The history of Catawba Brewing Co. starts small, with the gift of a homebrewing kit for Christmas 1994.
“I am a notoriously hard guy to buy anything for,” says Billy Pyatt, who co-founded Catawba with his brother, Scott Pyatt. “My wife [Jetta Pyatt] got really creative and bought me something I would have never gotten myself — a 5-gallon homebrew kit. I fell in love with the process. Making recipes became an obsession of mine.”
The Pyatt brothers began homebrewing and honed their skills for about three years. “We thought there might be a business there,” Billy says. “And that’s really how we decided we would go pro.”
Twenty years later, they’re still at it and will celebrate the milestone with a week of festivities starting Monday, July 15. The brewery plans gift card promotions and an all-day party with multiple live bands, on-site T-shirt printing and more on Saturday, July 20, at its South Slope location.
Four-anniversary beers will be released at the party. The details on those beers are still under wraps, but a press release says that each “is representative of Catawba’s past, present or future.”
Making beer was far removed from the Pyatts’ original jobs. Scott had seasonal ski resort work in Colorado, and Billy was employed by Corning Inc., where he worked in a variety of positions.
Catawba Brewing opened in 1999 with a used 5-barrel system in the small Burke County town of Glen Alpine. Immediately, the Pyatts decided that Asheville would be the brewery’s initial market area. The craft brewing industry was just taking off in their neighbor to the West, which was still years away from being recognized as an American craft beer capital.
The brewery started with a modest crew — just Billy, Jetta and Scott. According to Billy, a lot of the initial work fell to his brother. “Scott really did everything,” Billy says. “He made the beer. He packaged it. He sold it. He collected.”
Today, Catawba has a crew of over 100. It eventually closed the Glen Alpine location, opened a much bigger brew house in Morganton, then expanded to a taproom in Asheville’s Biltmore Village. Specialty breweries were then added in Asheville’s South Slope and Charlotte, and in 2018, Catawba acquired Palmetto Brewing Co. of Charleston, S.C.
For Billy, 20 years has gone by fast. “I think that was a long time ago,” he says. “Who were those young guys who were messing around with hand-built equipment? We were basically making it up as we went.”
Billy remained at Corning for 27 years, long after Catawba was started. “I got to travel the planet,” he says. “I’ve had Japanese lagers. I’ve had all the European styles from Belgium, northern Germany — you name it. It was a symbiotic career for me.”
Meanwhile, Scott was working full time for Catawba, where he felt confident from the brewery’s earliest days that it would be successful. “People in North Carolina had no clue what was going on [with craft beer in the Western U.S.],” he says. “I was out there when several of the big Colorado breweries opened. I was already immersed in it.”
He adds that starting as a small, family operation was a matter of necessity. “Once we got into it, there wasn’t enough business to have employees,” Scott says. “There wasn’t enough business to be anything other than a mom-and-pop shop. I was a one-man circus for many years with a little part-time help. To make it successful, I had to do everything. It was very challenging.”
The brothers relied on their own skills to get Catawba going. “Billy, though he won’t admit it, has always been better at writing the recipes than I have,” Scott says. “I think I’m better at bringing stuff together once it’s on paper. We would come up with an idea, and we would start brewing, and I would start changing it a little bit. And we had a library of beers that we had made at home before we ever got open. It’s always been a team effort.”
Catawba’s first beer was Indian Head Red Ale. “It was like an Irish red — very malt-forward,” Billy says. “Almost everything Catawba produced back in those days was very malt-forward. That has changed. Today’s IPAs are very hops-forward.”
Catawba then began turning out other beers, including a blonde ale and Firewater IPA with six kinds of malts and subtle bittering hops. “When Scott and I were homebrewing, we took professional-style notes,” Billy says. “One thing we did was learn how to make the beers that we liked over and over again so we could replicate them when we scaled up production.”
Today, Catawba has produced more than 100 beers, and its flagship brew is the White Zombie White Ale.
As for the Catawba name, it pays homage to a Native American tribe and a river that runs through the mountains. “The river ties together the region that we love,” Billy says.
WHAT: Catawba Brewing Co.’s 20th Anniversary Party
WHERE: 32 Banks Ave., Asheville. avl.mx/6a5
WHEN: Noon-11 p.m., Saturday, July 20. Free to attend.