In 2010, Max Saxon and Ian Baltutis, the mayor of Burlington, had an idea of starting a brewery in downtown Burlington. Little did they know that this idea would become North Carolina’s first cooperative brewery. “It took five and a half years from the time of the initial idea to the opening of the doors,” said Tracy Schmidt, general manager of Burlington Beer Works. During a Burlington Downtown Corporation meeting in early 2013, Ian began to discuss the idea of the brewery with the community. It was then that Eric Henry, a member of the BDC and President of TS Designs, partnered with Ian to join the concepts of cooperative and brewery, creating a place for the community to invest in and enjoy. Today, the restaurant/brewery has about 2,300 owners and partners who are not only members of the community, but also businesses that include farms around the area.
“It’s been amazing to get to know the community on such a personal level, local farmers included,” Tracy said, “its been really neat to see what happens when you bring people together who all have a similar vision and want the best for this community.” Prior to her time at Burlington Beer Works, Tracy was involved with the Alamance Food Collaborative where she met many local farmers that the restaurant works with today. No less than 60 percent of the food served at the co-op comes from farms in North Carolina and, during peak seasons, it can be as high as 90 percent sourced locally.
“Our priority is to serve products as close to home as possible,” she said, “the farmers we partner with are like family. I have visited their farms and they come to the restaurant to eat. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
The menu at Burlington Beer Works rotates new recipes in and out on a seasonal basis. “It all depends on what the farmers have on hand and how we can rotate and play with some of our favorite dishes,” Tracy says. A few crowd favorites from the restaurant are its fried green tomatoes, cheese and charcuterie board and N.C. market fish. One of Tracy’s favorite dishes is the Glencoe burger with bacon jam. “Everyone loves our bacon jam,” Tracy said, “and I always joke with customers who rave about it that I hope our restaurant leaves more of a legacy behind than bacon jam.”
The brewery side of the co-op follows suit with the restaurant because all beers are made on-site by the head brewer Jeremy Hunt. With over 12 years of experience and countless recipes, Jeremy has both the passion and drive to continue developing seasonal beers to showcase at the restaurant. “Jeremy is awesome,” Tracy says, “he has such a passion and tells me constantly that he doesn’t feel like this is a job. We are very lucky to have him.” Some of the most popular beers the restaurant serves are the Original 13 American IPA, Tracy’s favorite, and AKW Coffee Stout. They also work with Botanist and Barrel in Cedar Grove who provide them with a few ciders.
In addition to sourcing locally, Burlington Beer Works takes pride in the fact that they recycle grains and food scraps back to the farmers they work with. “Any leftover grains that come from the brewery are given back to cows at Wilkshire Farms and our food scraps go to feed some of our farmers chickens and pigs,” Tracy said, “and when all you have to do at the end of the day is take out the trash cans, you know you are doing what you are supposed to.” Due to this well-rounded partnership with local farms, Burlington Beer Works has little to no food waste.
Although the restaurant and brewery has a well-established customer base and continues to gain new fans daily, the Burlington Beer Works Board of Directors had no idea what kind of unconventional challenges would hit them two weeks shy of their one year anniversary. “We first opened the doors to our restaurant in March of 2019,” Tracy said, “and less than a year later we were being told that we were now under COVID-19 restrictions.” From the style of the menu to having no seats at the bar and expanding their outdoor seating, COVID-19 has certainly changed the way that Burlington Beer Works operates, but, thanks to the support of the community, the restaurant has not had to shut down and, being open to the public at 50% capacity, is finally bouncing back to pre-COVID sales volume. “I can honestly say that COVID-19 has forced me and the rest of our staff to work harder than we ever have, but right now we are succeeding,” Tracy said, “we have been able to service our community through expanding our outdoor seating into the streets of downtown on the weekends and even allowing pop-up entertainment on the corners for people to enjoy while they eat.” The entire staff is grateful to the community for their constant support.
In the future, Burlington Beer Works will continue supporting local businesses and farmers as much as possible. “First and foremost its about building relationships with those farmers and individuals, finding a way to put a face to your food, and always remembering to say thank you” Tracy said, “I always say that business breathes business, so not only are we helping support one another, but we are boosting our local community and economy.” Currently, the restaurant is working with farmers through the planting season to communicate what they need for the coming year to meet demand. Additionally, Tracy is opening a wine bar across the street, Tanner’s, that will partner with Burlington Beer Works to provide drinks and desserts for customers to enjoy. “It’s all about the community,” Tracy said, “the more we can reach out to them and create an atmosphere they want to come back to the better off we all will be.”