Like so many business plans hatched over beer with friends, Deep River Brewing Co. could have faded in the light of the next morning.
But Paul and Lynn Auclair couldn’t shake the idea, and the thought leaving corporate careers to launch a brewery never seemed crazy to them.
“It was a passing comment,” Paul recalls, “but it stuck to the wall.”
In a little more than a month, Deep River will mark its third anniversary, and the downtown Clayton brewery has reason to celebrate. Since launching in 2013, output has doubled every year, from fewer than 1,000 barrels that first year to a project 7,500 in 2016.
Never miss a local story.
In a nod to that growth – and to the hundreds of people the brewery attracts to town every weekend – the Clayton Downtown Development Association earlier this month named Deep River its Downtown Business of the Year.
Most of Deep River’s year-round roster of beers began as batches of home brew the Auclairs would give as birthday or wedding gifts – or suffer through themselves.
“At first, we made a lot of crappy beers, but we drank it and didn’t know much more than it had alcohol in it,” Paul said. “But we kept doing it and getting better at it.”
Six years later, and with the Auclairs dodging suggestions to open their own engineering firm, a friend offered up a wild suggestion.
“He said we should think about selling our beer,” Lynn said. “We thought, ‘Yeah right. You just like our beer because it’s free.’ ”
But Lynn made a business plan, and soon, husband and wife were searching for a bank to back them. It took a while to get a loan because neither had commercial brewing experience.
“Thankfully someone was smart enough to see the potential value,” Paul said.
Now, Deep River beers have flooded the Triangle; they’re in the coolers of 50 grocery stores, on the shelves on craft bottle shops and on the drink lists of many restaurants.
Lynn said manufacturing was always the goal for the brewery – to get its beers in cans and in the hands of thirsty North Carolinians.
“Small breweries have to decide what is most important to them,” Lynn said. “For us, it was manufacturing and distribution. The popularity of the tap room has just been a surprise that we’re excited about, but it wasn’t our main focus.”
Deep River puts its beers only in tallboys, or pint-sized aluminum cans that stand at least an inch over traditional 12-ounce cans. Lynn Auclair said she and Paul chose cans over bottles because cans keep beer fresher and cost less. The larger cans were just a bit of flair.
“That’s just our special way of doing things,” she said.
It’s paying off. Last summer, Deep River’s seasonal Double D’s Watermelon Lager caused a sensation in the Triangle. The can looks like a slice of watermelon, and Lynn said it’s a smart defense against the mid-summer sun.
“It’s super refreshing, great for those 100-degree North Carolina days,” she said.
Seasonal brews are Deep River’s most popular beers. That menu includes the watermelon lager in summer, a pumpkin-pie porter in fall and a Belgian brewed with Johnston County sweet potatoes in winter.
Deep River is in talks to buy the building it leases at 700 W. Main St. That would allow the Auclairs to expand their barrel- aging program and make room for more fermenters.
The leap out of engineering appears to be sitting well with the Auclairs. They work all day in sweatshirts bearing the logo of the business they built. They employ 17 others and say they’ve found something they want to do for the rest of their lives.
“Our generation is expected to work all kinds of jobs in their lifetime,” Lynn said. “We see this as kind of recreating the long-term career for us, the kind of thing our grandparents used to do, where you’d work at the same company your whole life.
Deep River’s anniversary event is April 8-10. It will feature special-release beers and batches.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdjackson