Betting on beer — Ted Vaden

Ted Vaden
Ted Vaden

Cameron Schulz likes beer. He loves fly-fishing.

So it was only natural, when the 29-year-old from Chapel Hill launched a new craft beer brewery last November, that he named it for his twin passions: Hopfly Brewing Co. Schulz chucked a promising corporate career and now spends his days happily mixing malt, hops and water in a restored cotton mill along the banks of the Tar River here.

Schulz, a graduate of East Chapel Hill High and Duke University, is one of four entrepreneurs who have begun concocting new brews at a unique “beer incubator” at the historic Rocky Mount Mills. The 200-year-old mill is being restored and developed by Capitol Broadcasting Co., owners of WRAL in Raleigh.

If the development looks familiar, that’s because it resembles Capitol’s American Tobacco Campus in Durham – lots of brick, old heart-pine flooring and yawning warehouse space. Like the Durham project, Rocky Mount Mills represents a bet on converting old to new by Capitol owner Jim Goodmon and his family, who catalyzed much of Durham’s redevelopment through their investment in American Tobacco and the Durham Bulls.

The beer incubator is unusual, if not unique, in the brewing business. The Goodmons have created five garage-sized spaces equipped with gleaming stainless steel brewing vessels that allow each tenant to produce up to 2,000 barrels of beer a year. That’s about 660,000 cans of beer.

Shulz and the other tenants lease the space and equipment for a rent pegged to the amount of beer they produce. The arrangement saves the young brewer a half-million dollars or more in upfront investment that he would have needed to start the business on his own.

He gets access to an experienced brewmaster, installed by the Goodmons on the premises, who provides mentoring and support. Also on the grounds is a satellite campus of Nash Community College that offers a curriculum in brewing, distilling and fermentation.

Just since his startup in November, Schulz already has produced 14 types of beer. He serves up to eight styles on weekends, when he converts his manufacturing space to a taproom.

In the interest of thorough journalism, I sampled a couple – the American IPA is as good as I’ve tasted, and the Jalapeño Saison is an innovative combination of fire and liquid, with hops thrown in.

Innovation, says Schulz, will be what sets his brew apart in a fast-growing market that has made North Carolina a craft beer Mecca. “My goal is to offer innovation and high quality and do things that the big breweries can’t do,” he said. “It’s all about new styles and having customers engaged and coming back.” In particular, he is targeting outdoor adventure seekers that, as a beer guy and angler, he personifies.

Evan Covington Chavez, development manager for Rocky Mount Mills, describes Schulz as the “poster boy” for what Rocky Mount Mills is trying to do with the beer incubator and the cotton mill renovation. Risk-taking, hard working, personable, Schulz lives in a restored millhouse within walking distance of his brewery.

On a recent visit to the mill, I wondered why Capitol is investing so much in craft beer. The incubator, Chavez says, is the “sizzle on the steak.” It has a cool factor that will attract the young people and innovative businesses that Rocky Mount Mills envisions as its future.

The incubator building occupies only a corner of a 160-acre tract, which will include 100,000 square feet of office space and 70 loft apartments in the renovated mill. When the project is completed later this year, office workers and apartment residents will have drop-dead views of the dam and river roaring by, plus a pretty little island mid-stream. A large chunk of the office space already is leased to a health care company, lured in-town from a suburban strip mall, and at least one other established business has committed.

Fishing is good in the Tar, and there is a kayak trail along the river, attractions that appeal to Hopfly Brewery’s young proprietor. Schulz ditched a 6-year corporate career at Abercrombie & Fitch to pursue his entrepreneurial dream.

“Having gone to Duke and seen what’s happened in Durham, it gave me the vision,” Schulz said. “I believe in this 100 percent. I moved my life here. I love it.”

Ted Vaden is a retired newspaper editor. He can be reached at tedvaden@gmail.com