by Karl H. Kazaks
FUQUAY VARINA, NC — Mark Doble, founder of Aviator Brewing, sat at a conference table, reviewing the blueprints for the brewery’s new five-acre production and entertainment center, complete with a 30,000 square-foot brewery, over 8,000 square feet of enclosed restaurant space, and an outdoor dining and concert venue.
The new brewery, just a few miles from the brewery’s existing location in this thriving community south of Raleigh, will permit Aviator to expand production beyond its current 18,000 barrels.
Yet, Doble said, “Pure production is not really our goal. Our goal is to create a unique and regional brand and experience — while continuing to export overseas.”
He hopes the first phase of the new facility will be completed by November to mark the 10th anniversary of the brewery’s founding.
Doble and Aviator have come a long way in the last decade. The beginnings of the brewery can safely be attributed to one thing. As Doble put it, “The economy crashed and I had no job.”
Not knowing what else to do, Doble, who started hobby brewing in 1984, went around the country picking up used brewery equipment. “I had an 18-wheeler following me around,” he said.
He bought some combi tanks, at the time “probably 15 to 20 years old,” some equipment in Colorado, and some open-top dairy tanks from Montana.
The brewery’s original location was in an airplane hangar at an old airport — a circumstance which helped drive the naming of the new business, Aviator Brewing.
“I cashed in my 401k and used the money — plus credit cards and credit card checks — to start the brewery. I had no business plan [and] no bank loans,” said Doble.
Aviator has six core beers: a Tripel; an IPA; a Kolsch; an Irish Red Ale; a Session IPA; and an American Wheat. The beer is sold in kegs and cans.
To stay with the times and meet the demands of evolving consumer tastes, Aviator developed two new series for one-off beers, its Takeoff Series and its Hangar Series.
The series, Doble said, “Gives us the opportunity to be brewers,” experimenting beyond the core beers. They also give Aviator customers the opportunity to taste brews such as a steam beer, a lime-flavored Foeder-aged saison, a jalapeño-flavored pilsner and a Hawaiian IPA.
Doble is Aviator’s BrewBoss and he develops all the beers. Daily production is overseen by three brewers, assisted by 10 other full-time production employees.
About 70 percent of Aviator’s beer is sold within North Carolina and 20 percent of it is exported to China, Italy and some other European countries. The remainder is sold throughout the Southeast, down to north Florida and Alabama.
Doble particularly appreciates selling beer to Europe, as he first became aware of brewing during his adolescent years spent in Holland and Belgium.
In addition to the brewery, Doble and Aviator also operate a taphouse, a smokehouse and a bottle shop in Fuquay Varina. In total the company presently employs about 140 people.
“I’ve learned how to manage,” Doble said. “That’s something every brewery owner needs to learn.”
Aviator’s new facility will use a 60-barrel Lehui brewhouse, with automation from Siemens, including features being developed for Aviator, such as automation of vorlauf and recipes. The equipment will be on display at the Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville this spring.
Doble will oversee the installation of the equipment himself, as he has already done four brewhouses, counting his first location, his current location (to which the brewery moved after the original facility maxed out at 1,000 barrels per year), and re-installs.
Doble will move his current 1973 refurbished canning line, with a filler and seamer, capable of 600 cans/hour, to the new facility.
The new facility will have a campus-like feel, Doble said, and be designed to be part of the community. For example, once construction is complete, Doble is hoping to relocate the town’s farmers market to a breezeway between the production building and the grassy concert arena.
The concert venue will feature a 12’ by 24’ stage and a lawn capable of holding 400 people. The venue even has a sponsor, Gold Leaf Distilling, which is a sister company to Aviator.
The brewery, which will be entirely air-conditioned, will have a stand-alone 10-barrel system where customers can come and craft their own private label beer. Doble sees it as a fun and educational team-building opportunity for businesses and organizations.
The brewery will also have a bar fronting the production floor, so customers can watch the brewing process unfold right in front of them. That bar will offer beer tapped fresh out the barrel, chilled and carbonated in line.
The production building will also house a technology incubator, where start-up companies can rent space.
“It’s good to have people around,” said Doble, explaining his decision to include the incubator in the production building.
The restaurant space will include a bakery and a coffee shop. “We’re going to wake them up and put them to sleep,” Doble said.
Down the road, in phase two of the development, Doble plans to build a skate park, as a further community attraction, and a barrel house, for aging Gold Leaf whiskey.
The new venue will also have bikes for customers to take on pub crawls, as well as a 16-person bike complete with a keg.
Doble estimates the new facility will employ an additional 75 people. But all of the current operations will continue, and even grow. The taphouse is getting a kitchen and becoming a restaurant as well, while the bottle shop will become a pizza place, complete with outdoor firepits and sand volleyball courts. Even the current production facility will remain, as a taphouse and restaurant to serve as a local gathering spot for a development of 1,200 townhouses being built right adjacent the location.
Being part of the community is a core part of Doble’s vision for his new brewery and entertainment complex. “The new brewery will be more about the experience, creating a venue where the community can come with their family and enjoy themselves,” he said. “We’ll be able to sell a lot of beer on site and extend the brand, but mainly I just like to have a good time.”