you’re hanging out with old friends that you haven’t seen in years. The kind of old friends that give you a good-natured ribbing about how long you’ve been away while pouring you a beer and making a place for you at their table. They’re good people, and you sense that about them right away. What takes a little longer to appear is their absolute commitment to a series of ideals that have formed the foundation of their business and their young family’s lifestyle.
Local over imported. Home-grown over commodity-sourced. Creative and unique over mass-produced and homogeneous. Renewable, responsible, and real. These are the ideals that have formed the foundation of Haw River Farmhouse Ales, a brewery as important to its community as it is creative and bold. Yet these standards and values are not unique to Haw River Farmhouse Ales, at least not in the village of Saxapahaw, NC.
Nestled in rolling hills of deep red clay soil in Alamance County, Saxapahaw is a tiny gem of small-town revival that seems almost too well-executed to be real. This outpost on the banks of the Haw River was home to one of the first textile mills in North Carolina, erected in 1844 by Jonathan Newlin. The Saxapahaw Mill changed hands several times, and was run by Dixie Yarns until 1994, when a tornado struck the building. Until recently, the town sat quiet and the mill waited for its new occupants.
Slowly they came - artists, telecommuters, and people looking to be a part of the village renaissance. These first tenants of the renovated Mill occupied loft apartments overlooking the Haw. Then, Saxapahaw’s local businesses and weekend events began to draw crowds. The crowds fed local events and more new businesses began to pop up.
First of those operations is Saxapahaw’s renowned General Store, a gas station that just happens to churn out excellent food from local producers. The store has been featured in the New York Times and Gourmet magazine for their food. Just a few paces down the sidewalk a new butcher shop, Left Bank Butchery, was recently opened by Ross Flynn. The shop specializes in whole animal butchery and charcuterie, working closely with local, sustainable farmers.
Left Bank is mere feet away from the Eddy Pub, the home of farm-to-table cuisine from the mind and heart of chef and farmer Isaiah Allen. Chef Isaiah and his wife Whitney also own Rocky Run Farm nearby in Alamance County, which supplies farmed and foraged produce to the Eddy. Rounding out the mill village is a Cup 22, a coffee shop that sits above the Mill’s concert venue, the Haw River Ballroom. Acclaimed acts from near and far descend upon the ballroom several times a week and fill the small village with light and sound.
Next door to the ballroom, the team behind Haw River Farmhouse Ales — led by Ben, Dawnya, and head brewer Nathan Gastol — practice their craft. Dawyna is busiest these days with the business side of the brewery and more importantly, with Ben and Dawnya’s newest family member, Henry.
The mantra of localism in Saxapahaw has a pull that’s hard to escape. Everything is connected, and that’s the way they like it. As Ben and I walked through the village, he casually pointed out the local baker, a farmer whose hogs feast on Haw River Ales’ spent grain, and the butcher who subsequently prepares those hogs for the dinner table. Those same hogs may also end up on the menu for a beer dinner at the Eddy Pub, where Haw River’s expressive ales will complement dishes made from ingredients mostly grown or foraged in Alamance County.
Haw River’s brewery concept is rooted in traditional Belgian beer styles, using the best of what’s available to them locally to create new, adventurous styles and flavors. I sat down with Ben to talk about brewing, local economies, and why beer matters.
H&H: When did you start thinking about making beer as a living?
Ben: That was about 2010, because I sold my old business, and I had a lot more time. After I sold the business, I kind of sat around for a year and I thought, “Ooh, I get the chance to brew a lot more.” And I did. And I realized that I liked making beer a lot more than sitting at a damn computer. So I decided to open a brewery.
So when Dawnya and I first got the idea, we thought, “You know, that would be pretty awesome, and unique in the North Carolina beer scene. To be out in Saxapahaw, to work with local farmers.” And that’s the way that beer should be made, I think. And at that time, it was a pretty unique thing. And that was the kind of beer I was homebrewing anyway — the funky, and the sour stuff. You know, I think we isolated our local yeast in 2011.
And so, in November of 2011 Dawnya and I sat down in a coffee shop in Knoxville, Tennessee and we were looking around and said to each other, “This would be a cool brewery.” And we started just brainstorming on a napkin — we still have the napkin, actually. And we created a name, and a logo, and did some shirts, and did the kinds of things that were easy. And then we started pouring beer at homebrew events under Haw River Farmhouse Ales.
H&H: So why do you think the Belgian/Farmhouse approach to making beer has stuck with you?
Ben: That’s the way I like making beer and also, I’m always dying to change stuff, to tweak things a bit. The exacting, scientific approach has its place in the brewing world, but it’s not for me. Of course, we want to be consistent with our offerings, and that’s where Nathan (head brewer Nathan Gastol) comes in. He’s good with consistency, he helps us make a very consistent product where it needs to be, as with Newlin’s Original Oatmeal Pale Ale. But I love the one-offs and the unique offerings we have.
When we started at the beginning, our lineup was real clean, only 3–4 brands, but we had farmers and local suppliers contacting us, saying, “Ooh, I’ve got wild mulberries on my property, can you do something with that?” Or, “Hey, I’ve got 100 pounds of persimmons, can you do something with those?” And I’m going to say, “Of course!” But I can’t build a year-round offering around that, so we throw them in a barrel with some sort of delicious saison that we can pull off of a fermenter, and throw some Brett (Brettanomyces, a wild yeast) in there. And that’s what everybody in Europe would do. You would take whatever you had on hand, and throw it into a barrel. That’s the kind of thing Belgian country brewers do. So, it makes sense to us.
H&H: So as a natural extension of that, then does the community become part of that creative process?
Ben: Yes, exactly. And they actually come in and drink the beer. Like Luther, who sold us the persimmons, or Audrey, who gave us the wild blackberries. And people hear our conversations about that sort of stuff, and they get excited about things coming up. In fact, we want to do a “Meet the Farmer Night,” where people could come and meet the farmer that supplied the ingredients for the beer.
H&H: The progressive idealist in me wants this local economy, local business trend to be the way of the future, but it seems like a lofty goal. Do you think this could be a community reality?
Ben: In the brewing industry, yes. But the problem is that too many people see dollar signs when they look at breweries these days, and there really isn’t much money in brewing unless you’re really focused on pushing a ton of volume out there. But pushing a ton of volume doesn’t make sense at a point. The reason so many breweries have moved out here from the West coast is that it doesn’t make sense to ship an IPA from California to a shelf in North Carolina.
What you’re seeing now is a bunch of smaller breweries out there. And you can go visit them, and meet the people that are making the beer, and talk to the brewer. The closer people get to the beer, the better they understand it. People want to connect with things on a personal level, they want to know the story of the product and meet the person that made it.
For example, our blueberry stout. I was running errands last summer, and went to pick up coffee from Muddy Dog for a test batch, and I picked up blueberries for one of the sodas we were making for the market. The aroma of the blueberries and coffee mingled in the car and was fantastic, leading to the idea of the blueberry stout. That’s the kind of thing people want to hear — stories that make the beer an experience that’s real, and it’s in their glass. That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to bring to people.
H&H: This appears to be a growing trend — people want to know the story behind what they’re buying. Why do you think that is?
Ben: I don’t know, the internet? These days, you can get a sense for what’s happening globally without having to go anywhere. People can know what’s going on in the world, and learn about trends and cool things going on, and then they want that where they live, they want cool stuff to happen in their neighborhood. That’s my guess, anyway.
H&H: Where do your inspirations come from?
Ben: Well, I used to have different inspirations because I worked in a different industry. But now? My original beer inspiration was Ron Jeffries. I felt that Jolly Pumpkin did everything right.
H&H: Why do you think you express yourself the way you do in brewing? Do you think it’s just an outgrowth of your personality?
Ben: I guess so — I can’t really telly you why. To me, it’s just the way to make beer that makes sense to me. The world doesn’t need another great American IPA. The whole reason we did the Newlin’s Original Pale Ale the way we did it was because it was our take on the style — but it’s different: it’s got belgian yeast, oatmeal, it’s got a nice hop note, but it is different. And that’s what we wanted. There’s a lot of delicious beer out there — but you can’t compete by just making delicious beer — it has to be different. You have to differentiate yourself and tell your story, but it has to be a story that matters, and it has to have layers. You can’t just rely on the tired story of, “I’ve always dreamed of opening a brewery.” There has to be more to it than that.
H&H: Why do you think craft beer matters?
Ben: It gets people back to what matters in the world. It’s beer, it’s food, it’s everything. When you pay for gas, where does that money go? When you buy your food, who is that money going towards? I think a lot of people still don’t give a shit about that, and it irks me, especially in the beer world. When people say, “as long as the quality doesn’t change, I don’t care who owns the brewery.” That’s not the right answer to me. The money goes into the hands of the big beer guys, and the big beer guys are pushing the little guys off taps. At that point, I don’t give a shit about those breweries anymore. It doesn’t matter what their beer tastes like — it could be the best thing in the world, but I don’t care, because I don’t want my money going to that. It’s the same reason I don’t go to Chik-Fil-A these days — I love Chik-Fil-A, but I don’t want my money going to support them.
It’s a personal thing — I think craft beer is a real personal version of that — food it what it is, people gotta eat. Beer is a choice, and it’s sort of a luxury item. I think it’s important, because if you’re going to put money towards something like that, there’s gotta be a reason for it. The reason we buy ingredients from people we know and support local businesses, is because it means something to use and to our community. We give our spent grain to the farm down the road to feed their hogs, and they sell pork to Ross (of Left Bank Butchery), and Ross uses our beer to make sausages, and that’s as cool as it gets. And that means something, because Susanne is eating lunch in there (at the General Store), and she’s the one that owns the farm. So then the money that she makes using our spent grain, she can spend at the General Store feeding herself, or her employees, or her family, and that’s important.
H&H: On that note — why does a community like Saxapahaw matter?
Ben: Because we can all support each other. That’s the beauty of it. Saxapahaw is a microcosm, and I don’t know if we can do this on a global scale. But Saxapahaw is a very interesting social experiment, and it seems to be going very well. So, as we’re now a part of that, we’re trying to foster that kind of thinking. And even with North Carolina beer, we’re trying to echo that. We’ve helped a number of startup breweries with questions, especially about solar panels, and foudres, and things like that. If you can inspire other people to do things in a different way, in a way that supports other people and moves us all forward, then that’s important in the grand scheme of things.
We visited Haw River for their first anniversary celebration, a festive occasion where they showcased dozens of their finest creations from their first year in operation. Highlights:
- Pound of Flesh — a golden sour ale with fresh watermelon rind, silver needle tea leaves and crushed white peppercorn — wild, tart, and funky with the unmistakable kiss of watermelon. Impressive.
- Javalantern — a cream stout finished with spices and Mexico Finca El Huizache Honey bean coffee from Muddy Dog Roasting Company — rich, luscious milk chocolate and rich coffee with the subtle warmth of spices.
- Chambourcin Barrel-aged St. Benedict’s Breakfast — a breakfast stout made with Muddy Dog Coffee and aged in a Chambourcin wine barrel from Benjamin Vineyards — the coffee, oak tannins, and red wine flavors mingle together beautifully.
There were many more awesome beers to sample, and many more (hopefully) to come from the creative and inspiring minds behind this community focused brewery.
Haw River Farmhouse Ales —
1713 Saxapahaw Bethlehem Church Rd. Saxapahaw, NC