Rocking the Mills


Meet some of the brewers who got their start at Rocky Mount Mills

There are a few places in North Carolina where you can walk between breweries, and Rocky Mount Mills is one of them. The reason the brewers are here is a little different though — Rocky Mount Mills is the site of a North Carolina brewery incubator, where good home brewers can launch their beer into a business.

On May 15 at 1 p.m., Tarheel Taps and Corks will introduce you three brewers getting their operations started at the Mills through a live virtual tour on the People-First Tourism Facebook page

The costs of starting a brewery are high — brewing equipment, canning or bottling lines, cold storage, and that’s before you even think about hosting a taproom. Rocky Mount Mills offers new brewers, and some expansion operations, the chance to rent equipment and other space while they hone their craft.

Here is a little information about some of the brewers you’ll meet during our virtual tour.

Koi Pond has partnered with local farmers to add North Carolina produce to their beers.

In 2016, Koi Pond Brewing opened at the Mills as Rocky Mount’s first brewery. Five years later, the brewery continues to operate in a large house on the property that was once a superintendent’s home for the mill, and Koi Pond has a strong community following. On May 15, Koi Pond will host their popular Pondapalooza event.

Koi Pond specializes in Belgian-style beers. And thanks to relationships with local growers, their brewers have also experimented with adding different types of produce — sweet potatoes, peaches and basil — to add new flavors to their beer, says Koi Pond co-owner and operations manager Josh Parvin.

RMM brewers Briana Brake and Celeste Beatty each have their own operations — Spaceway Brewing and Harlem Brew South —  and beer labels. Together, they have opened a collaboration taproom in downtown called Rocky Mount Brewing.

Briana Brake with her favorite brew, Dondada Cardamom Stout.

Brake was recently featured in the documentary This Belongs to Us about Black brewers and how they have shaped the U.S. beer industry. African-American brewers, especially women, are rare in the industry, which is dominated by white men. The film, still a work in progress, was previewed at Sundance Film Festival. 

Brake says coming to RMM to brew was an easy decision, with the equipment that was available to brewers. She is excited about her downtown taproom and is interested in opening another in the future.

Welcome to Mythic Brewing Taproom, at the Mills.

Chazz Oesch (pronounced Ay-sh) is the owner of Mythic Brewing, which has expanded from one taproom at the Mills to two others — one in Cedar Point near Emerald Isle and one in Zebulon.

The brewery’s first name was BDD, which had something to do with a cousin’s graduation from Virginia Tech, slurred speech and a seat belt. But the name took too long to explain, so Oesch changed it to Mythic Brewing, but kept the Sasquatch image for the logo. Other beer names are based on mythical creatures like Big Foot — the Loogaroo Double Milkshake IPA and the Queen Lavender Mohito Sour. 

Find out more about these brewers, what appeals to them about brewing at the Mills and which of their beers are their favorites. 

Rocky Mount Mills is a true live, work, play environment. In addition to the breweries, the Mills offers office and retail space, restaurants, condominiums and apartments, as well as event space. 

Enjoy an overnight at River and Twine tiny house hotel.

There is so much more to explore around Rocky Mount Mills — a three-plus-mile bike trail along the Tar River, hiking trails in nearby Battle Park, and River and Twine, a tiny house hotel within walking distance. Since you can’t do it all in a day, book a night in a tiny house, bring your bike and take your time to explore the Mills and nearby attractions.

Botanist and Barrel


This cidery/winery in Cedar Grove is a paradise of wild fermentation

Deric and Kether, cidermakers, in the fermentation room
Deric McGuffey, left, and Kether Smith are inside the fermentation room at Botanist and Barrel.

We recently got the best table in the house on a Saturday trip to Botanist and Barrel in Cedar Grove — well, actually the only indoor table. Though the cidery/winery north of Hillsborough has plenty of outdoor seating, there is only one four-person table inside the tasting room, and the good news is that you can reserve it.

Since the weather was still cold back in late February, we reserved the tasting room table for what turned out to be a great afternoon of cider and wine tasting and tacos. And we had the full attention of the tasting room staff and partner/head cidermaker Kether Smith, all socially distanced and masked.

The food truck we were hoping for — Succatash — wasn’t at Botanist and Barrel as planned, but Mama Chava’s tacos didn’t disappoint (chorizo, barbacoa and shredded chicken tacos). 

Botanist and Barrel isn’t just another cidery. The ciders are made with naturally occurring yeasts on fruits like apples and blueberries. Their ciders and wines are low in residual sugars and are “raw, wild, unfined, unfiltered and unpasteurized,” according to their website.

The cidermakers at Botanist and Barrel don’t strive for consistency between batches, but instead they marvel at the different flavors that natural yeasts can produce. Kether told us that sometimes the taste of a cider or wine will actually change within a few minutes of opening a bottle or can.

four people sit around fire pit eating and drinking
Fire rings and heaters make the outside space at B&B comfortable and safe in colder months.

We started with a tasting flight featuring the Less is More Pet Nat, a dry cider fermented in the Petillant Naturel method; Vintners Reserve, a wild fermented cider blended with orange and grapefruit juice; Tart Blueberry, organic blueberries co-fermented with apple to produce a dry rose cider; and for our “wildcard” selection, we chose Forbidden Root, made from whole blackberry, baby ginger and whole turmeric.

Behind Botanist and Barrel lie acres of blueberries used in the ciders, and in the summer, the berries are available to pick-your-own enthusiasts. And there is plenty of outdoor space at the venue to enjoy a glass of cider or wine, complete with fire rings and heaters in the winter. There also is a covered area with picnic tables. 

Cider and wine sales are done mainly through a window to the tasting room, but several people dropped in to buy bottles and cans while we were there. 

If you like dry, not sweet ciders, which are really more like a sparkling dry wine, you’ll be very happy with the ciders at Botanist and Barrel. We brought home a four-pack of Farmhouse “Seriously Dry” Cider and a bottle of the 2019 Traminatte, a white wine.

For Asheville fermentation fans, we learned that Botanist and Barrel is planning to open a tasting room in downtown Asheville later this year. 

Botanist and Barrel isn’t far from the Iron Gate Vineyards and Winery and Grove Winery as well. You could make a day of it in and around North Carolina’s Haw River American Viticulture Area (AVA). Or spend part of your day visiting downtown Hillsborough or taking a hike at nearby Occoneechee Mountain State Park.

Botanist and Barrel
105 Persimmon Hill Lane
Cedar Grove, NC 27231

glass and can of FarmHouse Cider
The Farmhouse Cider at Botanist and Barrel is “seriously dry,” as the can says.

Winegrowers conference, virtually


Like so many events in the past year, the North Carolina Winegrowers Association recently hosted its 2021 annual meeting virtually. I had attended the event once before, in 2016 I think, when a snowstorm made travel to Winston-Salem difficult for many.

The 2021 North Carolina Winegrowers Association conference was held virtually.

Of course, 2020 was a challenging year for wineries facing COVID-19. Like restaurants and other hospitality businesses, wineries had to close in mid-March and were not able to reopen until Memorial Day weekend. In addition, late-season freezes and excessive rain caused damage to vines and vineyards.

North Carolina is now home to more than 150 wineries and 2,300 acres of vines. The value of the  wine and grape industry is estimated at $2 billion, making North Carolina seventh nationally in state wine production.

As in the past, the 2021 conference focused on four areas: Marketing, business management, viticulture and enology. In spite of the fact that I don’t actually grow wine grapes (unlike most of the other attendees who do), I always learn something from the sessions. So here are the takeaway lessons from this year’s conference.

Marketing: North Carolina tourism took quite a hit in 2020, but renewed interest in travel is expected this year, with tourism peaking in July. Though still reluctant to venture out, travelers are looking for ways to safely relax and spend time with family. Tourism marketing will focus on outdoor adventures, day trips and drive-through experiences where travelers can enjoy the state from their cars.

During the shutdown last spring, many wineries pivoted to online ordering or drive-through wine sales. Some refocused operations to outdoor areas and switched from face-to-face tastings to wine flights where guests could choose the wines they wanted to sample. Some wineries have even offered virtual wine tastings for those who ordered wines in advance.

Business: Pricing wine for profitability can be tricky, but to do so, wineries must consider all the costs that go into producing a bottle of wine. While the cost of producing a red blend in the Yadkin Valley is roughly $16.26, to sell that bottle at a sustainable profit, it must be priced at roughly $25. To be profitable, wineries must consider all the costs that go into production, including bottles, labels, corks, marketing, production and utilities. Additional costs to factor in are licenses, taxes, insurance, repairs, tasting room expenses, glassware and employees.  

Online wine sales sustained the U.S. wine industry in 2020, driven by customers stocking up during the pandemic. In fact, U.S. wine sales for 2020 were up 1.2% over 2019. With consumption among Baby Boomers beginning to decline, wineries need to turn their marketing efforts to Millennials, who are buying more wine.

Most years, the winegrowers conference draws nearly 300 in-person attendees, and of course, there’s plenty of wine to share. (2016 photo)

Viticulture: Many efforts on the viticulture front involve managing pests and diseases in the vines. Often diseases like the dreaded Pierce’s disease are spread by insect vectors, so monitoring those pests is important. One takeaway for 2020: The grape berry moth isn’t as big a threat in North Carolina as it has been in Virginia. The moth’s population and the damage it causes here is low.

The state is on the lookout for the spotted lantern fly, an invasive pest native from China that can destroy a vineyard. None have been found here yet, but growers were told to watch for signs of them.

Two of the biggest vineyard pests are deer and birds that eat and damage young grapes. A study last summer at Surry Cellars compared two mitigation efforts — permanent nets to protect the grapes and a chemical deterrent spray containing capsaisin. The study found that the nets work better than the sprays and, with care, can be reused for up to 10 years. 

Enology: The enology sessions confirmed what I already know — that making wine is far more complex that I can even begin to comprehend (which gives me enormous respect for those who do it well). I didn’t do very well in my high school chemistry class, so these sessions made my eyes cross. But speakers focused on setting up your lab for the growing season, creating your enological toolbox and using reverse osmosis filtration to correct wine flaws. 

Some wine growers contract out lab services, which still requires preparation in terms of acquiring containers for samples and shipping. The enological toolbox includes nutrients, enzymes, enological tannins and tools to promote microbial stability. Reverse osmosis filtration can be used to manage volatile acidity, which can produce off-tastes and smells like vinegar and nail polish. It has been used by some California winemakers to remove smoke flavors, caused by wild fires.

The popular conference normally attracts about 300 people, but this year roughly 80-95 people were engaged in the webinar from beginning to end. Plans for an in-person conference for 2022 are in the works — save the dates for Jan. 27-29 in Winston-Salem. Hope to see you there.

Warm Wines & Cozy Times


11 vineyards in Yadkin Valley offer warm wine drinks to brighten January

Hidden Vineyard owners serve customers at tasting room
Hidden Vineyard co-owners Lisa and Tim Sherman, right, serve customers in their tasting room which opened at Thanksgiving.

Winter, as I’ve noted before, is one of my favorite times to visit vineyards and wineries. Not only are tasting rooms less crowded, but you can really get a sense of the vastness of a vineyard, with the foliage and fruit absent from the vines. It’s like being able to see the forest for the trees.

Eleven wineries in the Yadkin Valley recently came together to offer the Warm Wines & Cozy Times Trail during three weekends in January. In addition to their regular offerings of self-guided tastings and wine sales, each of the participating wineries offered their own version of a warm wine drink.

Since Yadkin Valley is a two and half-hour drive from our home in Raleigh, I knew that our time would be limited once we arrived for a day visit on a Saturday. So we chose to visit three wineries located just a few miles apart.

We started with Hidden Vineyard, which just opened their tasting room at Thanksgiving. When we arrived right at noon, we had company – there were about a half dozen cars in the parking lot. Several guests were at indoor tables, but we opted for an outdoor table with a heater on the patio.

Tim and Lisa Sherman bought the property for Hidden Vineyard in 2017 with their son Josh and his wife, Claudia. They had looked at several vineyards for sale in the Yadkin Valley and found this one to be a good fit — 27 acres total, with nine acres of vines. 

The tasting room offers a bar, small tables indoors and out, with propane heaters on the patio. Though we were committed to eating our snacks with our wine outdoors, it was very cold — in the 30s when we arrived — with the wind blowing. Brrrrr!

outside of the tasting room at Hidden Vineyard with rocking chairs on the porch
Rocking chairs outside the tasting room, along with heaters, provide a great place to sit and look over the vineyards.

When they purchased the vineyard, it came with a barn — now the winery’s tasting room — and a cabin they rented on to guests for several years. Today, the vineyard’s cabin is an extension of the tasting room and includes several comfortable seating areas. There are also tables on the cabin’s porch overlooking the vineyards. 

And there is a fire ring between the two buildings, which would be a fun place to warm up with friends when we can gather again.

Hidden Vineyard allows guests to bring picnics as long as there isn’t a food truck onsite. Since there wasn’t one on Saturday, we brought our own meats, cheeses, olives and fruits for pairing with wines.  

Because this was our first visit, we decided to taste a flight of all five of the winery’s wines: Pilot Path, 2019 Petit Manseng; Lunch Box, 2019 Chardonnay; 131, 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon; Claus, 2018 Chambourcin; and the fan favorite, Franc the Tank, 2018 Cabernet Franc enhanced with blueberry juice. For the warm wine drink, Hidden Vineyard paired Franc the Tank with a warm fruit punch.

Our personal favorite was the Claus, Chambourcin aged in French oak, “dry, yet fruity body with red berries, cherries and plum.” Look forward to opening that bottle down one cold night.

The tasting room at Haze Gray Vineyards was created as a warm, homey place.

Just two miles down the road, we visited Haze Gray Vineyards, which opened in December 2019, just two months before COVID shut down all wineries in the state. Owners Deane and Becky Muhlenberg bought the property in 2015 and planted nine acres in grapes. Their first estate wine was produced in 2018.

 The Muhlenbergs are both from military families, and Deane served in the U.S. Navy for 30 years, so they named the winery for the haze gray color of Navy ships. The tasting room features a wall of photos depicting friends and family who served.

At the time we visited, the crowd in the tasting room was small, so we ventured inside the comfortable space for a tasting flight and a warm cup of mulled wine, a welcome treat on such a cold day. The previous weekend, Haze Gray had seen crowds more typical of a spring or summer day than for a winter weekend.

These were the wines on our tasting list: 2019 Traminette Dry, 2019 Pinot Grigio, 2018 Chambourcin, 2018 Aviator Red and 2017 Petit Verdot. We took home a bottle of the Aviator Red, a bold blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin, Petit Verdot and Tannat.

Becky said they created the tasting room to feel like home, with small groups of comfortable seating gathered around tables. The tasting bar also has seating, and there are a few high top tables as well, giving guests plenty of room to keep their parties distanced from others. 

front porch of Haze Gray Vineyards with Adirondack chairs
The welcoming front porch of Haze Gray features lots of Adirondack chairs for warm weather relaxing.

The vineyards are across the road from the tasting room, and there is a small cabin for rent in the middle. Becky said it has been rented out every weekend since May. Plan ahead, and you could be staying just a short walk away from the Haze Gray tasting room, where in warmer weather, you could enjoy comfortable Adirondack chairs on the front porch overlooking the vineyards and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond.

Just another mile down the road sits Stony Knoll Vineyards, another small winery that also has an onsite cabin for rent. Having reached a reasonable tasting limit, we decided just to drive through the winery, remembering a previous trip there when snow covered the vineyards.

Kudos to the 11 wineries that hosted the Warm Wines and Cozy Times Trail in January. Many wineries plan special events on Valentine’s weekend, so look for those as well. Be sure to check winery websites for winter hours, as they may vary.

This log cabin with a green roof sits in the vineyards at Haze Gray.

Hidden Vineyard
125 Hidden Vines Lane, Dobson

Haze Gray Vineyards
761 Stony Knoll Road, Dobson, NC

Stony Knoll Vineyards
1143 Stony Knoll Road, Dobson

Rising Silo Brewery


two beers on table


This farm-based brewery in Blacksburg, VA, offers a fine selection of brews in a fun outdoorsy location

Fall just doesn’t seem the same without a trip to view the changing leaves in the mountains. Recently, Tarheel Taps & Corks spent a weekend near Blacksburg, VA, at the cabins of Mountain Lake Lodge. The mountain-top lodge was the location for much of the 1980s hit film, Dirty Dancing.

In addition to enjoying mountaintop scenery, we traveled down to Blacksburg to visit the campus of Virginia Tech, walk on the Huckleberry Trail and enjoy a beer at Rising Silo Brewery.

Rising Silo is just a short drive from town, but because it’s located on a working farm, it feels a lot farther away. And though we hiked on the Huckleberry Trail from downtown Blacksburg, we could have picked it up right across the road from the brewery, an ideal stop for a post-ride or walk beer.

Rising Silo BreweryWe arrived on a Sunday afternoon following a particularly busy weekend, so the beer choices were limited. But no complaints about the Farm Life Lager we tried. We’ll certainly have to go back to try the Brown Chicken Brown Ale, Sparkling Apple Cider or Gopher Gose.

If you order ahead, you can pick up your produce and farm-raised meats from Glade Road Growing. Or plan your bike ride or hike to end at the Glade Road access of the Huckleberry Trail and stop in for a drink at the brewery.  

To keep guests safe during COVID, the brewery provides plenty of outdoor seating – including a large fire ring — and indoor seating with plenty of ventilation from open windows and doors. Masks are required when ordering in the taproom.

Plan to bundle up though – it gets cold in Blacksburg this time of year.

outside seating
Bundle up to keep warm outside at Rising Silo.

FireClay Cellars: A socially distanced winery visit

Tarheel Taps & Corks joins fellow bloggers near Siler City for an outdoor winery visit

group on the porch

Wine bloggers and spouses visit on the porch of FireClay Cellars.

Looking for some normalcy during the pandemic, Tarheel Taps & Corks spent a recent fall Saturday afternoon at FireClay Cellars near Siler City with fellow bloggers Arthur Barham of Merlot2Muscadine and his wife Mary, and David Nershi of Vino-Sphere and his wife, Kathy.

We came prepared with tailgate tents, chairs and picnic coolers, but rain showers passing through when we arrived led us to reconsider and set up on the winery’s wide front porch, overlooking the vineyards. There was plenty of room and seating for six – bloggers and spouses. As the first guests to arrive that afternoon, we had our choice of seating inside or out.

Most of us started with flight-style tastings to determine what we liked best – I tasted a White Blend, Chardonel, Chambourcin Rosé and a dry Chambourcin. Based on the tasting, we decided to buy bottles of the Chardonel and the Chambourcin. Everything paired well with the cheese, meats, crackers, fruits, olives and nuts we had brought with us.

We really got the royal treatment from owners Andrei and Sue Mitran, who started FireClay Cellars with their son Erik and another couple, Steve and Bonnie Thiedke. Andrei let us sample a Red Reserve (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Tannat) that had been aged 12 months and an oaked Chardonel. Both wines were very good, though our group recommended aging the reserve a few more months.

group in wine room

Andrei Mitran shows the bloggers the winemaking facility. Dave Nershi and Art Barham are to the right.

Andrei also took us into the wine cellar and offered samples of some of their newest wines direct from the fermentation tanks.

As the rain moved off, other guests came in, most for the plentiful outdoor seating. And eventually, we had to say goodbye to the winery and vineyards.

FireClay Cellars offers outdoor and indoor seating, and they require guests and staff to wear masks insideThere is also plenty of space on the grounds and vineyards to bring your chairs and enjoy your own wine party. Only a short drive from both the Triangle and Triad, FireClay Cellars is a great destination to spend an afternoon at a rural winery.

Dave pours wine

Dave pours a glass for Kathy.

FireClay Cellars
1276 Bowers Store Road
Siler City, NC

Hours: Saturday & Sunday, noon-6 p.m.

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