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How One Brewery Is Shaking Up a Sleepy North Carolina Town

September 27, 2018

By Eric Ginsburg, September 27, 2018

Growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Nikki Miller-Ka never saw a reason to go to neighboring High Point. She’d pass through on the way to Girl Scout camp each summer, but even as she got older, her perception of the city as a way station didn’t change.

“It really wasn’t a place to live,” Miller-Ka said. “It was something to go through.”

Ian Burnett, who grew up on the other side of High Point, felt similarly. Like Miller-Ka, he spent the majority of his life just a short drive away. But Burnett bought into a common refrain that most anyone in the adjacent cities of Winston-Salem and Greensboro will reiterate—there’s no reason to go.

As a city of about 110,000 in central North Carolina, High Point is primarily known as the host of a biannual furniture market. Furniture showrooms dominate downtown, eating up most of the real estate. Save for two weeks a year—a time when countless residents make a killing renting their homes to some of the 75,000 market visitors—those showrooms are dark.

“I don’t want to say wasteland, because it’s not that bad,” Miller-Ka explained. “I’ve seen worse. It’s all of these beautiful, modern looking artistic buildings, but there’s nobody filling them. There’s no people walking the streets.”

The eerie quietude of High Point’s downtown is only accentuated by its flourishes: Miniature Roman columns flank Renaissance-style statues on one corner, while a small Terracotta army stands at attention a few blocks away. A behemoth chest of drawers adorned with two oversized socks—each big enough to fit a person inside—stands nearby.

Todd Turner

John Vaughan, a general contractor working for the family business, chafes at the perception that his city is boring and vacant. The attitude extends to residents too, he said, who will travel to Greensboro and Winston-Salem for entertainment and culture. As a native, Vaughan couldn’t accept that.

“I have a huge sense of pride about the community and the people in this town, and maybe a little bit of a chip on my shoulder for the stigma that you can’t do it in High Point,” he said. “I wanted to prove people wrong. I just have sense of responsibility, maybe, to make this place what I know it can be.”

Despite a prevailing can’t-do attitude in the city, Vaughan and furniture designer Britt Lytle—who met because their kids go to school together—decided to open a brewery. Mere months after opening, Brown Truck Brewery would prove everyone wrong, pulling in a fistful of medals at the Great American Beer Festival including Very Small Brewing Company and Brewer of the Year, two silvers and a gold. The nanobrewery would quickly hit capacity, drawing attention with the awards that helped put High Point on the map for something other than furniture.

And Ian Burnett, the Greensboro native who didn’t really see a reason to go to High Point, is the brewery’s linchpin.

Burnett started homebrewing as a student at UNC-Greensboro, and around the same time he landed a job working at Natty Greene’s, the city’s lone brewery. He put in five years there before moving to Foothills, one of the state’s largest breweries known for its Torch pilsner, Jade IPA and limited-release Sexual Chocolate. A couple years in, Burnett got a call from Lytle and Vaughan, who were mapping out Brown Truck and needed a brewer.

Todd Turner

“When [they] mentioned it was in High Point, I was like, ‘Shit, it’s gotta be High Point,” Burnett said. “But I realized there’s so much room to grow.”

Burnett had been commuting to Winston-Salem to work at Foothills, and the drive from Greensboro to High Point would be shorter. The decades-old stigma about the region’s smallest city colored his expectations, but he was excited about the prospect of working at a small-batch operation where he’d get to call the shots.

It’s easy to understand Burnett’s initial uncertainty. While several small breweries had recently opened in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, only Liberty Brewery & Grill stood in High Point. With a dead downtown, residents trained to look elsewhere for nightlife and a minimal craft beer scene, could a new brewery succeed?

But Burnett dove in. After training at the renowned Siebel Institute in Chicago, he started brewing Brown Truck’s first batches at the beginning of 2016. Once his tanks were filled, the weeks passed painfully slowly as he waited to see if the beers would be any good, Burnett said.

“It was nerve-wracking,” he remembers. “All the pressure’s on my shoulders.”

The brewery opened in February and quickly garnered a loyal following. Just a couple months in, the trio received an email about Great American Beer Festival submissions, and decided to go for it. They entered their five freshest beers. The house saison and dry-hopped saison scored silvers, while Burnett’s light lager captured gold. Better yet, Brown Truck and Burnett won Best Very Small Brewery and Brewer of the Year. All before their first anniversary.

City residents had already adopted Brown Truck as a favorite hangout. The awards forced outsiders to take note. Nikki Miller-Ka, now a food & drink columnist for the Greensboro News & Record, quickly became a fan. “It’s all really solid, straightforward good beer,” she said. “They’re really well made.”

She covers High Point as part of her beat for the daily newspaper, and she’s learned that there’s more to the city than she realized. Miller-Ka is also starting to see more signs of vitality around the city, especially as new restaurants open.

To Vaughan, that change in perspective is part of the reason he wanted to open Brown Truck, in addition to serving as a catalyst for other businesses. “There’s just been a mindset shift that, ‘Hey, things can be done in High Point,’” he said. “We can make this place just as good as any of our surrounding areas.”

Todd Turner

Approachable beers such as the award-winning light lager are a major part of Brown Truck’s appeal locally. Offering a first-rate lager makes the switch from commercial to craft much easier, Vaughan said, adding that it’s their best seller. Burnett is happy to leave his fingerprints on a beer. He’s played around with adjuncts such as truffle salt, but some ingredients don’t always go over well with the brewpub faithful. In general, he loves replicating classic styles, researching the hell out of them and trying to get the equation just right.

Everything hasn’t gone swimmingly, though. Brown Truck flopped at its next several competitions, and Burnett worried they’d be a one-hit wonder. “Did we peak too early?” he wondered. Sure, the GABF recognition brought an influx of patrons, but non-locals moved on to the next shiny thing.

That’s okay, though. It gave Burnett a chance to catch his breath. He raked in awards at a statewide competition last year, and won silver for his dry-hopped saison at the 2018 GABF last weekend. And Burnett can barely produce beer quickly enough for the brewpub’s ten taps. People call from around the country trying to stock a keg, but he isn’t interested.

“I would rather satisfy a local customer with fresh beer than to see our name on some cool tap board in Denver,” he said.

Instead, the Brown Truck team aspires to grow locally. There are plans for a minor league baseball stadium in High Point—part of a new revitalization effort—and Vaughan wants to get in on it. They intend to dip into bottling and expand their barrel program too, Vaughan said.

High Point’s stigma persists, but more than any other entity, Brown Truck is taking a hammer to it. They’ve found remarkable success, and more importantly, some freedom and happiness.

“I love that I can go in and do whatever I want,” Burnett said. “I love the fact that someone can call me up and say, ‘Hey, I have four pounds of honey and blueberries, I’m local, what would you like to do with it?’ That freedom, now that I’ve had that bite, I’m not going to let it go.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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