New fermentation: The growth of breweries and distilleries in Durham

Darryl Russell, general manager of Weldon Mills Distillery, poses in front of distillery barrels at the brewery. (Photo by Cade Carlson.)

Monday, April 29, 2024

By Cade Carlson

The number of breweries in the United States more than tripled from 2012 to 2022, according to data from, and Durham has seen its fair share of that increase.

Darryl Russell never thought he’d be part of this trend.

Russell is the general manager of Weldon Mills Distillery, which is located on the corner of East Main and South Roxboro.

He is well-versed in the industry, getting his start as a bus boy at the Washington & Duke Inn as before moving to Austin, Texas and eventually getting back to his roots in Durham.

“I was eager to come back (to North Carolina),” Russell said. “I was slowly looking for another job, and I had something in mind kind of like fine dining.”

While Weldon Mills was not what he initially had in mind, it feels like he ended up right where he should be.  

“It’s been cool to see it grow to the potential that we all see it could be,” Russell said.

Russell said what makes Weldon Mills’ unique is its environment.

You won’t find giant TVs or outlets to charge your phones. You will hear smooth jazz and encounter board games if you want to interact with other customers.

“Most people describe this place as it’s ‘grown and sexy,’” Russell said. “Whether that’s the older generation who they like to spend their time mostly here, or the younger crowd starting to be more mature.”

Russell believes this mixture of age demographics has been a key factor in the recent popularity of the bar scene in downtown Durham.

“If we’re going pound for pound, Durham has some very slept-on places,” Russell said. “We’ve got anything you can think of.”

To attract customers, Weldon Mills has hosted Triangle Pop-Up events for artists in the area, biking groups in downtown Durham and charcuterie nights.

As breweries in Durham continue to grow, Russell said everyone is trying to find new ways to stand out.

Durty Bull Brewing Company, located between the Central Park District and Old Five Points in Durham, has been gaining some traction in Durham’s craft beer scene.

Matthews took over as taproom manager there around Thanksgiving.  

“That involves booking events, making sure everything is going well behind the bar,” said Matthews, who prefers to be referred to with the one name.

One of the more unique ways in which Durty Bull operates is its on-site events, meaning events held at locations other than the brewery that help promote the business.

“We’re about to do one at food truck rodeo,” Matthews said. “So, we try and get out and about in the community.”

Durty Bull keeps its drink lineup fresh by adapting to changes in consumer preferences – from  barrel-aged sours and lagers to hazy IPAs and smoothie seltzers – and working with other brands.

“Recently we did one when DSSOLVR opened up. We did a collab brew with them that was a lot of fun,” Matthews said. “There’s a lot of, like, knowledge trading back and forth.”

To get the word out about the business and upcoming events, Durty Bull works with Discover Durham, uses social media platforms and turns to the tried-and-true method of handing out flyers.

And while “you can still see the effects economically” of the pandemic, it is “definitely good to see an influx of more people who are going to come by and drink beer,” Matthews said of the still growing Durham area.

One business that has also benefitted from the area’s brewery growth is Hi-Wire Brewing.

Located off Taylor Street, the brewery is one of 12 locations in the United States and it was the first to open outside of Asheville.

Jessica Stroud, general manager of the Durham location, said working with the community is very important to the company.

“We host a lot of nonprofit nights here,” Stroud said. “Last month, we did one dollar of every one of our flagship beers donated to Perfectly Imperfect Pups, which is a local rescue that takes in special needs dogs.”

Hi-Wire has become an all-inclusive space that everyone can enjoy, according to Stroud, and she feels as if that is the most valuable thing that the establishment adds to the Durham community. Evidence of that is in the varying ages of the people – including some with young families – in the space on a recent Friday evening.

Some of that community feel is driven by special events such as Super Smash Brothers tournaments, but also because customers can grab food at nearby Cugino Forno and Two Roosters Ice Cream.

“We’ve got, like, a nice little community here of businesses, and we all try to uplift each other,” Stroud said.

Stroud also said customers’ demographics play a large role in how the business operates today and will operate in the near future.

“The people that drink craft beer, you know, they’re my age. They’re elder millennials,” Stroud said. “They have to have a space where they can come with their families and enjoy what they did when they were younger.”

Jessica Stroud, general Manager of Hi Wire in Durham, is holding a rescue puppy at a non-profit event this year. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Stroud.)