Pathway to Foothills regional expansion begins in the Palmetto State

Foothills

I was recently invited to visit the Foothills Brewery facilities in Winston-Salem, NC, for a discussion about their planned expansion in South Carolina. On Aug. 24, I spent the day touring the brewery and brewpub, talking shop with brewery officials and getting a better taste of what the brewery has planned for the future. Here is my report of that trip.

When you first walk into the Foothills Brewery in Winston-Salem, NC, one immediate thing comes to your attention: The place is friggin’ huge. It’s more airplane hangar than brewery. A cavernous warehouse containing towering brewing equipment – taller than the average house – the facility has been working at breakneck pace recently to keep up with increasing demand.

While the 9-year-old brewery had humble beginnings – until a couple of years ago, their brewpub on 4th Street in the heart of downtown Winston-Salem was Foothills Brewing – their scope and scale has grown exponentially in recent years throughout the four-state market they currently distribute to.

In the coming years, Foothills hopes to become more of a regional brewing staple in the Southeast. In a craft beer culture where “the next big thing” is increasingly becoming more flash-in-the-pan, they’ve remained steadfast in their goal of making the highest-quality product for what many consider a shockingly affordable price. But on the first step toward their goal of regional recognition, they’re looking for a launching pad to help kick off that growth.

Ground zero for the future of Foothills Brewing? South Carolina.

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When it comes to the 84 breweries in the Tar Heel State, Foothills is one of the more recognizable and wider-reaching of the bunch. When you consider the span of the state, stretching from their home in Western North Carolina east to the Outer Banks, it’s a large territory to keep up with. But during the past few years, Foothills has seen and continues to see exponential growth.

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100 and 200 BBL fermenters tower over you inside the Foothills Brewery.

“When you consider just how big of an area we cover in North Carolina, it really is great to see how much our product has taken off,” said Ray Goodrich, Foothills’ new marketing director.

There’s tangible evidence to support that growth, primarily in the form of towering brewing equipment located the Foothills’ new production facility, about 10 miles from the brewpub they used to call home. This year alone, the facility has become home to four new 200 BBL fermenters, which have increased their maximum brewing capacity from 14,000 BBL in 2012 to 40,000 BBL (more than 1 million gallons) annually. The goal is to reach that 40,000 BBL mark in the next five years, a goal the brewery thinks is easily obtainable based on current production growth.

Part of that growth has been attributed to Foothills’ expanding social media outreach and presence, a step spearheaded by Goodrich. The former TV news producer joined the team in January and has helped grow both the brewery’s presence and footprint. From answering concerns or criticisms to retweeting witty or funny posts, Goodrich holds fast to the idea that connecting more directly to your customer base translates to good word-of-mouth.

The expanded brewing capacity has meant the brewery has been able to move beyond bottling just 22 oz. bombers and begin producing six packs of their more popular brands (Hoppyum IPA, People’s Porter, etc.). Those beers have been available in many major North Carolina markets for most of 2013, but that won’t be the case for much longer

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In addition to North and South Carolina, Foothills distributes to parts of Virginia and Tennessee, which both border the state. Foothills’ footprint in those latter two states is small, but the brewers believe the path toward becoming a regional staple begins in the Palmetto State

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Inside the Foothills Brewpub in downtown Winston-Salem, the former home of all of the brewery’s operations.

“Fortunately for us, South Carolina is not that big of a state geographically,” said Foothills Head Brewer T.L. Adkisson. “You can travel from one end of the state to the other in an afternoon. That takes at least a day in North Carolina, so it makes sense for use to have that ease of distribution to start off our six pack rollout.”

A number of Foothills’ beers can already be found on South Carolina shelves in the form of bombers, but beginning in September, the state’s three major markets – Greenville, Columbia and Charleston – will begin receiving shipments of six packs as well. The rollout is scheduled to begin early in the month.

“Our products have already proven to be popular (in South Carolina),” Adkisson continued. “Certainly not as popular as we are in North Carolina, but we’re happy with our sales down there.”

There is some trepidation on Foothills’ behalf. While six packs have been well-received by North Carolinians, there are always lingering concerns when introducing a new product into another market. But if the reception is good in South Carolina, it gives Adkisson a good outlook for the rest of the region, including Georgia, Florida, more of Tennessee and Virginia and so on.

“We’ve hit a good level of sales again in South Carolina, but we’re not sure how the 12 oz. will play out,” he said. “We’ll definitely feel it out.”

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Regional recognition is priority, but in the long-term, is the brewery looking for more national attention? Asked that question in jest, Adkisson and Goodrich looked at each other and laughed.

“If you ask Jamie (Bartholomaus, Foothills president), he’d say yes. But he’s the dreamer; I’m the one who has to stay grounded,” said Adkisson. “Is that in our future? Maybe. But no, right now, we’re focused on being more recognized in the Southeast.

While the South Carolina expansion hinges on the acceptance of 12 oz. bottles, many have asked if Sexual Chocolate – the brewery’s highly regarded imperial stout – will also make its way to shelves. Neither Goodrich nor Adkisson gave any indication that was in the cards.

And what about price? Will more demand lead to a bigger hit on the consumer’s wallet? Not likely, said Goodrich.

“One of the things is we really pride ourselves on is how affordable we keep our products. We make so much and we sell so much, and while we do have to stay busy to keep up with demand, it’s not going to translate into us having to jack up our prices,” he said. “We’re doing lots of things to cut costs, like designing bigger equipment that uses less glycol to keep the beer cool. Doing things like that here at the brewery mean we can make more beer at a lower cost.”

For shoppers, that means beers such as Foothills’ popular BBL People’s Porter – the brewery’s staple porter aged in Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year barrels – will remain around $6 per bomber.

And of course, there is one lingering question many Foothills fans want answered: When will they see Jade IPA in bottles?

For some time, the 7% single-hopped IPA has been growing in popularity and is firmly ensconced on many a must-drink list. And since the brewery has affirmed that yes, it will be available in 22 oz. bottles in the future, the question of how long until it’ll be a shelf staple lingers.

The answer to that question? “We will be bottling it. We want to bottle it. We don’t know when we’ll be bottling it,” said Adkisson.

Every batch of Jade is brewed exclusively at the 4th Street brewpub, giving Adkisson – who considers Jade “his pride and joy,” said Goodrich – more control over batches. Because it is brewed on such a small scale, it’s available only on draft and only at the brewpub.

The first step toward bottling Jade will come after the brewery catches up to demand for Hoppyum, which consumes must the Foothills’ hop capacity.

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There’s an old saying in politics that, for the most part, has held true in the past: As goes South Carolina, so goes the nation. While the nation isn’t in Foothill’s sights just yet, the brewery’s recent and continued growth in production capability and demand shows there is a sustained demand for their product. They’ve already shown they can stand out in the crowded field of North Carolina breweries. Now the question is, can they extrapolate that popularity into the region.

As goes South Carolina …

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