Mike Karnowski is the cofounder and brewer of Zebulon Artisan Ales. The first thing he’ll tell you is that he’s a curmudgeon. He’s got opinions.
On a weekday morning, Karnowski is inside his 1,400-square-foot brewery that also houses the taproom. It’s a tan-brick building with two large garage-bay doors that open to a small parking lot in Weaverville, a small town about 10 miles north of Asheville. On this day, like most days, he’s thinking about doing something different.
He’s had a career in beer, but this is his first brewery. He wants to head into retirement from this job one day, but that’s a ways off, so in the intervening time, Karnowski wants to keep things interesting. He doesn’t want to fall into a rut, doesn’t want to become just another brewery.
“Maybe on January 1 of each year, I’ll announce a new reimagining for the brewery, and it’ll last for a year,” he says. “So we do Czech lagers for a year and nothing but. Then when the next year comes around, we’ll switch to just Edwardian-era English ales. I want something that keeps me from burning out.”
Karnowski is quick to talk about burnout. Brewing is fun but also stressful. The pressures of owning a business or being responsible for the product that keeps the lights on puts strains on folks in this industry. He’s seen it firsthand. He’s gone through it. Now that he has his own place, he’s determined to keep it interesting and to keep finding new ways to get the creative juices flowing.
Raised in an Air Force family, Karnowski joined the army out of high school and while stationed in Washington State, started homebrewing. Later moving around the country, he landed in New York where he met his wife, Gabrielle. Quickly tiring of the city, they moved to New Orleans where for 13 years, he owned a homebrew-supply shop. They left following Hurricane Katrina and landed in Asheville, where Karnowski started working as a specialty brewer for Green Man Brewery.
He wanted to open his own brewery but saw a couple of hurdles. The first, he says is the human interaction: When he worked in retail, he didn’t always love the customer interaction. Then, of course, there was the money.
“The number you always hear is a million dollars,” he says. “If you want to open a brewery, it’s going to cost a million dollars. I didn’t want to go that route.”
On a trip to Chicago, Karnowski and his wife were touring breweries and visited Pipeworks Brewing Co. Karnowski found himself charmed when they happened across a nondescript cinder-block building with no signage and just a brewery—no taproom—inside. Something clicked for him. In an age of flashy showpiece breweries and large taprooms, it was still possible to be small and solitary.
The business plan called for the couple to finance the project themselves. No outside money, no investors, no one to answer to but themselves, and—most important—no debt hanging over their heads.
“I had this idea that I’d find the same kind of building, black out the windows and just brew beer, interesting farmhouse ales, and then distribute it out,” he says. “No visitors.” His wife knew better, of course, and reminded him that people would still come by, so a little taproom was necessary, but they could limit the hours.
Zebulon is open on Friday and Saturday from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. That’s it. Just 10 hours a week. The couple staffs the place themselves (they have no employees) and offers a 2-ounce pour and a 6-ounce pour of their beers. The smaller one retails for $1 so a visitor can get all nine beers, a little more than a pint’s worth, for less than $10. The only full pint of beer available is an imperial one, $5 for a historical beer poured from an antique beer engine.
“If you’re going to insist on having a pint, I’m going to make sure it’s a proper one,” he says.
The taproom now accounts for about 40 percent of his business.
Sure, this model requires a lot of glass washing, but for a few hours a week and the chance to move bottles at retail, Karnowski says it’s worth it.
Like most brewery owners these days, he’s seen the shift in the marketplace and has needed to adjust. Zebulon’s original business plan called for distribution entirely in 750ml bottles. When the brewery opened its doors in late 2015, that wasn’t much of a problem, especially for a brewery that made about 300 barrels on a 7-barrel system. In recent months, however, Karnowski has seen the drop off in sales at retail.
Once it was no problem to move five cases at an account in short order. Now the single case that is placed on an increasingly crowded shelf is sitting around for a longer period of time.
For now, with a focus on historical styles—many done in consultation with historian Ron Pattinson—along with saisons and wild ales brewed with coolship-fermented wort, Karnowski is moving to the smaller 500ml bottles but says that he won’t move to cans.
“I just can’t see myself ever putting a 100 percent Brettanomyces-fermented saison into a can,” he says.
He is also reticent to serve IPAs, but when he does, it goes by the name “Another Stupid NEIPA.” Karnowski says it keeps people on their toes, questioning the status quo and going beyond the norm.
With dozens of breweries in the area, if he served what the majority of others were also serving, Zebulon would be just another brewery on a map. Finding new inspirations more through the culinary world than the brewing industry, looking back in time, and trying his hand at something experimental have allowed him to not be nailed to a specific genre.
The taproom hours that some might see as limited are actually working to Zebulon’s benefit. Many of the breweries in the area don’t open until later in the afternoon, so Zebulon is able to get the visitors and beer tourists who are looking for a lunchtime beer. Karnowski also thinks that the limited hours concentrate when his local visitors come in for a beer or bottles. If he were open more days, it’s not clear that he would get more customers, just that the folks would spread out when they stopped by.
Despite his assertions that he can be difficult, most who encounter Karnowski find him to be thoughtful, engaged, and eager to share his perspective both in brewing philosophy and recipe execution. With the exception of the IPA, the beers that the brewery releases are dedicated to specific people, much in the way an author dedicates a book.
These offer a glimpse into what is moving the brewery at any particular moment. Homages to artists, locals, family members, or musicians are a way to connect with a larger community and even expand drinkers’ horizons beyond the rim of a glass.
For the brewery itself, the first ten names that Karnowski wanted for his brewery were taken—a common problem these days—so he had to get creative. He thought he had finally settled on one, a word that he had heard used to describe a disciplined sushi chef, but abandoned it when he actually couldn’t reliably remember it in conversations or thoughts. Zebulon was the name of a North Carolina governor during the Confederacy-era, and there’s a road named after him not far from the brewery. While Karnowski admits he doesn’t necessarily love the ties to the former governor’s politics, the name is easy to remember, stands out a bit, and those who aren’t familiar with the historic name see it as a little bit sci-fi or faraway fantastical.
While Karnowski has a 7-barrel brewhouse, with fermentors to match as well as a mixture of puncheons and barrels, he is not always using the full capacity of the brewery. He calls it a mix between nano-brewery and commercial brewery. Sometimes he’s only brewing ten to fifteen gallons at a time for taproom releases or specialty recipes.
“It’s a nice happy medium for me,” he says. “I’d rather brew more often than just sit on beers waiting for them to be ready.”