As breweries go, Sanctuary Brewing Company is in its own league. The all-vegan microbrewery has been working to win hearts, minds and taste buds since opening its doors in a cozy little North Carolina town two years ago.
Founded by partners Lisa McDonald and Joe Dinan, the brewery is one of the first in Hendersonville, N.C., just 30 miles outside of Asheville (aka Beer City, USA) — and the only one dedicated to advocacy for humans and animals alike.
Set in a 4,000-square-foot former warehouse with towering ceilings and twinkly lights, beer-istas serve cleverly named beers from 20 rotating taps: the Weekend Joe Coffee Stout on nitro; the Raspberry Beret Saison; the Karma Kanic Coffee Porter; and the Lil’ Sebastian Pale Ale, to name a few.
In addition to beer, the brewery is known for live local music, puppy-cuddling pup crawls, Thanksgiving celebrations, free meal Sundays, yoga with cats and a lengthy list of other philanthropic pursuits.
To learn more about the little brewery that’s breaking the mold, Paste spoke to co-owner McDonald about how SBC came to be. Note: the author has an established relationship with SBC.
Paste: How did Sanctuary Brewing Company get started?
Lisa McDonald: I was in legal consulting for close to 20 years. At the same time Joe was in accounting and he got this crazy interest in beer. So he bought a homebrew kit, taught himself to make beer and absolutely loved it — and hated accounting. He was totally dissatisfied with his job so I said quit and get into the bar industry. Then we moved down here and bought a farm and I became kind of disenfranchised with my career, too.
Basically, we moved to save animals and grow food, so we’d starting doing that, we had a bunch of dogs and cats and chickens. And we were talking one day and I said, wouldn’t it be cool if we could open a brewery and save a bunch of money and start a sanctuary? We both kind of looked at each other like, this is it. We thought we’d see if we could get Sanctuary Brewing so I filed the copyright the next day and we just started planning.
We wrote a business plan, but it was still kind of like a pipe dream. Then I quit my job and I went to Haiti and I had this whole realization, like, I can’t live my life like this anymore. Part of the business plan was to look at properties for cost estimates and we found our location just doing research. We thought, we have to do this because if we don’t it’s going to end up being the biggest regret of our lives. So we were totally not ready to do it and we did and that’s how we started.
Paste: How did you originally become vegan?
LM: I lived in Australia for a while and when I came back I didn’t have anywhere to go so I moved in with two of my best friends Kelly and Shawn. They were vegan at the time. I always loved animals but I hadn’t made the connection, I just didn’t get that I loved dogs and had a cow on my plate. So I moved in with them and Kelly was an awesome cook so I thought, I’ll just eat what they ate for awhile and see what I think. I never went back.
I think when you make that change, regardless of what your reasons are, you start to become more informed. You start to become more passionate about animals and finding out about their torture — then there are health implications and environmental implications. I was still vegetarian for about eight years. We had chickens so we would eat their eggs, and with cheese I was like — oh that animal is fine. In truth I think dairy cows are mistreated more than any other animal. It’s probably the biggest atrocity that humans perform on a daily basis.
So I went vegan, found vegan cheese, love vegan cheese and I don’t hurt any animals anymore.
Paste: What made you decide SBC was going to be a vegan business?
LM: From the beginning I said this business is going to be an extension of who we are; I’m not compromising to please other people. So we decided to make it vegan. It’s been extremely positive. Easter Sunday of 2016 was the first time I made a free vegan meal for the public and it went over so well and I liked doing it so much that we’ve done it every Sunday since. So it’s kind of a double win. You can feed people and families who otherwise might not have a hot meal that week. Then the people who do have money and can donate for the food are being introduced to really hearty, rich, vegan meals which changes the perception of what we eat. Last week we did hot dogs and chili and I heard a guy say, “I don’t care if it’s vegan, it’s delicious.” That kind of thing. I think people think we sacrifice so much and it’s just not the case so every time I can kind of expose that element of veganism I really like doing that.
If you really want to be a kind person in the world, you cannot participate in suffering, even if it’s removed from you. It’s easy to look at how you treat your fellow man and say, I’m a kind person, but if you’re ingesting torture you’re carrying that around with you by extension. I think if you want to be nice to people you have to be nice to animals. Compassion is universal, it doesn’t relate to one species over another.
Paste: Considering a lot of your customers aren’t vegan themselves, how have people reacted?
LM: It’s been very positive. You get an internet troll every now and again but that’s very few and far between. A lot of people love dogs and cats and they really admire what we do for those animals and the vegan thing is just on the side. And then there are other people who are extremely passionate about veganism. Those people think it’s pretty miraculous that we built an extremely liberal brewery in a very conservative town and it’s vegan and we’re successful at it. I think that’s because it is an extension of ourselves. We’re not bullshitting anybody, this is who we are. We try to do some good in the world, not cause any harm, be generous, work hard, and I think that shows. I also think that mitigates any negativity even from hunters or meat eaters — they appreciate the fact that we’re trying to do some good.
Paste: What are some of the different things you do to help people and animals?
LM:Let’s talk about the human element first. We have something called the kindness wall which is a place where people can donate items or they can pick them up. There’s a big homeless population in Henderson County which I don’t think most people realize — and I think it’s got to be pretty humiliating to have to ask somebody for things that are basic necessities in this world, like a coat. So the reason we did it outside of the brewery is so people can take whatever they need at any time.
In the summer we take the donations from our free meals and we use that money to buy essentials bags and put those out on that wall. They’re bags filled with things like deodorant, toothpaste, aspirin, hand gel, tampons, water bottles — anything people might need. We fill those bags and hang them outside. We’ll post on social media like, “Hey we just restocked the essentials bags!” and they’ll go in like two days. So you know people need them and they’re taking them and it feels great.
In addition to those two things, in our first year of business we raised over $10,000 for different charities. One of those being Ales for ALS; we made over $4,000 for them in one day.
That’s the human side of it. We also work with a number of different sanctuaries and shelters and rescue groups so we for animal advocacy we’ve probably raised another $6,000 or so, and adopted out about 150 dogs and cats.
In addition we run a microsanctuary out of our home where we have at any given time between 12 and 15 of our own animals, and we probably foster another 40 or so every year. We save hundreds of animals by the money we raise for those groups, and we pay half the adoption fees for events. So we do a wide variety of things.
Paste: What’s surprised you the most about this journey?
LM: I think it’s how quickly we integrated into the community. We had been in Hendersonville for three years before we opened, but because I was a consultant I was never here. We didn’t really know anybody. Joe was working in Asheville and I was gone about 75% of the time traveling to NY and LA and then when I was home I just wanted to be with my animals, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I’m still very much like that so it’s funny that I own a brewery. But when we opened this little town just embraced us and I feel like I’ve always been here and people are so wonderful. I love this town.
Paste: Has your business model changed since you first came up with the idea?
LM: When we first opened I used to say it was like putting on a blindfold and jumping out of an airplane. Leaving every single thing you know is terrifying; it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. After we started to become a little bit more comfortable in it it just started getting easier and I think it’s just a big learning curve of knowing how to operate every week. Overall the business model — be kind to humans and animals — that’s pretty much the baseline for everything we do. And make awesome beer.
Paste: Tell me about the beer.
LM: All of our beers are vegan. Most people don’t realize that a lot of beer isn’t. Some beers are made with gelatin as a clarifying element, and isinglass made with fish bladder, so if you don’t know what to look for you might be drinking a non-vegan beer. And then there are just add-ons that breweries use, like milk for milk stout, bacon-flavored beers — those clearly aren’t vegan. So we’ve always made vegan beer.
We have 20 taps currently. They’re almost always serving our beers and we do everything from American styles to Belgium styles, light to dark. We recently released sours that were aged in chardonnay barrels. The beer is fantastic which is kind of a bonus because I feel like if you market your business well and you truly believe in it, it helps to have great beer but that’s not going to make you successful.
Fortunately for us our beer is pretty outstanding. So much so that we competed in the Great American Beer Festival in 2016. It was our first year and we didn’t medal but we got our sheets back and two of our beers scored extremely well. Like insanely well! We’d only been in business one year and we brought our beers to Colorado and we were able to afford to take our staff up there and compete, so we were very proud of that.
Photo courtesy of Sanctuary Brewing Company
Paste: How do you come up with the beer names?
LM: We name a lot of beers after animals or things that our friends say or television shows that we love, namely Game of Thrones and Parks and Rec. Those shows are very important to us so they tend to sneak their way into a lot of what we do. Our flagship IPA is named Hop Pig which is named after our pig Oliver. We also have an imperial version of that called Ollie the Destroyer, because he’s a destroyer. Ironically some people think we called it that because of Game of Thrones — really it could go either way.
Paste: What are your future plans for SBC?
LM: We just applied for a foundation, so we’re keeping our business profit but turning our home sanctuary into a nonprofit so we have access to donations and things like that. Right now all of our animal care and our mortgage is paid for out of pocket from the money the brewery makes, so we never have money to do anything, all of it goes right back to the animals. Luckily we have a lot of generous people who come in to help out. Recently we had a volunteer day and regulars from the bar helped us build a turkey coop for a new rescue resident. So the foundation is one big part of it.
Ultimately we’d like to have a bigger sanctuary with a brewery and a restaurant and lodging on the sanctuary. With that you could do any number of things — take cooking classes, take kindness lessons by spending time with animals who have been abused, go camping, learn how to farm. It could be educational but also a resort, like a large utopian place for humans and animals with beer. That’s the dream. We need like Leo DiCaprio to give us $10 million.
Hannah Sentenac is a freelance writer and journalist who covers veg food, drink, pop culture, travel, and animal advocacy issues. She’s written for Live Happy magazine, Foxnews.com, MindBodyGreen.com, and numerous other publications and websites. Hannah is also the Editor-in-Chief of LatestVeganNews.com, a publication dedicated to positive, original news from the vegan and plant-based world.