By Craven Inions
Wilmington’s been building a beer brand for years now. Currently, the Port City is home to 17 microbreweries, and while New Hanover County is experiencing a surge in these pint-size operations, it’s not just Wilmington. Brunswick County residents are seeing suds rise in local libations too.
As defined by North Carolina law, an operation can produce up to 25,000 gallons per year and still qualify as a microbrewery. Although that may sound like a lot, it’s a paltry sum compared to their mega-corporate counterparts that yield totals in the millions.
This limitation on output dares brewers to employ the old adage, “Quality > Quantity,” and local owners aren’t shying away from the challenge.
The slew of selection at Wrightsville Beach Brewery is quite jaw dropping. Owner Jud Watkins shared a little insight about what goes on behind the scenes and explained how recipe creations take shape. “Sometimes we will plan out seasonal and experimental brews for our taproom, other times we find inspiration from the culinary world.”
These are the pillars that comprise Watkins’ vision for the place. To him the reward is the intersection of many things he loves. “We get to marry passion, science and creativity in an innovative environment,” he said. “It’s personally fulfilling watching our friends enjoy the fruits of our labors as much as we do.”
This blooming microbrewery culture stands as much a testament to the community as to the drinks themselves. Many formulas at these breweries maintain high thresholds for ingredient quality, but the secret spice that completes the recipe rests with the patrons.
Upon entry at WBB, community immersion begins. Children dance to reggae music, while dog owners swap canine stories. Outside seating puts folks side-by-side and spurs conversation. “What do you think of the band? Have you had the new seasonal?”
Their event manager Sara Carter can vouch for that. She’s been with WBB from the start. She admires Watkins commitment to the local community, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Amid the turbulence, Watkins was on site at the brewery giving ice to those in need.
While some places are the brainchild of passionate home brewers, others like Shallotte’s Red Hare, branched off from larger establishments. The original Red Hare is in Marietta, GA but they’ve opened “Experiment Stations,” elsewhere around the country. The brewers at Shallotte’s Red Hare installment wear that moniker proudly and are constantly pushing the envelope. When I caught up with taproom and events manager Byron McSweeney, they had just unloaded over a dozen cabernet sauvignon barrels. The barrels will soon be home to a sour batch being made on sight.
Once the beer is ready it will be transferred to the old wine barrels for a duration lasting 1-3 years. Inside, the beer will take on a pinkish hue from the wine-stained wood, in addition to gleaning it’s aromatic taste. The reason for the wide time window lends credence to the experimental concept. McSweeney admits they don’t know how long it will take, they’ll just know it’s ready when the time is right.
Another unique facet to Red Hare’s operation spotlights an unconventional brewing technique that utilizes a local component, literally the air we breathe. It’s called a “cool ship.” This open fermentation system allows the production to take place, exposed to air. Additionally, the brewers at Red Hare open all the windows in the building, to create a draft and draw in the salty, humid air. The cool ship subsequently pulls particles from the air, infusing them with the beer, guaranteeing that beer to be the only one of its kind. You literally couldn’t produce this beer anywhere else.
With a great location in downtown Shallotte, Red Hare is becoming a mainstay for locals. Nevermind that it sits in a renovated building across the street from Camp United Methodist Church where Shallotte denizens have congregated to worship since 1790. What’s it like being across the street from a church? “They’re some of our best customers,” McSweeney laughed.
Red Hare is far from the only brewery in Brunswick. Check Six Brewery in Southport, opened their doors in 2015, making it the first. It’s the culmination of years of brewing backstage now in the forefront. Owner Noah Goldman and Tim Hassel opened doors in 2015. They started with their own homebrew recipes and quantified them on a larger scale, but Goldman says he’s always happy to try new things. Looking for trends in the tastes, Goldman acknowledged that it’s best not to go against the grain. He explained it’s about finding what people want, and infusing your own spin on the final product.
Some breweries offer full restaurant menus to accompany their beer, while others like Flytrap Brewery simply specialize in what they do best. Nick Carozza bar tends at Flytrap Brewing, and knows a thing or two about Wilmington’s beer scene. The way Carozza sees it, there’s a healthy competitive symbiosis among Port City brewers.
Some smaller places suitably find their niches, attracting local foot traffic for instance, becoming the neighborhood bar while some larger establishments generate cross-town sales. Recognizing that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, promoting the local scene collectively also promotes individual places by proxy. “We don’t mind offering recommendations to customers for other places,” Carozza said, “It’s about helping them find the beer they want.”
Flytrap found its niche in serving Belgian and American style ales to the Brooklyn Arts district as an afternoon and weekend gathering place for locals to meet up without much digital interference. Carozza attributes the lack of tvs and open floor plan as the catalyst for the conversations that are a Flyingtrap staple.
The huge interest spike comes packaged with programs and seminars to encourage the trade. The North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild held an event last month inviting guild members and micro-brewers to discuss methods for everything from canning to investor relations. The industry is only catching steam and the facets of business administration will become necessary as hobbyists take their brews from their garage to Main Street.