Saturday , September 22, 2018

Growler Alert:: Entrepreneurship Bubbles in Charlotte Tap Lines

America is undergoing a craft beer boom. Whether it’s a passion for beer or dissatisfaction with the 9-to-5 routine, or just a desire to start your own business, entrepreneurs are bubbling to the tap lines in increasing numbers. Dreaming big, working hard, and thinking differently, they are propelled by visions of success—a reward increasingly scarce in our tough economy.

 

Typical entrepreneurs give up their corporate jobs to start dabbling with their own brew, raise their startup capital through a network of friends, family and co-workers, and try to bring their product to market through an immense set of complex regulations.

 

Each one brings their own unique perspective to one of America’s favorite beverages, challenging each other and pushing boundaries, for the one great beer.

 

North Carolina is “the most exciting place for craft beer,” national wine and beverage blog Vinepair recently announced. “While Denver, Portland and other massive craft meccas may still have a hold on the mainstream craft movement, if you’re looking for the next great beers that hop heads will ultimately drool for, chances are you’ll find them in the Tar Heel state.”

 

Citing Asheville as the state’s craft beer capital, the blog acknowledges the over 110 breweries currently be found across North Carolina, including Charlotte’s own NoDa Brewing Company that recently won a gold medal for its Hop, Drop ‘n Roll India Pale Ale, the most competitive category in the World Beer Cup.

 

Charlotte Entrepreneurs

 

The number of craft breweries has been growing for a few years now, but the fall months of 2014 saw an explosion of as many new breweries as had opened over the last two years combined. This year, all indications are that the number of breweries in Mecklenburg County will more than double.

 

The Charlotte region had experienced a brief, smaller craft brewery boom in the 1990s, and over the years various breweries had popped up intermittently, but all had folded. Problems ranged from beer quality to distribution to some of the inherent difficulties in nurturing a small business, especially when restaurants were combined with the business model. In 2008, the region was left bereft of any local breweries after the closure of South End Brewing.

 

However, in true entrepreneurial resurgence in 2009, The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery (OMB) took a fresh shot. As a matter of fact, between 2011 and 2013 another nine breweries opened. Local consumers have been extremely supportive; only Four Friends Brewing has folded, which happened early in 2014.

 

With the openings and expected openings of this most recent ‘brew boom’ spread out between the end of 2014 and the end of 2015, Mecklenburg County is slated to have 13 new breweries. While a few have yet to finalize locations, potentially all 10 of the Charlotte breweries could be along the light rail corridor.

 

Brew Happenings

 

In mid-October 2014, Sugar Creek Brewing opened in the former OMB site off Old Pineville Road (OMB recently moved to a larger location a block away). Sugar Creek brews Belgian beers, including wits (wheat beers) and even a barely-legal 15 percent Belgian strong ale.

 

At the beginning of November 2014, Sycamore Brewing opened in a former auto garage just off the light rail near Tremont Avenue. Husband-and-wife team Justin and Sarah Brigham offer an impressive 20 taps in their taproom, of which 16 are Sycamore brews and four are from cideries and other breweries.

 

At the end of 2014, six more breweries either had opened or were on the brink of opening in Charlotte: Red Clay Cider Works (245 Clanton Rd.); Free Range Brewing (2320 N. Davidson Ave.); and even a small system in Salud Beer Shop (3306-B N Davidson St.).

 

Red Clay, which raised $29,287 through a Kickstarter campaign this fall for its final funding boost, will be the city’s first cidery, taking advantage of North Carolina’s diverse, high-quality apple crop. The draft list won’t look too different from that of a brewery—founders Jay and Deanna Braddish are producing hopped and even barrel-aged ciders.

 

Elsewhere in the county, Barking Duck Brewing Company (8037-C Fairview Rd., Mint Hill), Bayne Brewing Company (19507 W. Catawba Ave. Suite I, Cornelius) and Primal Brewery (16432 Old Statesville Rd., Huntersville) also opened by the end of 2014.

 

Spring 2015 will see Three Spirits Brewery (5046 Old Pineville Rd.) and Wooden Robot Brewery (1440 S Tryon St.) fill out Charlotte’s light rail corridor. Three Spirits is soon starting construction in an old textile dye building and is planning an English pub-styled taproom complete with mini-arcade.

 

Wooden Robot, a short walk from the Food Truck Friday site, will offer a wide range of farmhouse ales and will host farmer/supplier events. On the horizon, just in need of the right location, are Archive Brewing, DukBone Brewing, and GoodRoad CiderWorks. Archive, which is looking in both Charlotte and Matthews, will have a unique offering with its focus on U.K./English styles.

 

Still Unfilled Niches

 

The swell of new brewers have some common characteristics. Though their backgrounds vary considerably, from banking to nuclear engineering, many have been homebrewing for more than a decade and are Charlotte natives.

 

Most have spent months or even years trying to find just the right location for their brews, often repurposing an old industrial site in the process. They strive to integrate local ingredients and even grow hops onsite. And, by their own admission, they “are learning worlds” from the established brewing community.

 

Recipes and brewing methods continually being perfected are on display each year at Charlotte’s Oktoberfest, the region’s premiere beer tasting event, fostering interest and promoting innovation in the homebrewing community.

 

This has allowed upcoming breweries to identify currently unfulfilled niches in the craft beer scene, from geographically-defined beer styles to ciders. Additionally, because of complicated production, established breweries have not focused on sours and farmhouse ales, the yeast from which can contaminate other beer styles. But multiple upcoming breweries plan to produce these styles.

 

Sugar Creek Brewing founder Eric Flanigan stressing his devotion to the Belgian niche, proudly declaring, “We’re probably the only brewery in Charlotte that doesn’t have an India Pale Ale—or two or three.”

 

And while a number of upcoming breweries plan to utilize the symbiotic food truck model that has been successful for most area breweries, allowing them to forego the hassle of food production and permitting, multiple upcoming breweries also plan to have some food prepared in-house.

 

Start-up Challenges

 

Particularly in Charlotte, starting a brewery is a complicated process. Although zoning laws that once kept breweries 400 feet from residential areas have been amended to 100 feet, making it easier to locate, there are months of time and thousands of dollars consumed by plan approval, permits and inspections at the local level. Add to that the state and federal approvals, such as for labels and recipes.

 

Sugar Creek’s Flanigan has experienced frustration at the local level, even having had some familiarity with city permitting after starting up and managing Whisky River. “The permitting process is very strenuous,” says Flanigan. “I would definitely suggest anyone starting a brewery seek appropriate legal help through the permitting process—preferably find someone familiar with the process.”

 

Even without having to get recipes, labels and other aspects approved again by state and federal authorities, the city’s scrutiny through plans, permits and inspections is extremely trying. Birdsong Brewing’s Chris Goulet knows because he did it three years ago and is doing it again as the brewery is in the process of opening a second, larger location.

 

“There are at least five different government agencies that monitor or restrict our business, and each of them has its own unique set of bureaucratic ýcomplexities to deal with,” says Goulet. “The process for the expansion is just as challenging as the original brewery. While a few zoning laws have changed, there are still many thousands of pages of county ordinances to take into account.”

 

Continuing Undaunted

 

But even these regulatory complexities do not seem to have daunted Charlotte’s rising crop of brewers. There are some different circumstances that portend well for the beer craft.

 

For example, prior Charlotte breweries had smaller scale production and very limited distribution. “We have broad support from Charlotte area bars and restaurants, so we’re not totally dependent on selling beer in one location,” explains Goulet.

 

Additionally, he points out, brewers have also learned how critical it is that their product be consistent and high quality, which is not easy for a process that is essentially a biochemical reaction drawn out over days, weeks and even months with barrel aging.

 

Flanigan describes the greatest difficulty in brewing as “the quality of beer and making sure the beer is exactly right every time.” He says, “You’ll hear that 95 percent of a brewer’s life is spent cleaning, and it’s true.”

 

More plentiful options have also helped area breweries. In 2005, North Carolina gave brewers more latitude by raising its cap on alcoholic content in beer from 6 percent to 15 percent. Since then, North Carolina has grown from 25 breweries in 2006 to more than 120 breweries currently.

 

That growth, making it the fourth-fastest growing state for craft breweries, is what attracted craft brewery powerhouses Sierra Nevada (California), Oskar Blues and New Belgium (both Colorado) to open east coast facilities in the Asheville area.

 

About another dozen unannounced breweries are already incorporated with Charlotte addresses, according the North Carolina Secretary of State’s listing of corporations. But the trend is by no means limited to Mecklenburg County. Breweries are planned and opening up in Gaston, York, Union, Cabarrus and Iredell counties.

 

“Consumers have discovered authentic flavor from their local breweries, and they don’t want to go back to that box of beer that tastes like nothing,” claims Margo Knight Metzger, executive director of the NC Craft Brewers Guild. “And they’re creating new beer drinkers because of the quality flavor and local source of the craft beers.”

 

That fact is particularly evident as the annual economic impact of craft breweries in North Carolina was $800 million and 10,000 jobs in 2013. That economic potential was noticed this past spring by South Carolina legislators, who are currently considering a bill to loosen restrictions on how much a brewery can produce and where it can sell.

 

The culture is also different, with roots deeply set in the community. Breweries, many with large, open industrial spaces, host a constant rotation of running clubs, charity fundraisers, yoga classes and bands.

 

“We really take a community-first approach,” says Chris Harker, founder of Triple C Brewing, which throughout its three years has hosted almost weekly charity events. “We don’t need to be the biggest brewery and might get a little bigger, then level out. We want our friends and neighbors here, and we want to give back.”

 

Especially startup breweries express a strong sense of camaraderie among brewers. Says Flanigan, “Everyone scratching everyone else’s back, that’s what drew me to this culture. Everyone’s working together for the same common goal.”

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