By Bryan Mims
Photo of The Mill provided by the Town of Fuquay-Varina/Melissa Champlion
It’s a quarter till 2 on a Tuesday afternoon, and 32-year-old Blake Craft is going for another Steak Cake Stout, a creamy-headed ale with the hue of black coffee. For a beer lover, the sign outside The Mill is seductive: “N.C. Craft Beer $3.50 All Day Tuesday.” On this muggy afternoon, laptops are open on the bar, earbuds are in, amber splashes of grain fill and refill glasses, and a modern, mellow beat pours out of the speakers.
“The price is right,” Craft chuckles with his freshly poured brew. “This is a really cool hangout. I can bring my wife here, who doesn’t drink beer. She gets the coffee, I get the beer, and we have a good time.”
The Mill is a coffee shop and bar that serves only North Carolina-crafted beer and wine. It occupies a corner at South Main and Depot streets in the Fuquay section of Fuquay-Varina, a town with a hyphenated name that inspired local boosters to coin a catchy little motto – “A Dash More.” (And for the record, it’s pronounced few-kway vuh-REE-nuh.)
It’s an apt description, considering the town seems to have one more of everything: One more brewery, one more spot to indulge your sweet tooth, one more pizza place, even one more downtown. Here’s the deal with the dash — Fuquay-Varina, 18 miles south of Raleigh, is essentially two towns in one: Fuquay to the south and Varina to the north, each with its own central business district.
The two original towns, Fuquay Springs and Varina, merged in 1963 after sharing a long agricultural history. Between the two, they had five tobacco warehouses throughout much of the 20th century. But the days of floppy leaves littering the roadsides and the auctioneer chanting rhythmically among the aromatic bundles have long faded.
One thing binding the two town hubs together these days — aside from U.S. 401 and the railroad — is beer. Not the kind from St. Louis or Milwaukee or anything referred to as cerveza, but good local brews. Even the staunchest of teetotalers can appreciate the energy a craft-beer pub infuses into a community, as evidenced by the millennials swilling stouts and pale ales at The Mill on a Tuesday afternoon.
The homespun suds began flowing around here in 2008 when Mark Doble, who spent 15 years tinkering with computers for Hewlett Packard, took up beer brewing full time in an old airplane hangar. He opened the Aviator Tap House inside the old Varina train depot, keeping the original wooden plank floors and installing a grand mahogany bar to create the aura of an old-school tavern. Just across Broad Street, he opened the Aviator Smokehouse in 2011, serving ribs, wings and burgers.
Doble outgrew the hangar years ago and relocated to an industrial park on the northern flank of town, but now he has plans to expand again and create a “beer Disneyland.” Doble, 50, is moving his brewery into the former Gold Leaf Tobacco Co. warehouse, where he’s also putting in a bar, restaurant, bakery, coffee shop, concert venue and distillery. So, in addition to beer, he’ll be concocting gin, vodka, brandy and, yes, even moonshine.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” he says. “A brewery has to be an experience; it’s not just the beer anymore. People come to see a brand. They want to experience what that brand is.”
His vision extends beyond the warehouse walls. Doble is buying a cluster of modest, unoccupied homes on the block to make room for a mixed-use development of retail stores and apartments. The warehouse project is expected to be complete by November 2018, the 10th anniversary of the Aviator Brewing Co.
Two other microbreweries have raised a glass in town in the last two years. The Fainting Goat Brewing Co. opened on South Main Street in Fuquay in October 2015. One of its three partners, Army veteran Tim Reichert, brewed beer in his home for years, so launching his own brewpub was “just the next step.”
“We were trying to find a place where we would fit,” Reichert says. “We wanted to do a small downtown kind of feel.” If you wander in during business hours Wednesday through Sunday and order, say, the BrewQuay Double Buck DIPA, you’re encouraged to connect with other people — without connecting to Wi-Fi. There is no Wi-Fi. There is no television. Here’s the heads-up on its website: “We believe strongly in personal interaction!”
The latest brewery to open is the Mason Jar Lager Co. on the Varina side of town, while an affiliated restaurant — The Mason Jar Tavern — is across Main Street from the Fainting Goat. After opening his first restaurant of the same name in Holly Springs, owner Jon Pierce and his partners (his wife, sister and brother-in-law) opened the sibling restaurant in Fuquay-Varina in May 2016.
“After an incredible year and falling more in love with this town, we decided to open a brewery,” Pierce says. “The town has an incredible small-business community and tons of support from the locals.”
Fuquay-Varina, despite the small-town air of its two downtowns, isn’t so small anymore. Its population is nudging beyond 26,000, up from 7,898 people in 2000. The town’s proximity to Raleigh and Research Triangle Park has fueled a housing boom.
Along with microbreweries, the town is poised to open a new arts center at the former Stars Theater next March. The Fuquay-Varina Performing Arts Center will include a new two-story theater, galleries and a dance studio. City leaders approved $1.9 million to kickstart a mixed-use development downtown where they hope a developer will build storefronts and apartments.
Manufacturers are here, too. The biggest is John Deere Turf Care, a lawn-mowing equipment maker that is the city’s largest employer with more than 500 people. TE Connectivity, a Swiss-owned industrial components firm, employs nearly 400 workers. A familiar name in town is Bob Barker, a former newspaper publisher who opened headquarters for the Bob Barker Co. in 1986. With a payroll topping 200, the company supplies bedding, clothing, security equipment and other products to jails and prisons.
But it’s the boutiques and watering holes, the barbershops and coffee shops, the Chocolate Fix and the CupCakeBite, that make up the dash of ingredients bringing a cohesive flavor to the two towns. Take the Stick Boy Bread Co., whose owners, Josh and Katie Dies, also co-own The Mill brewpub across the street. Seated at wooden tables spaced out across a hardwood floor, people sip coffee, tear away at blueberry scones and fat sticky buns, and just … connect.
“We wanted to create a space that was community oriented,” says Katie, 35, who met her husband, a Fuquay-Varina native, at Appalachian State University. “So we found this little spot and kind of dove into it.” She says the town is “very supportive of small businesses and the whole ‘shop local’ movement.”
That’s the feel of Fuquay-Varina, where so many shop doors have stickers proclaiming, “Come In We’re Local.” The town encourages you to stay for one more cup of coffee, one more pint, one more walk down a sidewalk in one more downtown. No need to dash away so soon.