Cheers! A Guide to the Local and Craft Beer Scene in Charlotte
Local beer is the toast of the town right now, and the craze shows no signs of slowing. Can the Queen City become Craft Beer City?
Ryan Self of Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, drinking Olde Meck Copper
Charlotte is in the midst of an identity crisis. Not so much in the mold of Clark Kent vs. Superman, but rather, what is the city known for?
Food? Hardly. Despite a number of stellar restaurants, no one discusses Charlotte’s cuisine like that of, say, New Orleans or San Francisco or Charleston. (And before you start asking about barbecue, that’s a statewide thing.)
Banking? Um, remember 2008? The moniker “Banktown” has lost its luster.
Racing? Sure, “racing was born here,” as the marketers like to say. But Charlotte Motor Speedway recently eliminated 10,000 seats from its grandstands. And perhaps you’ve read about the troubles at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Or, put another way, have you been yet?
So, then. Care for a beer?
No, really. In the past five years, Charlotte’s craft-beer scene has taken off. Seven new breweries have opened, as well as a host of new bottle shops and taphouses. Walk into any restaurant and you’re almost sure to find local beer on draft. Nearly every day, there’s something going on in the local beer community, whether it’s a tasting, bottle release, or some other event.
And the beer brewed here? It’s good. Last year, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and NoDa Brewing Company became the first Charlotte breweries in 20 years to medal (both silver) at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, which is the country’s largest ticketed beer festival and has held its annual tasting contest since 1982.
“If I tell you 15 years from now that Charlotte has a clear identity, what’s more likely than beer?” says Ryan Self, director of sales at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. “Given the quality of beer here, it’s a more likely option than anything else.”
Adds Win Bassett, executive director of the North Carolina Brewers Guild in Raleigh, “Up here in the Triangle, we want as much Charlotte beer as we can get.”
Well then. That calls for a beer.
It’s a Thursday night in mid-December at Duckworth’s on Montford Drive, and the taphouse is teeming with patrons. A few small company holiday parties surround the long table in the bar area better known as the “surfboard.” Others are here to take advantage of $3-pint night, choosing from nearly 60 taps, at least five of which are always local. Duckworth’s attracts an array of customers. On any given evening, you’re likely to see families, a group enjoying girls’ night out, fans watching a game, and folks who just got off work.
By closing time on this night, the hardworking bartenders will pour nearly 750 glasses of beer.
The next afternoon, in a much quieter atmosphere, beverage manager Curtis Smith talks about Charlotte’s craft craze. “We get a bunch of different people from different backgrounds,” says Smith, who began a new job as sales representative for Olde Hickory Brewery in January, “and I see them bonding here over good beer. I even think in a few years we might rival Asheville.”
That’s a strong statement. The Asheville area features nearly 20 breweries and has been awarded the title of “Beer City, USA” (according to an online poll, which, it should be pointed out, relies solely on voting from the public) for four years in a row. Three major national craft breweries—Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues—have plans to open brewing facilities in the area.
Asheville native Chris Hunt, owner of Charlotte’s newest bottle shop, Good Bottle Company, says Charlotte doesn’t necessarily need to become Asheville. “What’s great about craft beer is that all destinations are unique,” says Hunt, whose shop features individual bottles lined up by style (IPA, porter, etc.), growlers for sale, and 12 taps, half of which are usually devoted to local beers. “Whether you’re traveling to Asheville, Atlanta, or Charlotte, you can get beer [you can’t get] anywhere else. Our goal when opening Good Bottle was to really expose people to craft beer and prove to folks that you can get a handful of beers that only traveled a couple of miles.”
A couple of miles reflects about how far Chris Gillespie’s condo is from Good Bottle in South End. Gillespie, 28, has been a craft-beer aficionado since his college days at Radford University in Virginia. As a sales rep for Island Oasis, a frozen drink company, his territory includes Asheville, and he’s happy to be able to find the same quality of beer in his backyard.
“It’s awesome to see it come home to Charlotte,” says Gillespie, sitting at Good Bottle’s bar drinking a half pint of Terrapin Liquid Bliss (a chocolate–peanut butter porter that, while not local, is highly recommended if you can find it). “I’ve always wished for a small brewery or beer place in my area for a while, and now I have two with Good Bottle and Triple C.”
Gillespie, who moved from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte seven years ago, says he enjoys running on the path alongside the light rail, and oftentimes he will stop into Good Bottle halfway through to see what’s new. He asks Hunt to set aside his purchases, and then he comes back in after his run to reward himself with a pint or two.
Daniel Hartis, a health-care marketer, launched CharlotteBeer.com in January 2011. The blog features news about local beer and brew-related happenings, including the event where we meet at Vintner Wine Market in the Arboretum. Bell’s Brewery in Michigan (creators of the ever-popular Two Hearted Ale) is the feature this night. The bar area quickly floods with customers as people get off work, and several come up to speak to Hartis, who is enjoying a Bell’s Java Porter.
Hartis’s blog is a bookmark for the local craft community. CharlotteBeer.com has amassed a quick following and traffic is increasing, with as many as 12,000 pageviews per month. “Local beer is close to being essential here now,” says Hartis, whose book, Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City, will be published in March. “Even if you go to somewhere like Applebee’s or Chili’s, you expect to find at least something like Olde Meck Copper. People are coming up from places like Raleigh and Columbia to check out the beer scene.”
And while that scene includes many new establishments, a few veterans in the local craft community have been waiting for this moment for some time.