Patrons enjoy fresh brews at Burlington Beer Works’ St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
By Greg Hlavaty
Burlington may not be a famous beer town like Asheville or Milwaukee, but it now sports one of the nation’s few cooperatively owned breweries. Burlington Beer Works, which includes a restaurant, has more than 2,100 owners who have bought $100 or $200 shares in the for-profit C corporation. Each investor is limited to one voting share to ensure equal voting.
The opening in March came six years after Ian Baltutis, the city’s current mayor, Eric Henry, owner of T-shirt company TS Designs, and four partners incorporated the business and began selling ownership shares. There are fewer than 10 co-op breweries in the U.S., board member Hal Vincent says.
For those involved in the project, love of beer and good food is secondary to a “desire to create a vibrant, lively, rich downtown,” says Vincent, who is a lecturer in communications at Elon University. Like many comparable N.C. towns, center-city Burlington has its share of empty spaces, but it also has a big advantage: Locally based LabCorp owns several historic buildings. The company won’t say how many of its 3,200 Alamance County staff work downtown. Nearly 60,000 people work globally for the $15 billion lab-testing and drug-development company.
It took more than a year to settle on a location for the brewery. Once the Front Street building was selected, board member and paralegal Sharon Dent says it took about $2 million of investment for “the building, demolition and upfit, equipment … everything to get open and operational.” Unable to attract traditional financing, the group took out a $240,000 equipment loan from Piedmont Triad Regional Development and received a $25,000 grant from Burlington Downtown. The balance includes about $600,000 from investors, plus additional private financing.
The brew-pub operates on two floors: The downstairs has a livelier pub feel and the upstairs, a more relaxed dining vibe. A community room is available to host events. Plans for rooftop seating will require more funding.
As for the main attraction, head brewer Jeremy Hunt plans to offer about eight proprietary beers plus other N.C. craft beers and ciders on four other taps.
For others considering using the co-op model, Vincent cites two primary ingredients: patience and “love and passion not just for the business you want to start but for the community you want to be a part of.”