Beverage: The Art of the Ritual
Spirits. Nectar. Aphrodisiac. Therapy-in-a-cup. Elixir.
The words we ascribe to our drinks say much about the feelings we reserve for our requisite morning coffee, our afternoon soda vice, our nightcap before bed.
We love them. We even “nurse” them.
Winston-Salem entrepreneurs Krankies Airstream owner Tommy Priest, Hoots Rollerbar co-founder Eric Swaim, and Sunshine Beverage Company co-founder Keith Vest see "the beverage" as a way to capitalize opportunity and encourage local community. They have also constructed savvy business models around our love of beverages.
Priest observes the Winston-Salem social scene daily as soccer moms, artists and college kids line up for his java at three different locations in the city. He owns Krankies Airstream, a vintage airstream trailer that sits on Reynolda Road, Coffee Park, a sit-down shop behind the airstream, and another Coffee Park in the Milton Rhodes Art Center downtown. The college anthropology major thrives on bringing people together and he terms coffee “the great equalizer".
"It’s conversational. Coffee doesn’t know socioeconomic status. Everybody can share a cup of coffee together."
Priest’s passion for java extends beyond the social. He believes the beverage helps combat type II diabetes and cancer. He also sees clear ties between coffee and the Enlightenment. Priest quotes liberally from Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From. In it, Johnson postulates that historically coffee houses served as the impetus for reason, partially for their convivial atmosphere. They provided 17th and 18th century coffee drinkers a space for new—and as the caffeinated provider—clearer ideas, an aberration from the days when alcohol served as the go-to drink in the absence of clean public water.
“Coffee,” said Priest, “is the drink of thinkers.” According to Priest, it is also the drink of planners and doers.
In 2012, The Children’s Home, a child service agency and working farm directly across from Coffee Park, was at risk of closing down. Coffee Park quickly became a meeting space for concerned community members who were trying to save the farm. Efforts were successful and last year, the Children’s Home chose the shop as their new location from which to sell the farm’s produce. Coffee Park has also served as the temporary home for the Piedmont Poetry Slam, the site for memorial services and community gatherings of all kinds.
Priest sees Winston as a “slower, gentler jewel of northwest North Carolina." He says the city provides a friendly environment for organizing social gatherings, and connecting businesses with nonprofits, two roles that Priest clearly relishes.
“Even if they leave [Winston-Salem], they always come back,” Priest said.
Eric Swaim did, anyway.
During a sunny Sunday happy hour, Swaim sat down at the bar to talk. Winston-raised, he used to be a traveling musician. He considers the founders of Hoots Roller Bar—which include himself, Eric Weyer and Ryan Pritts—as a bunch of “writers, musicians and artists.”
Where they’ve chosen to settle is timeless yet hard to place. Maybe that’s because the company is enclosed within a 1930s warehouse along with an eclectic array of fellow tenants in what is now known as the West End Mill Works. The area was formerly home to a flour mill before being closed in the 1950s. Until the recent renovations (completed in 2013), the area was better known for drug trafficking and prostitution. Today the area is thriving. There’s The Porch Kitchen and Cantina, (a TexMex, Austin-style restaurant), The Olio glassblowing studio, Sutler’s Spirits Co. (homemade liquors), The Breathing Room yoga studio and 8 Points Muay Thai kickboxing.
As we speak at the bar, it’s hard not to be swept up with this vision of community supporting the arts. A constellation of patrons sit around the wood-paneled bar, chatting like they know each other. The vibe is noisy enough to be festive, but quiet enough to hear beyond the jazz music being funneled in over the speakers. The mixologist behind the bar has long blonde dreadlocks that hang down to her waist. A window faces the mirror, casting light onto the sage green painted walls.
Swaim sees Hoots as true to Winston-Salem’s roots, less Western North Carolina and more “rock-n-roll” and “industrial.” No matter how widely Hoots eventually distributes its beer, Swaim says he will strive to keep it Winston-centered and Winston-inspired.
The company is open to a wide spectrum of clientele: “The approachable beer geeks. The blue-collar artist. The everyman.”
If Priest envisions coffee as “the drink of thinkers,” Swaim has a slightly different philosophical bent about Hoots’ beer, which is singlehandedly brewed by Dave McClure.
“Beer promotes conversation,” Swaim said, alluding to Hoots’ commitment to the community.
Sunshine Beverage Company, the brainchild of Keith Vest and Joe Parrish, considers this conversation a community one. Vest said he sees the folks of Krankies Airstream and Hoots Roller Bar as beverage “brethren.”
The company operates out of The Variable in the West End, a refurbished antiques store with a brick façade, Christmas lights and a Friday happy hour. Walking in, it feels like a block party is brewing beneath the surface. The energy is frenetic but contained, like the way students behave with a substitute teacher.
The company’s first drink, Buck O’Hairen’s Legendary Sunshine taps into Winston-Salem’s roots by offering the tall tale of O’Hairen, a North Carolina mountain moonshiner born in the early 1830s who concocted an antidote to hangovers and called it “Sunshine.”
The carbonated and caffeinated energy drink boasts “better for you” ingredients (which include vitamin B12, electrolytes and a modest amount of caffeine) and packaging that skews “Mark Twain,” said Vest.
It’s the ultimate Southern drink, Vest said, "the kind of drink your grandma would be proud of." The company markets its beverage as a mix of intentional taste and tall-tale storytelling.
Sunshine serves as both a ritual for some and as a special treat for others.
“Some people gift it at a party instead of a bottle of wine…[it] has a specialness to it that’s different from skim milk,” Vest quipped.
Thinkers. Drinkers. Conversationalists.
We love our beverages, but they also shape us into who we become. Winston-Salem entrepreneurs are here to meet you right where you are.
Come, have a drink.