Written By: Heather Lee Gordy | Photographed By: Kimberly Dam
Jud Watkins and his wife, Amber Watkins, opened Wrightsville Beach Brewery at the corner of Oleander Drive and Greenville Loop Road late January. Growing up in Wilmington, Jud spent many times oystering with his grandfather and father when he was young, which originally brought the idea forward to open a brewery closer to Wrightsville Beach.
“The original idea is about twelve years old,” said Jud. “All three of us used to go oystering together…behind Masonboro Island. If we were oystering in the afternoon, we’d take a six-pack out there with us, and we’d oyster then have a beer at the end of the oystering session. Then it kind of dawned on us there’s only one brewery in town and that was downtown. There was nothing on this side of town, and we started talking about how Wrightsville Beach needed a brewery.”
Jud started home brewing with his grandfather and father after that, and found oysters and beer worked naturally together.
“We’d use the same propane burner that we were steaming oysters with to brew our beer with,” said Jud.
After experimenting with different recipes on and off over the years, Jud finally sat down with his father and decided this was too good of an idea to slip up. Unfortunately, about three to four months after they said they were going to commit, Jud’s father passed away unexpectedly with a heart attack.
“That was a pretty big setback for a couple years,” said Jud, “but it was too good of an idea to let go, so about two years ago I effectively came off my fulltime job for planning this, developing the site, tweaking recipes, deciding on a menu, and kind of what we wanted the interior to feel like.”
Although Jud understandably put his plans on pause, he didn’t give up on the idea and vision he saw for a brewery at Wrightsville Beach. After two years of planning and developing, and much support from family and friends, Wrightsville Beach Brewery is now up and running with more still to come.
When setting the location for the brewery, what stood out to Jud about this particular site off Oleander Drive, were the large live oak trees. Although the construction of the building goes against convention and is built further from the road rather than at the forefront, it was more important to Jud to keep as many of the trees as they could. The trees that were cut down were crafted into the bar, the stools, and the tables for the brewery. These trees consisted of magnolias, cedars, and pines. Jud hopes the live oaks will stand as a landmark and icon for the brewery in the future.
“We’ve got these beautiful live oaks out here, said Jud. “There are four of them, and one is kind of our mascot if you will—our unofficial sign. I hope people kind of recognize it at some point and they’re like, ‘Hey, you know that big oak on the corner of Oleander Drive? That’s where the brewery is.’”
The other oaks on the property will act as a beautiful canopy for the brewery’s soon-to-be beer garden. Jud envisions a Bavarian style beer garden with rows of picnic tables where people can make friends and enjoy the nice weather with a great beer. Wrightsville Beach Brewery will also have their own event space to host events or private parties.
“It’ll be fun,” said Jud. “We’ll do some outdoor events, outdoor music, and in the event space, really whatever people want to use it for. I think it’ll hold up to sixty people. It should be pretty cool to do a private party and supply whatever specialty beers.”
The beer garden and event space is on track to be completed by the end of March. Jud also hopes to start releasing some of Wrightsville Beach Brewery’s own brewed beer in March. Jud’s idea is to have four to six beers that are year around beers, most likely their best sellers, and the rest of the beers will move with the seasons.
“We’ll have, in the winter time, those big full-bodied beers,” said Jud, “and in the spring we’ll do things that are more fruit forward, a little more floral and citrusy, and then in the summertime you want those beach beers—those front porch sippers that you can have two or three on a hot day and still feel okay about it. In the fall, we’ll do some fun little harvest style beers. A handful will be around, but most of our beers will move with the seasons, which is fun for us as brewers to get a chance to change things regularly.”
As of now, Wrightsville Beach Brewery has their Airly Amber, their Oysterman Stout, and a pale ale, all of which haven’t been released yet, but will be soon.
“The goal is to brew every style of beer twice, so that we know it’s consistent,” said Jud. “We don’t want to rush out our beer.”
The latest beer they’ve been working on—one that Jud is particularly excited about—is a Belgian style wit and is one of Kevin Zelnio’s recipes, their full-time brewer. Brewed with a bit of orange peel and coriander, it has a nice floral and citrusy note to it. This beer will be perfect for the warmer weather coming, and may be ready in another month.
Wrightsville Beach Brewery will also have their own beer canning line—the first one in Wilmington right now. The main reason they chose to can rather than to use glass bottles is to preserve the quality of the beer and guarantee freshness.
“Cans last longer…because there’s a lot of different ways we can control the quality of it—particularly with the seaming and the air pressure,” said Jud. “In controlling that in the can, it means your beer is always going to be quality and going to be fresh. Our goal is to make sure nothing is on the shelves longer than a couple months for our beers. That’s why we’re going to start slow with that. We want to see where the demand is, see what styles people really want, and only kick out the freshest beer. We don’t want to make beer for it to sit on the shelf, we want to make beer that’s going to be consumed hopefully in a couple weeks, at worst a month.”
Jud expressed the importance of providing the best quality and freshest beers, and equally providing the best quality and freshest food to their customers. It was always the plan to offer oysters and beer, and as the concept for Wrightsville Beach Brewery grew, Jud realized they needed to offer more than just oysters on the menu. The menu is quickly growing and evolving and Jud described it as something that will always be a “living, breathing document.”
“[The menu] is largely driven by what is available and our fresh catch,” said Jud. “A lot of the times when you’re out eating oysters or seafood, it could be ten to fourteen days old. My goal is to keep everything at less than a week. Realistically, I want it to be like one to two days out of the water. In my opinion that’s a true fresh catch.”
From boneless wings, to Thai chili, to shrimp and grits, along with the daily chalkboard specials, weekly pizza specials, and a soup of the day, Wrightsville Beach Brewery has a lot to offer on their menu. With most of the food cooked to order, this means customers will also have more room in customizing their plates.
“The chef’s wife is actually vegan,” said Jud, “so he’s really attune to that. He’s always listening to a customer’s request when they come in looking for gluten free options or vegan options. More than half of what we have on the menu, we have the ability to flex different items and get it done that way.”
Still, their signature items incorporate oysters whether it’s their oyster po’ boy or classic steamed oysters. You can be sure Wrightsville Beach Brewery will always bring the best quality oysters to their facility, and that is a passion Jud has carried on from his father.
“He was the oyster master,” said Jud. “He learned it from his dad, but really took it to heart and was obsessed with the quality and salinity of the oysters. We’ve got some of the saltiest waters in the world here, and it means that we have some of the best oysters. My whole rule with oysters is local, but also that we never source them after heavy rains. I’ve reached out to three or four fisherman that I really know and trust, and now they’re going to give me consistently quality oysters. It’s a daily conversation with them…and it hopefully insures that we’ve got the best, saltiest, most delicious oysters in town. That’s the real inspiration. Nobody enjoyed a beer and an oyster paired together, more than my dad.”
Wrightsville Beach Brewery is a local business run by locals trying to give back to the local community. They have partnered with eleven non-profits in the area to donate proceeds from their rotating Beer of the Month, and at the end of each year plan to give eleven percent of all beer proceeds to support all eleven of their partners. Jud hopes people will recognize all the hard work that is going towards serving and giving back to the Cape Fear community.
“When we opt to serve North Carolina cult speckled trout over a Canadian farm-raised salmon, than those dollars are staying here and they’re supporting the local fisheries. They aren’t going to four trucks that it took to go to truck, to truck, to truck, to plane, to truck, to come here. My rule is that at least ninety-nine percent of our menu is going to be coming from no more than one tank of gas away. It’s better for the environmental footprint and it’s better for the local economy. I hope that consumers will realize what that means for us, for the local economy, for the nonprofits we’re reaching out to, and really to the jobs in the area too.”