Brewing Up Creativity

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It’s clear, after only a few minutes of talking to Billy Pyatt, that the man has beer running through his veins. It’s the passion he exudes, the obvious joy it gives him that seems almost akin to a kid in a candy store. He’s truly geeked out on what he’s doing—giddy about it, in fact—seeing it not so much as work but as a privilege and a true source of pleasure. And maybe that’s what’s made him so successful, building a craft beer brand whose cans fly off the shelves and keeps his customers thirsting for more.

His path in the industry of craft beer brewing is interesting, to say the least. Having had a long career with Corning, Incorporated, he has a background in tech—a fact which makes him naturally geeky, to put it in his own terms. And while a five-gallon stovetop beermaking kit his wife gave him in 1994 as a Christmas gift could easily have stayed in the box unused or gone no further than getting the occasional use when time allowed, it turned into a full-blown career, tapping into some unexpected part of him that appealed to his inner nerd and put his unslakeable thirst for a good beer to good use.

Pyatt wasn’t alone in his endeavor to create a brand. In fact, between 1994 and 1999, much of it relied heavily on his younger brother, Scott; and as the stovetop hobby yielded even more success, the two brothers decided to give it a real push, tracking down bigger machinery that they sometimes had to retool for use in beer brewing, sourcing ingredients in large enough quantities to create their product, and spending vast amounts of time developing recipes and testing them out.

When the Catawba brewery officially opened in 1999, with Billy still employed at Corning, Scott was relied on even more, playing a key role in the day-to-day functioning of the operation that continued from 1999 until 2012 as the two brothers—and Billy’s wife, Jetta, who joined the duo as a third partner in the business—organically grew Catawba from making a few kegs of beer to annually producing 1000 barrels—roughly 13,800 cases.

Their impressive growth naturally led to the need to expand in many ways: hiring on more staff and increasing production by spreading out their processes across three locations in Asheville, Charlotte, and Morganton, North Carolina. But they did something unique in the way that they fueled their continued growth, as well, focusing much of their efforts not so much on just the core brews that had initially launched them into the market, but making innovation a driving force that kept them fresh and in demand. For Billy and his brother, the innovation was a natural expression of their own creativity, a fallout—of sorts—of their deep love of truly good beer and their desire to explore its potential. The more unique and unexpected, the better; and over the next few years, that became one of the core concepts of Catawba.

“Early on, and particularly driven by my brother, we tended to experiment,” says Billy, who retired from Corning in 2011, when Catawba really hit its growth stride. Showing undeniable potential for expansion, the company needed his expertise in engineering,
sales, marketing, strategy, and leadership experience even more. “As we evolved and the craft beer industry evolved, we wanted try even more things. In 2012, we had about 12 to 15 beers in our portfolio. By 2017, our portfolio included about 75 beers. Talk about creativity! But we also created an interesting—probably one of the most interesting— beers in the market, even now,” he goes on. “

This “interesting” beer to which he refers is certainly worth mentioning, worthy of tasting, should you be one of the lucky ones to get your hands on it during the three months a year that it’s actually available. Four words: Peanut Butter Jelly Time. Brewed as a brown ale, the beer is then aged on raspberries before being aged again over roasted peanuts. “When you get it, it’s just like drinking a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You taste the breadiness from the malt in the beer, the raspberries—which is your jam—and then you taste the peanuts,” Billy explains.

Sounds insane, but it is innovative thinking like this that has raised Catawba’s following, as has their Passport Program, which tasks their Asheville brewers with producing one beer a week for crowd testing and limited release each and every week of the year and then presents the beers with this challenge to their customers: Fill your “passport” with 13 stamps per quarter and get a prize. Fill it with a stamp from all 52 beers in a year, get an invitation to their annual celebratory dinner or brunch. It’s a nice perk for their customers, but also one that benefits Catawba, as well. They learn what works and what doesn’t, what should be tweaked and what should be abandoned. And it’s given them freedom to explore the wonderful world of beer in many unexpected ways.

While innovation might claim much of the focus of Catawba and has certainly fueled its growth, that growth created a need for something more. But just what that “more” might be was still a question until 2017, when they heard news of a brewery that was coming onto the market for sale in Charleston, South Carolina. “The more I talked to the owner, the more I realized that our philosophies were the same: they were family owned, just as we were family owned. They were also Southern, very focused on product quality, and had a great community interface with charity work—just like we have always strived to do at Catawba. We also realized that we could double the company if we put them together. It made sense, and over about six months or so, we tried to find a way to make it happen,” Billy says of their acquisition of Palmetto Brewing.

As with any great union, the blending of the two has played to their respective strengths to bolster their weaknesses without losing what each label is at its core, as they are still being run under their names, just now as part of the overarching Catawba Valley Brewing Company brand. “When we purchased Palmetto, the one thing that they never really did was go after the experimental side,” Billy says. “They had four or five core beers that were doing pretty well, and they would have maybe one seasonal every three months, so they were only producing about 15 to 20 beers a year. It was kind of their philosophy to concentrate on their core beers and get them out into distribution. They also never had the facilities to really experiment; theirs were geared around producing large quantities of the beers that they sent to their distributors,” he goes on. “That was a key difference between Catawba and Palmetto’s mindsets. Catawba always saw variety as better, and we invested
in that, putting out 75 to 100 beers a year. We’re bringing that creativity to the Palmetto brand now.”

Case in point? Their seasonal Piece of Cookie Stout. “It’s amazing!” Billy exclaims. “It tastes just like a mint chocolate chip cookie, and that came through the development efforts that we injected into the brand. Additionally, there have since been a bunch of new core beers, seasonal specialties, and one-offs that have become part of the Palmetto brand to give it a refresh and give it a new look.”

Two years into the acquisition, the future continues to look bright for both Palmetto and Catawba—and they’re thirsty for whatever comes next.