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?
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Almost 20 years ago, Tim Johnson was Todd Ford. Johnson and his wife, Susan, left their respective careers (as did Todd and Suzie) to start Johnson Beer Company, which was one of the few local breweries at the time. Like Todd, Tim was a home brewer who had a bigger vision.
“The company my wife and I were working for wasn’t doing well, and at the time, microbreweries were projected to be 10 percent of the (national) beer market in five years, where [then] it was at 3 percent,” Johnson says. “So … we decided to take the plunge and start a business.”
Johnson Beer Company opened in 1994 on South Boulevard and kept to a core of four brews: Amber Ale, Brown Ale, Pilsner Lager, and Oatmeal Stout. “Our biggest fear was that it wouldn’t get on the shelves of supermarkets and in restaurants,” Johnson says. “We’d go out to local establishments, and people didn’t understand what we were doing. Some restaurants didn’t think their customers would be interested in it.”
There was also the daunting task of going up against the giants of the industry, known collectively as BMC (Budweiser, Miller, and Coors). Eventually, the Johnsons decided the best way to sell themselves was to let the product do the talking.
“We dealt directly with the managers,” Tim says. “We’d crack open a beer with them, get them to try it.” The Johnsons would tell them that it was local and fresh, pointing out that customers visiting from other places would want to try a local brew.
Before long, Tim says, Johnson Beer Company had control of 10 percent of the local taps. By 1998, it was the second largest brewery in the Southeast.
“It was huge,” Tim says. But just as fast as things took off, business started to fade. By 2001, Tim and Susan decided to shut down the company for good.
“There just wasn’t enough there anymore,” Johnson says. “Some of the bigger distributors were being pressured at the time to lock out microbreweries … that was a major dynamic. And just to be bluntly honest, it wasn’t a business that was making a lot of money … I didn’t want to be a starving artist the rest of my life.”
Johnson, who still homebrews at times, may have been ahead of his time. But he says the time is right now.
Even with the local craft boom that has taken place, the question remains: can it last? Can Charlotte become known more for its beer than anything else? Will more people soon order Birdsong in area bars instead of Budweiser? And could there come a day when Charlotte overtakes Asheville as the beer capital of North Carolina?
Why not? After all, Charlotte has held its annual Craft Beer Week (a can’t-miss event for local beer lovers held in mid-March) for three years now, while Asheville just had its first. The GABF medal tally this year was Charlotte 2, Asheville 0.
But Hartis points out that several breweries were in the Charlotte area in the 1990s, and almost all had shut down by 2000. And Brawley adds that with every boom, a bust often follows.
“The rapid growth with shops and labels—that’s just not a sustainable business model,” Brawley says. “You’re going to see peaks and valleys. We’re at a peak right now, but there will be a trough at some point that separates the wheat from the chaff. But what’s great is the [consumers] who have caught onto the idea aren’t going back to BMC, and that’s a good thing.”
Others believe that Charlotte becoming a beer destination is a foregone conclusion, though it will continue to take time.
“If Charlotte is going to be known for its beer, the way you will know won’t be by the sheer number of breweries,” Self says. “It’ll be by the people who live here who take pride in their beer and drink it often.
“It doesn’t matter if someone calls us Beer City, USA. What I care about is when you travel to Charlotte and ask someone what to drink, what’s their answer? That’s what we can brag about and get a certain pride about us when we say, ‘I drink this phenomenal beer that’s made by people I know, 10 minutes from here.’”
Matt McKenzie is a freelance writer in Charlotte.