Nestled in North Carolina’s foothills, the city of Morganton hosts a business that’s small in production, but large in community impact. Fonta Flora Brewery opened for business in 2013 and is the brainchild of owners Mark and David Bennett and brewmaster Todd Boera. In an industry that increasingly sources out-of-season agricultural products, Fonta Flora sets the bar for craft brews that incorporate seasonal ingredients, most of them provided by local farmers and foragers. In just a few short years, Fonta Flora has garnered a national reputation, winning Great American Beer Festival gold medals in 2014 and 2015, and generating international interest when Boera and events coordinator Brit Josa poured Fonta Flora brews for the Mikkeller Beer Celebration in Copenhagen in May 2017. With relatively small production, Fonta Flora’s brews are not widely distributed, but high quality and limited production inspire an almost cult-like following of loyal fans, thousands of whom annually visit the brewery’s downtown tasting room. Because the brewery doesn’t ship products, when Fonta Flora announces release dates, customers drive from all across the U.S. to wait in line, often with hundreds of other people, for the opportunity to purchase a few precious bottles.
Fonta Flora Brewery’s name pays homage to a small farming village that disappeared in the late 1910s when the Southern Power Company constructed dams to provide electricity to the Catawba Valley. The utility company flooded the valley that housed the original town of Fonta Flora, creating what is now Lake James.
More recently, the area adjoining Lake James and the surrounding state park has been of special interest to the Fonta Flora Brewery owners. Brewmaster Todd Boera frequently rode his bicycle past the former Whippoorwill Dairy Farm and often dreamt of turning its abandoned structures into a farmhouse brewery. When the historic property was listed for sale, Fonta Flora Brewery purchased 8 acres, including many of the buildings. Most of the farm’s additional land — about 40 acres — was acquired by the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, which secured funding from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund and numerous private donors. Fonta Flora Brewery has agreed to convey a permanent conservation easement to the Conservancy, and the Conservancy has promised to donate its own acreage to adjoining Lake James State Park.
The acquisition of Whippoorwill Dairy Farm is a prime example of Fonta Flora Brewery’s commitment to place and people. Fonta Flora plans to grow ingredients for craft beer on the Whippoorwill property, and has been restoring the farm’s original stone buildings to house brewing facilities that will quadruple production.
Only the Best Ingredients
Fonta Flora Brewery takes pride in utilizing as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, and, during the past few years, has paid tens of thousands of dollars to farmers and foragers. While many of the fruits and vegetables acquired by the brewery are certified organic, brewery manager Sara Maya states that the primary emphasis is for locally grown products, whether cultivated with conventional or organic methods. Carrots, beets, kiwis, and many other local crops star in an intriguing list of beers. For example, two tons of strawberries went into a single production of ale dubbed “Rhythm Rug.”
While brewmaster Boera’s fermentation methods may reflect English and Belgian influences, Fonta Flora ale’s distinctive, tart flavor profile and incorporation of unique ingredients led the brewmaster to dub his products “Appalachian Wild Ale.” Maya rattles off a list of foraged edibles Boera has used, including black locust, ground ivy, and chanterelle mushrooms. When asked if any ingredient failed to produce a delicious beverage, Maya laughs and exclaims “Ramps!” The pungent wild leeks that are spring harbingers for Appalachian mountain residents star in fine dining restaurants throughout the U.S., but, according to Maya, don’t translate to drinkable beer.
Fonta Flora Brewery produces styles other than ales, and the whimsical names of some popular offerings reflect ingredients sourced from local farms. Offered in spring and fall, “Alpha vs. Beta Carotene” is a carrot IPA. “Beets, Rhymes and Life” is a beet Saison. An Appalachian-style Grisette, “Bloody Butcher” is made from more than 200 pounds of ‘Bloody Butcher’ corn, a ruby-colored heirloom dent cultivar.
Although the newly purchased Whippoorwill Farm has yet to produce crops for Fonta Flora Brewery, there are already native pawpaw and persimmon trees growing in what’s scheduled to be a thriving orchard. Supportive community members donated the trees, which members of Wake Forest University’s Frisbee Team helped plant. With no irrigation system at the farm, Sara Maya donned another hat and hand-carried water to sustain the young trees after planting. Plans are underway to cultivate garden spaces for a variety of annual fruits and vegetables, while other areas will be planted with perennial crops, including hops and herbs.
Construction at Whippoorwill Dairy Farm
Work has been underway to construct new structures and restore old buildings that are original to Whippoorwill Farm. Although the one wooden barn wasn’t salvageable and had to be demolished and rebuilt, other buildings at Whippoorwill are made of beautiful rounded field stones pulled from nearby Paddy’s Creek more than a century ago. The small stream borders the farm’s back property line, where the picturesque view of Shortoff Mountain is a beautiful focal point. As Maya leads visitors on a tour of the farm facilities, which are situated in close proximity to Lake James and a short drive from the brewery’s downtown location, it’s hard not to share her contagious enthusiasm. She explains that the large former milking parlor will hold conditioning barrels, while the newly constructed main barn now serves as a brewing and bottling facility. Other buildings are destined to house offices and event spaces. Maya sighs when she indicates the spot where her new office will be. “It’ll be nice to have a real worktable, as opposed to working at the bar on days when the tasting room is closed.”
All those months ago, as I strolled through fields lush with green grass, eyeing the expansive view of mountains and listening to Maya, it was easy to ignore the absence of a roof, open windows with no glass, and piles of rubbish left by former owners. These were small details for working visionaries like the Fonta Flora Brewery team. Since then, the buildings have come a long way, and the Whippoorwill Farm tasting room is scheduled to open any day now.
Quick to give credit to the individuals and organizations that helped Fonta Flora Brewery acquire Whippoorwill Dairy Farm, Maya believes strong community support is paramount to a successful small business. Further evidence of confident endorsement is Fonta Flora Brewery’s designation as Burke County Attraction of the Year for 2017, an award bestowed by the Burke County Tourism Authority. With the winning combination of well-crafted brews, loyal fans, and a future farmhouse brewery, Fonta Flora is a business that successfully weaves local community, history, artistry, agriculture, and hospitality.