Know the difference between a porter and an IPA? Between an IPA and its IBUs? Between a bomber and a growler?
Brush up, because Charlotte’s craft beer scene is hopping forward. Fast.
Seven breweries now call our area home – plus at least one outfit seeking a site, and two outposts of national chains. Brewpubs are flourishing and specialty suds shops are opening – most recently the Good Bottle Company in South End – where you can both taste beers and take them home. The Common Market in Plaza Midwood kicked off a new 15-tap system at the end of October, and the newest brewery/restaurant in town, Heist, held its grand opening in late October in NoDa.
Why the surge?
Opinions vary, but figure proximity, price and possibility have a lot to do with it.
Proximity first: “Local” counts with consumers more and more, and “people like supporting local when it makes sense,” says Chris Harker of Triple C Brewing Co., which opened this August in South End. Says Olde Mecklenburg Brewery’s John Marrino, who began serving his beer in 2009: Charlotteans “are choosing in droves to drink better beer.” He says his production grew about 70 percent in the last year.
Locally produced brews add that personal touch – apparently in vogue nationwide: The national Brewers Association says the microbrewery business grew 26.4 percent in 2011.
As for price? Back in 2009, when he and Matthew Pera opened the beercentric Liberty gastropub, chef Tom Condron said: “In this economy, it’s a lot easier to spend $6 for a well-crafted beer than $12 for a halfway decent glass of wine.”
In this economy, too. And when a flight of beer – four 4-ounce servings, so you can sip and muse – goes for $6, as it does at most taprooms around town now, drinkers can also afford to explore.
Possibility spans law and competition. First, North Carolina lets brewers do something not all states allow: distribute to bars and restaurants, sell to consumers on-site and serve in-house, in taprooms. Second, in 2005, the state bumped up – from 6 to 15 – the allowable percentage of alcohol by volume in beer sold here.
American lagers – think Bud and Miller – are in the 5 range; many craft beers are just getting started at the 6 mark. So the industry could take off, and it did – but mostly elsewhere, like four-time “BeerCity USA” Asheville.
Our city has been, shall we say, underserved.
“Charlotte is in its infancy,” says Kurt Hogan of Heist. “When I was deciding (where to start a business), I saw it was Olde Meck and Four Friends pretty much (here)… and the demographics are just perfect. A young, active crowd. Exactly what craft beer caters to. It’s a no-brainer.”
Charlotte is also, for brewers thinking of the future, ideally situated: central, with easy access to highways for putting beer on the road to other towns, and other states.
Chris Hunt, owner of Good Bottle, had traveled through the Southeast in a corporate development job, noticing bottle stores – where you can build your own six-pack, bottle by bottle -- opening successfully. “Charlotte was missing an all-inclusive beer store,” he says. “We want to introduce people to craft beer … let people come in and ask stupid questions that are not stupid questions at all.” He relishes introducing people to brewers at tastings and creating fans of both local and national craft brews.
Breweries, bars and brewpubs, and beer-centric stores are the three key components of a smart beer town, says Hunt.
Daniel Hartis, who runs www.charlottebeer.com and has a book on Charlotte beer coming out in February, also gives a nod to the Carolina BrewMasters club, begun in 1982. “They championed craft beer long before the ’90s breweries came to town,” and brought the ongoing Charlotte Oktoberfest to town in 1999, he says. Hartis declares Charlotte is “quietly becoming one of the better beer cities in the nation.”
When will we know we’ve arrived? “A bigger reach,” says Hogan. “If you start having brews winning medals at GABF (Great American Beer Festival), that puts us on the map – and people start to look (and say) ‘It’s not only Asheville. Charlotte is popping!’ ”
Which happens to have happened at the 2012 Festival: NoDa Brewing’s Coco Loco won a silver medal among Robust Porters, and Olde Meck’s Mecktoberfest took silver in the German-style Marzen category.
Check the box with this story for a look at individual breweries. As for stores, noteworthy new ones are Good Bottle (12 taps, 500+ bottled/canned beers), Salud (8 taps, 300+ bottles/cans in NoDa, with an express store in uptown’s 7th Street Public Market) and Tampa-based chain World of Beer in South End (60 rotating taps, 500+ bottles/cans). You can also buy at Common Market’s two locations, in South End and Plaza Midwood.
Brawley’s Beverage on Park Road, meanwhile, has offered beer fans choices since before there were many choices: nearly a decade.
And there’s more to come: Carolina Beer Temple is slated to open in Matthews by early 2013, with 8-16 taps, half N.C. brews.
“The N.C. market has taken off by leaps and bounds,” says co-owner Rob Jacik, “and Charlotte is super-exciting.”