Life in Our Foothills February 2022 – Iron Key Brewing Company
Published 2:17 pm Monday, February 21, 2022
There aren’t many towns of a thousand people who have their own brewery. And probably no town has a brewery situated like Iron Key Brewing Company. Long-time Polk County residents know that this site down Locust Road was the former home of the Polk County 4H organization for over 50 years. Many area folks have enjoyed the barbecue chicken dinners the 4H would sell as regular fundraisers and local youngsters have benefited from the amazing programs offered.
But born and bred Polk Countians might remember that before a bunch of lively kids were learning some life skills on this site, the location was a bit more sinister. It was a lot more ominous. The popular brewery now cheerfully occupies the building that used to be “The Big House” of what was once a North Carolina prison. Other buildings of the old prison compound remain. The dining hall and laundry buildings sit behind the Big House. And this Big House is not to be confused with the University of Michigan’s famed football stadium. A few yards away is a small brick building that served as solitary confinement. A peek inside reveals a couple of cells that might remind you of a scene of any of a dozen prison movies. Cool Hand Luke comes to mind. Look around and you’ll see remnants of the barbed wire fence, searchlights, and even an old guard tower barely visible in the woods that surround their six and one-half acres.
It takes people with vision to see how a prison turned 4H center could be repurposed into a brewery and restaurant. Taphouse and operations manager Chris Balliew had been in the food and beverage industry for several years before being part of the original group of founders of Iron Key. He and his friend Dave Erb, who is the Iron Key Brewmeister, had bounced the idea of starting a brewery through their minds on several occasions. The dream was there but working out the myriad of questions and obstacles seemed a bit daunting. Make that overwhelmingly formidable. But then business partners Bob and Deb Bundy got involved. The momentum gained speed and it couldn’t be stopped and there was no looking back.
Chris remembers the day just a couple of years ago standing behind the main building with Bob staring at a big mud puddle. To Bob, that mud puddle was just a stand-in for where he could see putting in a large patio for outdoor dining. Bob could see tearing out the prison wall at that point and putting in an oversized garage door to bring the indoors out and vice versa. Within a few hours, Bob had mapped out plans for what would become Iron Key Brewing Company. Recently, Rodney and Julie Dofort have joined up to help move the business forward. Rodney serves as managing partner.
Just about anyone in the beverage and food industry can tell you all the reasons for not opening a restaurant, let alone a brewery. But the Iron Key Brewing team was not going to give up before giving this a chance. With Bob’s vision and the hard work of a dedicated and talented staff, the doors opened on August 14, 2020. Timing wasn’t the best. Covid was then, as it is now, a major factor affecting the daily lives of everyone. The restaurant, like most “non-essential” businesses, had to shutter its doors on a couple of occasions. And at Iron Key, that door is a heavy-gauge steel door that takes a massive key to lock it tight. It didn’t stay locked for long.
In a year and a half, Iron Key Brewing Company has already established itself as a popular eatery and brewery. Like just about every other business, finding and retaining a workforce is crucial. It’s not always easy. There have been challenges and at times the restaurant has had to modify its menu to make everything work.
Iron Key is proud of their team. Everyone is central to business decisions from discussing new menu items, to choosing names for their brews and dishes (most names are very cleverly prison-themed), and batting around ideas to make everything better. While every team member is often pressed into service for a variety of tasks, main duties are divided up. Amanda Bellew (no relation to Chris and her last name is spelled differently) helps drive business by serving as social media maven including publishing a weekly newsletter. Amanda and Emily Costine manage the floor operations which might include serving behind the bar, checking on orders, and canning up a crowler (32 ounces of your favorite Iron Key brew) to go. Andrea Erb is the kitchen and office manager while Travis Bradshaw is the chef. And over behind the bars is where Dave Erb and Autumn Dawn work their Brewmeister magic. They have developed over a dozen unique brews that are available on any given visit. Iron Key also has a couple of guest brews on tap along with their special mimosa of the month that the team has concocted and is especially appreciated by guests who aren’t into craft beer.
Iron Key has minimally advertised. They already have a steady stream of regulars who come from not just the immediate area but from several adjoining counties. And it’s easy to spot license plates from three or four states out in the parking lot. The parking lot can get full, but there’s adjacent overflow parking for after hours. Future plans call for some of the property to be used for parking. Iron Key is always thinking about other ways to make their establishment even more inviting. They offer one buck off flights on Wednesday nights (a flight being your choice of four different four-ounce pours) and Tim Daniels runs a lively game of trivia on Thursday nights.
Iron Key is also offering some beer outreach. They are the only truly local brewery at the Tryon Beer Fest. Brewer Dave Erb and Chris have been out to Emberglow Outdoor Resort in the Mill Spring community to discuss homebrewing and the art and science of beer making with campers. Andrea and Rodney have opened their facility on the first and third Saturday mornings during the cold months to host the Columbus Winter Farm Market.
The Iron Key team loves what they do. It shows from the moment you walk through those heavy doors. The word “guard” might be printed on some staff t-shirts, but these staff members are here to make your confinement a pleasant experience. And unlike the old prison that operated here for 25 years, you can leave when you want to. But why would you?
Iron Key Brewing Company is located at 135 Locust Street in downtown Columbus.
828/ 802-1045. Check out the current menu and brew options and sign up for their newsletter at their website: https://ironkeybrewing.com. Iron Key opens at 4 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, at 11 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and at noon on Sunday. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram.
A Word from the Brewmeisters, Dave Erb & Autumn Dawn
From a brewery perspective, Iron Key focuses on German and American style ales and lagers.
Our flagship beers are Saluda Road Pale Ale and Big House IPA. Saluda Road is named after
the Saluda Road Project (better known to locals as Highway 176) which was a project of the
inmates were housed at this location when it was a prison. Big House is named after the building it is brewed in. Lockup Lager, Konjugal Kolsch, and Dawg House Brown are also very popular with the inmates.