First “legal” brewery opens in Johnston County

ajames@newsobserver.comApril 15, 2013 

— The first brewery in Johnston County has opened in Clayton, with its owners dubbing it the first “legal” operation to manufacture alcohol in the county.

Deep River Brewing Company, owned by Paul and Lynn Auclair, began pouring its site-brewed beers for the public on Friday at 700 West Main St.

“It’s perfect for Johnston County,” said Jason Hardy, as he sipped a beer at the warehouse brewery on Friday. “It’s not pretentious and it just has a great, relaxed feel.”

The couple hopes the brewery will help put Clayton on the map of brewery destinations, and boost the economy in the small town of 16,000.

“The first legal brewery in Johnston County” is a slogan that hints at a history of moonshining that made Johnston the “Banner Whiskey County” in the state in the early 1900s. As late as the1950s, North Carolina annually produced the most bootleg booze in the country.

“The history of our area is unique,” Auclair said. “Doing tastings in the area, we had a lot of people who told us about the rich history of moonshining in the county and they told us we’re the first legal brewery here.”

For decades, residents have privately traded stories of Johnston County’s moonshining past. Many accounts concern the empire of Joshua Percy Flowers, a businessman and landowner whose operations were long investigated by federal agents.

Now, the last name is more commonly associated with Flowers’ Plantation, a 3,000-acre development created by Flowers’ daughter Rebecca Flowers to honor her father’s charitable legacy and repurpose the land he acquired.

Even more than a century ago, the county distinguished itself for its views on alcohol. In 1908, its voters led the state in opposing statewide prohibition.

The brewery represents a new chapter in the county’s alcohol history, as well as drawing on its rich history of rural lifestyles.

Brewing the idea

Freshly chopped wood that was repurposed from an old tobacco barn lines the bar wall of the tap-room from floor to ceiling.

“A family in Archer Lodge donated it to us,” Lynn Auclair said. “We had to go tear down the barn ourselves.”

The Johnston County signature is not only in the physical fixtures. There are also unique ingredients in the beer flavors that rely on produce from locals.

The summertime beer, Double Don Lager, is made with watermelon from Johnston County. The winter seasonal beer, JoCo White Winter, relies on the white sweet potatoes from local farmers.

The Auclairs, originally from New York City, say the recipes they are using make their brewery different from the dozens of microbreweries opening across the state. “We spent the past two years tweaking our recipes,” Paul Auclair said.

While working full-time jobs during the week, Paul and Lynn travel to beer festivals and local concerts on the weekend to allow as many people as possible to sample their beer and give them feedback.

Auclair said he found that there were many people who hadn’t tried craft beers before, and who are used to drinking bigger brands.

“We made something light and refreshing for people not used to craft beers,” Auclair said.

The Twisted River Wit, a Belgian “witbier” with hints of citrus, is the gateway beer at the brewery. It is one of the two year-round brews. Another favorite beer, particularly among women, they found, is the 4042 Stout, a seasonal beer named after the NC Highway that runs through the county. It is a chocolate milk stout aged in cocoa nibs.

Jason Hutchins, of Clayton, said he has been interested in craft beers for about 18 years. He said he is used to traveling to Raleigh or Chapel Hill to find the beer that suits him.

“Clayton needed a place like this,” Hutchins said. “It’s good for the community and it’s good for beer drinkers.”

With 16,000 feet inside the tall warehouse brewery, there’s plenty of room to grow. Their plan is to start bottling or canning the beer by the end of the year and selling it at grocery stores throughout the Triangle.

During the week, Paul works for Baker Engineering in Cary; Lynn works for Toshiba in Research Triangle Park.

Boosting the economy

The couple envisions the brewery as not only reviving Johnston County traditions, but also helping put Clayton on the map.

“This could be a really big tourist attraction for Clayton,” Auclair said. “Look at what Aviator did for Fuquay-Varina. We’re envisioning that same thing here.”

Opened in 2009, Aviator Brewery helped make the Varina side of Fuquay-Varina more of a social hub by bringing new people into town. After a successful start, brewery owner Mark Doble expanded the operation in 2011 to open a barbecue restaurant attached to the taphouse downtown. The brewery is now separate and is located in a larger facility outside of downtown.

Auclair said that he and his wife are used to traveling across the state to visit breweries, and know that beer connoisseurs are always looking for a new place to go, no matter the drive.

Clayton’s Downtown Development Director Bruce Naegelen said he is confident that the brewery will help downtown Clayton thrive.

“Even though it’s not right in the commercial district, like the Aviator Brewery, it’ll bring new people in the area,” Naegelen said. He said the Downtown Development Association will help promote events at the brewery.

A place for the ages?

When asked where she would go for a night out in Clayton, 30-year-old Suzanne Fazio said, “I probably wouldn’t, I’d just go to Raleigh.” But that may change now. Fazio said she plans to come back to the brewery on Fridays.

“It’s gonna be a happy hour spot,” Fazio said.

The brewery will be open on Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 to 8 p.m., with free tours on Saturdays. If all goes as planned, the Auclairs would also like to make their own spot in brewery history.

“We don’t want to make a ton of money,” Paul Auclair said. “We just want to get a lot of exposure and we want people to be impressed by the quality of our beer.”

The next brewery to open in Johnston County will be Double Barley Brewing, scheduled to open in May in Wilson’s Mills.

James: 919-553-7234

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