At least 80 beer enthusiasts made their way to Clawson’s 1905 Restaurant and Pub in Beaufort one bitterly cold Friday happy hour in February to try something they’d likely never be able to otherwise: beer handcrafted by local home brewers.
Members of the Alcohol Through Fermentation (ATF) Homebrew Club based in New Bern brought nearly a dozen beers to the once-a-month Friday Night Flights beer tastings to hand out. Their presence at Friday Night Flights is a testament to the growing demand for craft beers. Illegal to sell because of state laws, so the ATF shared their bounty at no cost.
At Clawson’s, there was a steady line of takers for the free samples. Those on deck had a taste of the Inauguration Ale, a new member’s first attempt; a Kolsh-style pale ale brewed by Dennis Overby of Sea Gate; Tim’s Hard Apple Cider and Tim’s Pepper Ale, by Tim Dryden of Craven County; an American wheat and a robust porter by Bryan Conway of Beaufort; and Resurrection Rye and a Dawn American Stout by Rob Jones of Bridgeton; plus three stein beirs, which means “stone beer” in German.
“As far as the club goes, we are just a group of dedicated beer lovers that decided that it would be a lot of fun to brew our own creations to enjoy and share with others,” said Conway, president of the club.
He added that members enjoy the creative process of making beer, wine, kombucha and anything else fermentable as well as delving into the creative sides of building and adapting everyday equipment and materials into the process.
Taylor McCune, marketing manager for Clawson’s, explained that typically for Friday Night Flights, they pick a North Carolina craft brewery – some new, some repeats – and a brewery rep will train the staff on a handful of beers on tap. They then lend a hand during the free tasting. In the off-season, there’s usually between 80 and 90 tasters, but there has been as many 130 during peak-season months.
“We’ve always looked at our Friday Night Flights tastings as chances to teach people about beer, so putting together a homebrew tasting was an obvious extension of that,” she said.
Clawson’s started offering what craft beers were available in the area about a decade ago.
“Everyone was used to drinking corn beer and crafts picked up very slowly in popularity. That started to change in the past several years and interest started to gain steam,” McCune explained.
Since Prohibition, state law prohibited brewing beer then selling it on the same premises. Additionally, beer could be no greater than 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). In 1985, German Uli Bennewitz approached the NC Senate to make it possible for breweries to sell their product directly to the consumer rather than through a distributor. He opened Weeping Radish Farm Brewery in 1986. Then on Aug. 13, 2005, Gov. Mike Easley signed House Bill 392 into law, lifting the 6 percent ABV cap to a 15 percent through a two-year initiative.
With that change, craft beer from across the nation began flooding across the state line and, most notably, it made brewing a real possibility in North Carolina.
In the state, there are around 100 microbrews and brewpubs (establishments that brew beer served on site), with a handful in Eastern North Carolina, including Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston. The eco-friendly 20-barrel brewery and taproom opened in 2009. Their earth-conscious ethics is across the board and visible in nearly every facet form a taproom that is 100-percent solar powered by a 3-kilowatt solar array on the roof, walls insulated with recycled denim jeans and soy-based foam and even the six-pack containers are made with 100-percent recycled paper.
President Trent Mooring said the biggest change he’s seen since opening the brewery doors is the rise in tourism to the area, a move that caught him by surprise.
“When we started, we just planned to be a production facility that sold our beer off premise to restaurants and grocery stores all over the South. But to see the people coming to the area after hearing our story and want to tour the facility is absolutely mind blowing,” he said.
The evolving interest in craft beer across the region has been equally mind blowing as well, he said.
“When we started the brewery, one of the main reasons we decided to make Endless River was because it was a light-drinking beer and we wanted a good session beer that people of Eastern North Carolina would want to drink,” he said. Now, those who used Endless River as their gateway beer have also started exploring with other stronger beer styles.
“We have a lot of customers that used to drink just Endless River or Weeping Willow that are now venturing into Sisters of the Moon IPA or even Silent Night, our barrel-aged stout. So I think beer landscape in our region is changing.”
Their numbers suggest that he’s right. Mother Earth’s growth has been consistently around 35 percent each year since opening, and that’s where he and co-owner Stephen Hill want to be.
“When you tour our facility you see a lot of love, care and personality in our brand and its very important for us to grow, but not at a rate too fast as where we would lose that,” he said. “Growing is good but if you lose control of that growth it can be detrimental to a brand you have spent years developing.”
Scott Andrews, public affairs officer for Beer Army LLC in Trenton, has been working on growing the relatively new brewery while balancing the brewery’s philanthropic efforts.
“Growing a craft brewery in North Carolina is very tough right now. When Beer Army Combat Brewery opened in April of 2013, there were about 75 active breweries at the time. By the end of 2015 there are expected to be more than 160 operating breweries in the state. We have a lot of Beer Army supporters so that has been great and has really helped us grow the Beer Army name, mostly through philanthropy,” he said.
Andrews explained that Dustin Canestorp, who recently retired from the US Marine Corps, started Beer Army in 2008 as a website when he returned from his last tour in Iraq. Canestorp put on the first Beer Army festival, the Brew Bern Beer Festival, which eventually led to the Beer Army Outpost bottle shop and later the Beer Army Combat Brewery.
Beer Army is making its mark is through The Beer Army Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is gearing up for its sixth annual Brew Bern Beer Festival set for June 27 at the Riverfront Convention Center in New Bern. The Beer Army Foundation also hosts festivals in Greenville and Jacksonville.
“These festivals have given tens of thousands of people a chance to get educated on the craft beer industry, specifically from breweries here in North Carolina. The more we are able to localize the beer, the more sales for local breweries, distributors, retailers etc., the better our state is as a whole,” he added.
While beer is their focus, Beer Army has been a philanthropic organization from day one. The Beer Army Foundation, a completely separate entity from the brewery, is a community outreach organization that will fund and award 50 scholarships to degree-seeking students attending a community college or a state university, provide 500 volunteer opportunities for citizens to support their communities altruistically and generate $500,000 of economic impact by the end of 2017. Details about the event and foundation are at www.beerarmy.com.
Someone who has been able to watch the changing atmosphere of craft brewing in the state for more than a decade is Kevin Kozak, director of brewing operations for Front Street Brewery in Wilmington.
Professionally brewing for 12 years, he started right out of college after earning a degree in political science, which he jokes always drove him to drink. He started as a cellar man at Capitol City Brewing Co. in Arlington, Va., and worked his way up to assistant brewer. He eventually took his first head brewer job at the now-defunct Thoroughbreds Grill and Brewing in Leesburg, Va. He worked at Old Dominion Brewing Co. in Ashburn, Va., before accepting the head brewer job at Front St. Brewery nine years ago.
He said the craft beer scene has changed significantly since he got to Wilmington.
“We had very few places you could get a good pint of beer back then. Our bestselling beer at the time was our now-retired Lumina Lager. Now our two bestselling beers are our Port City IPA, which is very hop forward and our Dram Tree Scottish Ale, which is dark and malty. It’s nice to see the landscape change,” he said. “One can drive up and down the coast and find good beer, which is a great thing. I’m willing to bet that even in the smallest towns you can find a Mother Earth Kolsch or Dunkel. Both are beers I highly recommend to someone that’s looking to get into craft beer. They’re both fine examples of their respective style and both are extremely approachable and drinkable.”
While Kozak has direct knowledge of how this part of the state is embracing craft beer, he’s in the position to observe the changes across the state as a member of the NC Craft Brewers Guild, a nonprofit organization with goals that include promoting and advancing the interests of NC Craft Beer.
“As a group we recognize that craft beer is a real thing that brings a lot of money to the state of North Carolina, whether it’s through jobs or beer tourism,” he said.
There are a handful of issues important to the organization, including lowering the state excise tax. “Currently North Carolina has the sixth highest excise tax on beer produced,” Kozak explained. “We believe that lowering the tax burden would promote job growth and brewery expansions due to the money being saved. We would also like to see the self-distribution limit raised or eliminated,” he said.
Currently a North Carolina brewery can self distribute up to 25,000 barrels a year. Once the brewer produces 25,000 barrels they have to hand over their distribution rights to a wholesaler.
“Personally, I find that a bit unsettling. It’s almost like they’re being punished for being successful,” he said. “They built their brand and grew their brewery and now have to hand control of their brand over to a third party. That’s unsettling to me.”
Aside from tackling political issues, the NC Craft Brewers Guild holds educational seminars four times a year. The purpose of these events is to provide education from experts to brewers in North Carolina.
“They have covered quality, marketing, business, etc… We feel that the more informed brewers are then the better beer they will make which is a win-win for everyone involved.”
A new Morehead City establishment, Tight Lines Pub & Brewing Co., is planning to join the micropub club. Located in the former Rap’s building on Arendell Street, Tight Lines opened in April 2014 and serves 30 craft beers on tap and soon, said Russell Lewis, co-owner. Hopes are to begin construction of the brewery this fall.
“We originally planned to begin sooner, but delays in the design process of the brewery and our rooftop deck and bar have pushed us back. We plan to feature four, year-round beers with two seasonals. Currently we have recipes developed for two beers, a red ale and a Kolsch, which we hope to launch later this year using an offsite brewery for initial production.”
The idea to open Tight Lines began from spending time in Chapel Hill and Asheville, where love for craft beer is ubiquitous, according to Lewis.
“We saw a glimpse of what could be brought to Carteret County and founded Tight Lines with the intention of making it a hub for craft beer, boutique wine and great Southern style pub food in downtown Morehead City,” he said.
Lewis explained that his original interest in craft beer formed just by drinking it, especially while in school at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Afterwards, we opened our first restaurant on the Beaufort waterfront, Queen Anne’s Revenge,” where the restaurant features eight craft beers on tap, as well as more than 200 bottles. “From that exposure, we decided it only made sense to open a second location where we could make our own beer.”
From their perspective, interest in craft beer has exploded.
“When we first opened Queen Anne’s Revenge, interest was moderate and sparing at best. Within two years, the market changed drastically and sales increased exponentially. We are happy to be part of that movement and only hope that our community continues to embrace craft beer, in following suit with the rest of the state.”
Adding the brewery isn’t the only change for Tight Lines. Lewis will be adding a monthly charity fundraiser, Pints for Purpose: Beer Garden Series on Saturdays, April through October. Each event will feature a different North Carolina brewery and benefit a different local charity.
There are several opportunities to give back and learn more about craft beer in the year ahead. The Beer Army hosts the Brew Bern Beer Fest on June 27. The 14th annual Lighthouse Beer & Wine Festival at Battleship Park in Wilmington is planned for Oct. 24 and the Crystal Coast Hop Fest is held in November at the Crystal Coast Civic Center in Morehead City and supports the Crystal Coast Hospice House.