He shoots me a text; he is running behind.
“Cool. Just got here. Camped out by picnic table,” I type back.
It is a miracle that I am the early one for once.
When his Volvo pulls up he gets out with a smile and I follow him as he quickly unlocks the bar door. He apologies, “Everything was going smoothly and then like 50 things happened today. Sorry about that.”
Today is the eve of their two-year anniversary and tomorrow they are hosting an Oktoberfest party to celebrate. It is a little chaotic and I know he is distracted but I understand.
“Do you want to do this another day?” I ask. “That would be really great. If I could just get through tomorrow that would be great. Do you want a beer? I’m going to have a quick one.”
He walks me through my options on tap. He also walks me through the house brews that are tapped out because of popularity. “Not a bad problem to have.” I think.. or maybe I said.
We both settle on the house Extra Special Bitter (ESB) brew. I put away my pencil, notepad and expectations. For the next half-hour or so we just sit there talking, as Eric Swaim and I meet for the first time over a pint at Hoots Roller Bar in historic West End.
“I like the name, Townies.” he tells me and adds that a few years back they were bouncing around name ideas for the bar and “Townies” landed on “the list”. “We hung out with a bunch of School of the Arts kids and heard it all of the time. We thought it would be a funny bar name.”
I laugh. “Yep, you get it.” I say.
“So two years in business, how does it feel?” I continue.
He tells me there are days when it feels like they just opened the doors, but then the next day it feels as if they have been rolling full-speed for ten long years. When you venture out on your own, make the leap, you kind of free fall through everything that risk entails. There are both rewards and challenges. Like today, he is trying to regroup a bit as hurricane rain is on the radar for tomorrow. And tomorrow they have planned to have grilled brats outside from the guys at Krankies and their bar manager’s rock-opera band, Judi Barnes, is set to play on the patio too to celebrate.
Events like this really matter to the business’s bottom line. “People think summer is big for our business but it really slows down around town. Locals are out of town, colleges are out. Fall is when we start making up for those slower months.”
Just then bar manager Tim Nolan walks in for his shift. They exchange a few bits about day-to-day business just as we finish our beers. Eric heads out to meet someone about a pressing issue and we make plans to get back together the next week.
That entire half-hour exchange is telling of life as a business owner – you have to just keep moving. But as Eric reminds me, it doesn’t hurt to sometimes just stop, breathe and have a pint.
“How was the party?” I ask when we meet up again. I had been out of town and curious how they survived the downpour. He tells me that it was a little slower than expected but still good given all of the rain. Tim is behind the bar testing out concoctions for some new cocktails. “Here try this.” he repeatedly says as I talk through the Hoots story with Eric. We happily oblige. Tim is experiementing with adding rooibos tea and other ingredients to a libation called “Tiger Loves Pepper”. The original recipe was developed by Extra Fancy up in Brooklyn and Tim is working on his own autumnal twist.
In addition to bar men, they both are musicians. Same goes for Eric’s business partner, another Eric, with the last name Weyer. The two Erics had a successful run as working musicians traveling the country for a decade before they made the decision to plant their roots back home. “That’s the thing about Winston. You always keep coming back” Eric S. says. We talk of how his life as a musician helped to prepare him for the world of small business ownership. With a band you are constantly handling logistics, and on and on. Those transferable skills have become quite handy with this new venture.
The initial idea for Hoots Roller Bar came about in 2010, he tells me. They had tended bars around town for years between gigs so opening a bar of their own seemed like a natural fit. “Eric and I were on the opening teams for Elliot’s Review and Single Brothers together too,” Tim chimes in as he pours and mixes, adding another layer to the story. I loved how Tim’s energy heightened Eric’s casual recount.
Eric tells me that they had been homebrewing for years and had played around with the idea of going to the next level by opening a brewery and brewpub in one. But that was an expensive venture so they shied away from the idea. It wasn’t until they started having more serious conversations with potential investors that they decided to go all in. “Even though it cost much more to open the brewery with all of its equipment, investors were much more interested in supporting that concept versus just a bar.”
They enlisted the help of master brewer, Dave McClure, with his twenty years of experience to get the brewing operation up and running. When they first met Dave he was in town by way of Atlanta helping the team over at Foothills with their production operation. Eric says how much he appreciates Dave’s willingness to take a chance on working with them. “He adds so much”.
Their original plan was to brew for a year to just support Hoots Roller Bar and then expand into local distribution. “But we ended up distributing after two months of opening.”
“Why the push?” I ask. He points to the port hole that looks into the brewery space with its glistening kettle, mash tun and fermenters. “We had to pay for all of this fancy stuff,” he laughs.
Truth is distribution would not be possible or necessary without a solid product that is in demand. And that is something the two Erics and Dave certainly have on their hands – a whole lineup of solid products that are in demand. Eric S. tells me that their most popular beer at the moment is their dark ESB which I find interesting because that style is not typically a flagship beer. “That’s probably followed by our Gashopper IPA. We can’t keep it on tap.”
We talk about the craft brew movement. I talk about my brother’s experience in Appalachian State University’s fermentation program and as a brewer out in Colorado. “His official title is Yeast Overlord,” I tell him. I like to pretend my brother’s experience lends me some credibility. Truthfully I suck at chemistry, and that is really what brewing is, so I just stick to consuming.
He tells me how southern craft beer tends to fall into the heavily hopped category citing loads of IPAs. “But to me that style is better suited to western North Carolina, you know, jam-band beer,” he says and I nod my head in agreeance.
And to him that doesn’t reflect the character of Winston. “We wanted to make just a good solid pub beer. A working man’s brew.” And with that, the ESB suddenly makes sense. Contrary to what the name implies, extra special bitters (ESBs) are not really all that bitter. Balanced in my opinion is more appropriate. And the Hoots ESB is just that with a harmony of hoppiness and maltiness. Sure, the flavor is complex but the bottom line is that it’s just a downright drinkable beer.
He connects the “good solid pub beer” idea back to music. He explains that as a musician you can get caught up in creating an epic 15-minute instrumental jam, but realistically that’s more for you, and not something people are going to want to listen to everyday. But a scaled down three-chord anthem like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” – now that is timeless. Sure, it might be simple in composition but it is accessible and always gets stuck in your head. And with that, they always want to make “a three-chord beer.” To them, that is Winston’s beer. Not overly complicated, but damn good and made with heart.
He believes that Winston-Salem has more in common with northern Rust Belt towns versus the polished cities you find in the new south. “Breweries in Winston-Salem aren’t all that surprising; this town was built on production. Sure we’re southern; we pride ourselves in our sweet tea and our homegrown Texas Pete and Krispy Kreme. But we also have the grit of Pittsburgh.”
He continues, “And people really come out to support locals here.” Tim adds that this town also is quick to sniff out inauthentic attempts to capitalize on “local”. “Please don’t slap a tobacco leaf on something and call it Winston.” Tim jokes.
We talk about how, in this town, it is not about where you are from but instead what you are doing here. “How are you contributing to our community? That is much more important.”.
Eric Weyer echos the same when I sit down with him at a picnic table out front later. One of his many roles as owner includes working in the “back of house” brewing with Dave. When we meet he was wrapping up a few things in the brewery and loading kegs into his car. The air smells of warm spent grain.
The two Erics handle sales, distribution and deliveries themselves. They hope to continue doing so for as long as they can. It keeps them connected with their customers. “But I wouldn’t mind someone else delivering kegs. I’m getting too old and my back needs a break,” Weyer jokes.
I tell him how that everyone we have brought to the bar from out-of-town has commented “I wish we had something like this in (insert city name).” “Really?” he says with a bit of honest surprise. “Thanks for sharing that. It is really nice to hear.” He tells me how they hand-built most of the brew pub’s interior using reclaimed products. “And you can really save a ton of money when you do things yourself.” he adds.
Eric W. tells me about how they are experiencing this new phase in the craft brew movement and how the days of competing with the “big guys” are gone. “We are now competing with other craft brewers.” But he adds that the competition lies more so in sourcing as brewing ingredients and used equipment inventory continue to get gobbled up. He also speaks about how collaborative the regional craft brewing circle is, specifically mentioning how generous Jamie Bartholomaus of Foothills Brewing has been in lending advice.
As we wrap up we talk about how valuable it is to start something new in the place where you started from. “We had a great following when we played music.” They made loads of friends and stay connected. “It didn’t make sense to just go off to some random place where we weren’t connected and start from scratch. There is value in connections.” And they certainly have those connections here.
Thing is, there will always be the lure of other larger, shinier cities and pressure to follow the latest trends. It is easy to get caught up in that. But the real challenge lies in staying authentic to who you are and what matters most to you. And that is what these guys have vowed to do – to stay true to their tastes and the town that has supported them for all of these years. ~ Andrea Littell
Makers Mixer at West End Mill Works
6pm – 8pm
So much goodness under one roof!
Stop by HOOTS
peek inside the brewery plus $10 pitchers on special for you and your friends. Tim is debuting his latest cocktail, “The Townie”
Stay later to mingle with the folks from Piedmont Wind Symphony and The International River Run Film Festival as they screen Bride of Frankenstein for some after-party fun. Karaoke kicks off at 9pm.
While at Mill Works…
mix and mingle on over to…
THE PORCH KITCHEN & CANTINA
they will be serving up a special “Food Truck” menu out on the patio for dinner.
Food Truck Menu
with Homemade Radish Slaw
(2 for $8)
Texas Pete Smoked Chicken Tacos
(2 for $8)
Townies Veggie Taco
with Spicy Rice, Lettuce, Cheese, Fried Avocado, Pico & Cilantro Ranch
(2 for $7)
Maker’s Sangria Special
Meet staff and apprentices and “donate what you can” to test out your glass blowing skills as we create a community art piece. Glass Pumpkin Patch also on display and for sale.
Proceeds support The Olio’s apprenticeship program.
Read more about the program here.
RSVP NOW to receive updates as announced.