North Carolina Craft Beer and Breweries

Aug 11, 2016

North Carolina Craft Beer & Breweries - Erik Lars Myers and Sarah H. Ficke
Credit John F. Blair Publisher

INTRO – A Durham couple has a unique problem in their publishing efforts… and if they choose to commiserate about their problem with a malted beverage in hand, that’s o-k. It’s just more research for their next published effort which, given exponential growth in their chosen topical field, could be sooner rather than later. George Olsen has more.

Erik Lars Myers and Sarah H. Ficke have what would typically be a devastating problem for authors… they no sooner publish a book and its out-of-date.

   (Erik) “Even when we hit 45 breweries in the first book that book was 6 or 8 breweries out of date by the time it even got published a few months later. We had something similar with this book. We finished writing it in December and now there are 176 breweries in the state, so there are almost as many breweries that have opened since we finished writing this book in December as there were in the first book.”

Erik Lars Myers talking about the first two editions of North Carolina Craft Beer & Breweries. The first edition came out in 2012… and as just mentioned was out of date when it hit stores. This year’s second edition profiles 136 breweries and brewpubs around the state… and 40 more have opened over about eight months’ time. Craft breweries are now just starting to take off in North Carolina, propelled by the arrival in 1980 of a German immigrant to the Outer Banks region. 

    (Sarah) “He was really important because when he came to North Carolina he came because he was in farming, and when he came to NC he had this vision of starting up a business like the ones they had in Germany where you have a farm that’s also a brewery. When he looked into it he discovered it was illegal because the laws we had were still left over from post-Prohibition, essentially. So people who were producing beer were not allowed to sell it on their own premises. He thought that was pretty backward, and so he basically realized that, right around when he was doing this, wineries had just passed a law in the NC House and Senate that allowed them to have a restaurant on premises because they wanted to be able to make wine and also have people consume it there. So what he did was take that bill and essentially cross out winery and put in brewery. He took it back to the Legislature and said, hey, here’s this bill and I want to get it passed, and it was the same thing they just looked at so they looked at it again and they said that looks fine and so he actually got the law changed so that people could make beer and also sell it to people to consume on their premises, and that allowed him to open up Weeping Radish.”

Co-author of North Carolina Craft Beer & Breweries Sarah Ficke talking about Uli Bennewitz, whose arrival in 1980 ultimately brought action in the state Legislature in 1985 followed by his first brew pub Weeping Radish in 1986. Sarah notes it’s not the first “big moment in beer history” for eastern North Carolina. Christoph von Graffenried arrived in what would become New Bern in 1710. The Swiss nobleman soon wrote a relation in Germany requesting equipment for one thing he found missing in the New World.

    (Sarah) “That was the earliest mention of brewing in the state of NC that I could find when I was doing my research. And I love it because it was another German immigrant who did the same thing that Uli did who wrote home saying could someone send equipment to brew with because there’s no beer here. In his case his wife knew how to brew and he asked them to send him equipment and they did.”

All that history and the work of Uli Bennewitz didn’t prompt a flood of craft brewers in the state. Fifteen years after Bennewitz’ advocacy only 28 breweries were active in the state. That’s when the next great moment in North Carolina beer history occurred… the passage of the Pop the Cap legislation in 2006 that raised the legal alcohol limit for beer.

    (Erik) “It sounds a lot like let’s make sure we can all get drunk but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about a breadth of styles and the ability to make a wide array of beers. Six percent alcohol just doesn’t have enough range to be able to allow people to make a wide range of say Belgian offerings or German offerings or English offerings. There’s just a lot of variety to be had there. So there were breweries in NC and they were making really great beer. I think the real stumbling block is you didn’t have a very excited drinking base at that point. The customers were not really excited about the variety that was available to them. And when the cap got raised, what you had was a lot of breweries from out of state who were not distributing it to NC who all of a sudden saw NC as a viable distribution alternative, because if you’re a brewery in Michigan or Pennsylvania or something like this and you have six beers that you make and three of them are over 6 percent alcohol, three of them are below 6 percent alcohol you won’t distribute any of them to NC because it’s not worth the distributing if you can’t distribute your whole portfolio. So for a lot of people who were outside of this state it just made a lot more sense to not distribute until an entire portfolio was available and that I think brought in a lot of options and variety into the marketplace and got drinkers very excited which meant that having a brewery here doing a wide array of offerings was a much more viable business.”

Still, craft brewers didn’t suddenly overflow the North Carolina market. Pop the Cap passed in 2006, by 2010 the number of breweries had crept up from 28 in 2000 to 48 and shortly after Eric and Sarah published their first edition of North Carolina Craft Beer & Breweries in 2012 the number of breweries was only in the 50s. That’s more an indication of the fact breweries are not overnight start-ups. You want to start a brewery… don’t quit your day job, at least for a while.

    (Erik) “I think pop-the-cap was definitely the catalyst. It certainly set everything into motion. You’ve got to think that yes, we’re only seeing a really big explosion over the past few years but it takes a long time to start a brewery. You’re usually talking 3-to-5 years between coming up with the idea and actually getting equipment set up and brewing. Five years is probably a generous idea on how long it takes to start one of these businesses. So, a  lot of this has taken place over the last decade and is coming to fruition now.”

And Erik Lars Myers further notes an evolution in government thinking about breweries… from prohibition in the early 20th century to state legislation making a craft brewery economically viable to outright courting of brewpubs.

    (Erik) “Overall you see a lot of local governments realizing that breweries are good for economic growth, and so a lot are trying to attract breweries no matter how they can, giving them tax abatements or in some case even offers of free rent in buildings just to get something going on. I know Warren County was looking for a brewery for a long time. Greenville has been actively looking to find a large brewery to move in there. People are really recognizing that breweries are drivers for economic growth or a good source of jobs, and of course they are a good source of tourism. They bring people into your town to see the town that they wouldn’t necessarily go there for. “

And local breweries aren’t just local in the sense they exist in your town. Erik and Sarah say local brewers can come pretty close to producing beer with 100% in-state grown items … barley is grown and malted in-state though a consistent source of local hops is still a problem. But the biggest single ingredient in any beer is water, and as most craft brewers don’t have access to giant water processing facilities, Erik says “You’re using your local town’s water so it makes it taste like your local town’s water.” Just as more restaurants are taking advantage of what their region produces, brewers are recognizing where they’re from, putting them firmly in a trend moving away from a “one size fits all” mentality that predominated the food and beverage industry for decades.

    (Erik) “Frankly, I think we see America going from this great homogenization in the 1950s to the 1970s in which the pinnacle of food, or achievement in food, was making a hamburger that tasted the same way on both coasts, ignoring the fact that America is really this great tossed salad of people, and everybody everywhere has their own particular tastes and wants in terms of the food they create and the climate they’re living in. What we’re really seeing now is a food economy and a drink economy that’s reflecting the actual society that we are rather than this idea of homogenization.”

Erik Lars Myers & Sarah Ficke of Durham are the authors of the second edition of North Carolina Craft Beer and Breweries published by John F. Blair. I’m George Olsen.