Brewery Finds Niche in Moore
Brian Evitts has tinkered with more than 50 beer recipes since he started brewing small home batches almost 20 years ago.
“You can pretty much throw anything into a beer recipe just to see how it comes out,” Evitts says. “For example, I once made a jalapeno beer. I liked it, but not many others did.”
All of that experimentation, however, paid off for Evitts and business partner Mike Ratkowski when they launched Railhouse Brewery last November.
“One of the challenges was producing beers that the market wants,” says Evitts, the company’s brewmaster.
The initial winners were pale ale, honey wheat, brown ale and oatmeal stout, which are currently being brewed and served at Railhouse’s microbrewery and bar at 105 E. South St. in Aberdeen.
“I think a lot of people think we’re in a garage and drinking beer, but we have 3,000 square feet here,” says Ratkowski, who handles sales and marketing. “I think we’ve well-exceeded our expectations for getting people in the door. Most of our advertising has been word of mouth.”
In fact, in-house sales have doubled every month since Railhouse opened. And the company’s beer is available on tap in Pinehurst at Dugan’s Pub, The Bunker, Village Fillin Station and the Ryder Cup Lounge at Pinehurst Resort, and in Southern Pines at O’Mahoney’s Pub & Grill, The Bell Tree, Squire’s Pub, Corfu, Broad Street Bar & Grill and O’Donnell’s Pub.
“We’re growing by one or two bars or restaurants per week,” Ratkowski says. “It’s probably 50-50 right now between on-site consumption and product sold wholesale. Marginalized, we make more money here because we sell to the pubs at wholesale prices, and they can mark it up however they want.”
Con O’Mahoney, owner of The Bell Tree and O’Mahoney’s, says he has the pale ale and honey wheat on tap at his establishments.
“I think it’s imperative to support local business,” O’Mahoney says. “To have a local brewery is pretty special, considering the area and the demographics that we have here in Moore County. On top of that, it’s pretty darn good beer.”
O’Mahoney also appreciates the quick turnaround when he runs out of Railhouse.
“Mike is Johnny-on-the-spot when I call him for another delivery,” O’Mahoney says. “Mike and Brian do a great job. They put a personal touch on making beer.”
Evitts and Ratkowski, who served in the Navy and Army, respectively, met six years ago while working for the same company. Both love beer, and they started talking about becoming business partners in March 2009.
“One of my passions has always been to open a microbrewery,” says Evitts, who earned his brewmaster diploma from the Siebel Institute of Technology & World Brewing Academy in Chicago.
The timing appears to be fortuitous because microbreweries are a burgeoning industry in North Carolina, probably because they have only been legal since 1985. Nationally, more than 1,700 U.S. breweries produce more beer styles and beer brands than any other country in the world.
“The great thing about craft breweries like ours is that we help and support each other,” Evitts says. “Our true competition is the big boys like Anheuser-Busch.”
Although microbreweries only accounted for 5 percent of the U.S. beer market in 2010, volume increased 11 percent and retail sales dollars increased 12 percent over 2009, according to the Brewers Association, the trade organization representing the majority of U.S. brewing companies.
“Craft brewers’ stories resonate with Americans who are choosing small, independent companies making delicious beers,” says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. “With well over 100 new brewery openings in 2010, plus 618 breweries in planning stages, all signs point to continued growth for the industry.”
Evitts and Ratkowski looked at sites in Wake County, where Evitts lives and works, but settled last year on the Aberdeen location because Moore County did not have a microbrewery.
“I think it fills a void here,” says Ratkowski, who is chairing the Moore County Chamber of Commerce Festival of Beers next month.
The partners spent six figures to up-fit the space, mainly for the brewing equipment that lines three walls. The interior includes the bar, a pool table and plenty of space for customers to play cornhole.
“We want people to have fun while learning more about the product they’re consuming,” says Ratkowski, who conducts tours for customers interested in the brewing process.
The process starts in the hot liquor tank, which heats water that is added to barley during milling.
The mash tthen produces a liquid (the grain is left behind) called “wort” that is sent to the brew kettle, where hops are added. Yeast enters the mix after the wort arrives at one of two fermentation tanks, where it sits for 10 days. The beer is then filtered and transferred to one of two conditioning tanks, where it stays for five days.
“Then it’s ready to keg and serve,” Evitts says. “Everything is a labor of love.”
Because Railhouse utilizes two fermentation and conditioning tanks, it can produce a new batch of beer about every 10 days.
“We need cold storage space,” Evitts says. “We’d love to partner with somebody. Beer will last several months and we’re going through inventory quicker than we want.
“Turnover has been very fast. Inventory management is currently our biggest challenge.”
Railhouse also hosts a home brewers club that meets the second Saturday of every month.
“It’s a group of beer aficionados swapping home-brewing stories, recipes and advice,” Ratkowski says. “We also help them brew small batches that can stay here until they’re ready to be served.”
Recently, a five-gallon container of oatmeal coffee stout was dwarfed by the nearby Railhouse conditioning tanks.
Evitts and Ratkowski, whose favorite Railhouse beers are oatmeal stout and pale ale, respectively, hope to expand distribution to Raleigh, Fayetteville, Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem in the future.
“Those are the markets we’d love to tap in the next three to five years,” Evitts says. “We also want to produce some higher alcohol-content beers. We usually have samples of others we’re trying out. Right now, we have an India Pale Ale.”
Railhouse is open Tuesday through Thursday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at email@example.com.
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