The Mountaineer

By Becky Johnson

September 28, 2021

It was a mere six weeks ago when Kevin Sandefur stood on a hill above Canton watching the floodwaters rage through downtown as darkness closed in.

Hours earlier, Sandefur and his crew at BearWaters Brewing were sloshing through knee-deep water, making a noble effort to stave off the rising water with a bucket brigade.

“We were actually fighting it pretty good, but then it was like a tidal wave. So we killed the power and abandoned ship,” Sandefur recounted. “It’s not just the water, but the stuff that’s in the water. Railroad ties were hitting me and knocking me down as I waded my way out.”

Now, soaking wet, having narrowly escaped, Sandefur’s thoughts raced ahead to what awaited when the sun rose the next morning. Did he lose his equipment? Would the building be salvageable? And what about the $50,000 in beer fermenting in the tanks?

Sandefur woke early, pulled on a pair of heavy canvas work pants, and headed for the brewery, or what was left of it. On the way in, he swung by Tractor Supply to buy muck boots for his employees.

“I pretty much wiped them out,” he said.

He used the rest of his drive time to make three critical calls: lining up a backhoe, a generator and a roll-off trash container. Having witnessed Hurricane Andrew while serving in the military in Florida, Sandefur likened the morning-after scene to nuclear aftermath.

“So I knew what we were in for, but when I got there, I had all these employees looking at me going, ‘What do we do? Where do we start?’” Sandefur recalled.

He never expected his experience in the military and as an ER nurse to come in handy quite like this.

“Tons of people were coming up and asking, ‘Are you OK?’ But I had switched all that emotion off. I went into triage mode. It just kicks in,” he said.

‘We’re here to help’

Sandefur barely had time to erect a pop-up tent to serve as a recovery command center before an army of volunteers started arriving.

“I didn’t even know their names, but they just showed up and said, ‘We love you guys and want to help,’” Sandefur said. “They wanted to make sure we would survive.”

Volunteers and employees spent four days scraping a foot of sludge from the building, sorting through what could be saved, hosing it all down and disinfecting it.

Meanwhile, one of Sandefur’s top priorities were the tanks full of beer — $50,000 worth.

“If it gets warm, it’s destroyed. We knew we had to protect that,” he said.

But things looked grim. The power was out, and even worse, the chiller that keeps the tanks cold had been fried.

“That’s the lifeblood of the brew tanks,” Sandefur said. “So we put the word out to the Asheville Brewery Alliance that we were in trouble. And the breweries, being like they are, were ready to step up and help.”

Sierra Nevada sent one of their technicians over to repair the chiller and get it hooked up to the generator Sandefur had ordered on his morning drive in. Wicked Weed offered up space in their fridges to store full kegs. Highlands Brewing took dirty kegs off BearWaters’ hands to wash them. And Frog Level Brewing sent its employees over to help with the mucking out.

“We had incredible support,” Sandefur said. “It was this amazing outpouring of people.”

That outpouring included two women from a female-owned brewery an hour away in Columbus.

“They jumped in their truck with squeegees and food and water and beer, and drove here and started helping. I’d never met them before but they were like, ‘We’re here to help,’” Sandefur said.

‘Long road back’

As the whirlwind from the initial clean-up died down, the financial realities of a prolonged closure coupled with rebuilding began to sink in. There was a mortgage to pay, payroll to make, equipment to replace, and a litany of construction and repair costs — all without revenue coming in at the Canton location.

Luckily, BearWaters had opened a second retail location in Maggie Valley last year.

“Maggie has been a total blessing and Godsend for us, because it’s our only source of income right now. So that’s been floating us,” Sandefur said.

Sandefur has flood insurance, but he’s locked in a battle over what’s covered. It’s clear, though, that the claim will fall short — nor will it compensate for the loss in revenue from being closed or staff expenses during the clean-up.

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs,” Sandefur said.

The national supply chain logjam posed an unexpected hurdle.

“We’ve had to have things flown in from California and Texas. You have to really hunt for stuff,” Sandefur said.

During the rebuild, Sandefur made some improvements that had been on the wishlist for a while — more fire pits on the patio, more seating indoors, and a livened up color scheme. There’s even a new mural on the wall courtesy of volunteer artists with the Haywood County Arts Council.

“It’s super cool,” Sandefur said.

BearWaters is just nine years old, but is Haywood County’s oldest brewery. It began humbly in a glorified warehouse off Russ Avenue in Waynesville in 2012, where it remained before purchasing and renovating the Canton building in 2016. Sandefur built BearWaters from the ground up once.

“But it’s hard to build something twice,” he said. “It’s been a long road back.”

Early warning

The Pigeon River has always been one of BearWaters Brewing’s best assets — setting the scene for sunny days on the riverside patio and delivering thirsty tubers to its doorstep.

When Canton was swamped by the floods of ‘04, it was chalked up to a 100-year flood. But the furor unleashed on the town by the river just 16 years later has gotten Sandefur thinking: why did they get taken by surprise again?

“If a catastrophic event like that is unfolding upriver, we need some type of warning system to alert people downriver,” Sandefur said. “The biggest thing that haunts me is I would have spent that last 20 minutes doing completely different things had I known what was coming. We would not have wasted our time doing a bucket brigade.”

Sandefur is just thankful, however, that his employees got out in time. And even more thankful that the brewery had closed early the day of the floods due to a town sewer line issue.

“I think there’s a little bit of divine intervention that happened, because it could have been so much worse,” Sandefur said. “If we had been full of customers, it would have been mass pandemonium. It came so fast and rose so quickly, within 10 minutes, we were overwhelmed with water.”

Here at last

The past six weeks have been a race against the clock to reopen by fall. After all, a tank of special-batch Oktoberfest beer brewed up in August before the flood hit is just begging to be tapped.

“It’s the busiest month of the year,” Sandefur said of October.

Sandefur has been charging toward an Oct. 1 reopening as the do-or-die date to get revenue flowing again before falling too far in the hole.

While the slog is almost over, a lot still has to fall in place before the doors can open at noon on Friday as hoped. A host of inspections must be cleared this week: a final building inspection, FEMA flood compliance, a health inspection and fire marshal inspection.

Sandefur is hopeful, and has an Oktoberfest event planned for Saturday, Oct. 2 — the same day as a Balsam Range flood benefit concert in downtown Canton.

For the staff of BearWaters, however, the event they’re most looking forward to is a private party on Monday for the volunteers who got them to the finish line.

“That will be a pretty emotional night for us to have those people who helped us clean come back and have a beer and to say, ‘Thanks for all you’ve done,’” Sandefur said. “We owe everything to the people that just showed up out of the blue.”