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North Carolina - A Top State For Craft Breweries and Beer

Success Brewing in North Carolina (Issue 17)

California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado are such perennial producers of craft beer it was no surprise that, during a keynote presentation at the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver this past April, those four were listed as having the most breweries open last year. "But the fifth was North Carolina," said Chad Henderson, head brewer at NoDa Brewing in Charlotte, North Carolina. "And when they said that, a kind of slow clap went through the audience. The speaker stopped and said, 'No, give it up for North Carolina.'"

North Carolina saw 21 new breweries open in 2013, a 30 percent increase over 2012, according to stats from the Brewers Association. So the Old North State isn't completely off the rest of the nation’s radar, yet many know little of its beer scene outside of the mountain city of Asheville. 

This focus on one city is understandable, considering it was voted Beer City USA through a popular online poll three years in a row, and three giants — Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium— chose to build second breweries in the Asheville area. Other Asheville breweries have announced expansion plans as well, including Catawba Brewing, Green Man Brewery, Highland Brewing, Burial Beer Company and, most recently, Wicked Weed Brewing, which plans to build a $5 million, 40,000-square-foot production brewery in nearby Candler. 

Just as Asheville breweries are growing rapidly, the same is true for many across the state. In Charlotte, the next-door neighbors of NoDa Brewing and Birdsong Brewing both have plans to move into larger facilities. Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina built a 12,000-square-foot addition to increase capacity. And even if they’re not pursuing larger locations, countless others continue to add new fermenting tanks, which do not come cheaply. 

Many are expanding not to enter new markets, but simply to keep up in their home state — or their home city. Even the state's largest players — brands like Highland, Foothills, Natty Greene's and Mother Earth — distribute to only a handful of states. 

North Carolina has a diverse group of breweries, each with its own focus. There’s Wicked Weed, for example, one of the East Coast’s largest brewers of sours and barrel-aged beers. The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in Charlotte brews German-style beers with just four ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast. And there’s Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, which sources ingredients that celebrate and stimulate what founder Sean Lilly Wilson calls a “southern beer economy.” 

The surging beer scene may not yet have the same number of passionate devotees as basketball and barbeque, but it’s clearly a winning scenario for the breweries and the state. 

Another win came during the World Beer Cup awards, presented two days after the aforementioned keynote speech. Henderson didn't expect to beat out 223 other entries in the American IPA category, the most competitive of the Cup. 

Hearing that very announcement — that their Hop Drop ‘n Roll had just won gold — was such a shock that it took him a minute to get his legs under him and find his way to the stage. 
"When I finally waded out into the crowd, I got a face full of flannel from one of the owners of Wicked Weed," said Henderson. Moments later, the roles were reversed when Wicked Weed won bronze for its Tyrant Double Red. North Carolina came away with eight medals, half of them gold.

After the win, NoDa Brewing was courted by bars and shops as far away as France. And while they were flattered, keeping Charlotte well stocked is challenge enough. The beer is not likely to find its way out of state anytime soon, but its reputation as a top-tier IPA is growing — a victory for NoDa and all North Carolina breweries.