A group of friends opened the town’s newest watering hole in August
Words and photography by Hannah Lee
Update: Eno River Brewing opened Aug. 10 along the Hillsborough Riverwalk. Some of its first beers on tap include 10,000 Days of Summer Watermelon Gose, Second Pick (a tart strawberry wheat beer), and a Helles-Style Lager. The brewery also has cider, wine, snacks and a partnership with The Cheese Shop (offering grab-and-go handpicked cheese boxes with crackers, fig jam, almonds and pickles).
As you approach the unassuming blue building at 329 Allison St., you hear it first: the rushing water of the Eno River babbling as it bends its way toward downtown Hillsborough. And it’s that sound – or, rather, the proximity of it – that first gave Stephanie Crowe and Jason Crowe their vision.
We could start our dream here.
The husband-and-wife team operated their NC Drainage business at the property for several years, but by April 2021, decided the building could be put to better use. Steps away from the Riverwalk, this was a place that could be supported by foot traffic, by wanderers and walkers looking for a good time. So, what kind of good time did the Crowes have in mind?
A brewery, something Hillsborough has been without since Mystery Brewing shuttered its doors in 2018. The Crowes invited two other couples – their Hillsborough neighbors Spencer Welborn and Blair Welborn, plus Judson Welborn and Natalie Rice – to visit the space that summer, and they too invested in the vision. “We were immediately blown away,” Natalie says, “by its beauty and potential.” And just like that, the aptly named Eno River Brewing was born.
What followed has been a yearlong (and counting) design process. That began with NC Drainage relocating to Graham, followed by the six co-owners collaborating on how to flip the space. They plan to replace entrances with roll-up glass garage doors, for natural light and fresh air, build out the back patio with heaters and fans and add lush landscaping, with plenty of pockets of seating for customers. Those features, plus an 18-foot awning out back, are all about maximizing the space on a year-round basis. (The brewery’s design plans are still under review from the town, but should hopefully be approved in the weeks to come.)
“We’ve all traveled for beer and extensively sought out craft beer experiences,” Natalie says. “And we’ve done it at all walks of life, as single people, married people, with kids, without kids. So one thing that was important to us was creating a space that is welcoming. No matter what.”
A part of that means eliminating most of the fence that surrounds the property, so that anyone walking along the Riverwalk can stumble upon the brewery – a five-minute stroll from Gold Park. Natalie says they’re working with Katie Murray at Orange County Arts Commission to potentially collaborate on an art project for the remaining fence that adjoins the Eno River Mill and the brewery’s parking lot.
The idea is to remove this barrier between the path and the building, where people can just “enjoy the breeze and natural sounds,” head brewer Alex Leonard says. “And the view!” Natalie adds.
Alex entered the picture earlier this year, after working as a leader experimental brewer at Trophy Brewing in Raleigh for three years. Before that, he served as a brewer at 4 Hands Brewing Company in St. Louis, Missouri, for nearly five years.
“I was actually looking for jobs for a buddy of mine, and I saw this posting,” he says. “And [I thought], ‘Well, I don’t know if this is right for him, but this is really interesting for me,’… to help build something from the ground up.”
He says that 95% of production will be made on-site, starting off with a few hundred barrels their first year – around 300-600 kegs.
In fact, just two weeks ago, Eno River Brewing – with the help of Alex – collaborated with BKS Artisan Ales in Kansas City, Missouri, to release the first beer under its name. It’s a light American adjunct lager – hinting toward the first of many “drinkable” beers to be produced at Eno River Brewing.
“I really want to dial in on sessionable beers, stuff that is lower ABV, but still very flavorful,” Alex says. “Because we are in Hillsborough, we imagine a lot of people will want to travel here … So [we don’t] necessarily want it to be like Bacchanalia all week long, but for people to be able to come out after a hike at Occoneechee, have a couple beers and get home safely.”
That echoes the rest of the team’s hopes: Eno River Brewing aims to be a spot that’s innately a part of the Hillsborough experience.
“As my husband often says – I’m going to totally quote him here: ‘What the world needs right now is more craft beer,’” Natalie says. “And he’s not just meaning the literal liquid craft beer – that’s great, too – but he also means the community that craft beer creates.”