The Fight For Better Beer Here
North Carolina is the best beer state in the Southeast. It wasn't always that way
Sean Wilson just didn't get it. He was at a party in Durham, enjoying one of best beers he'd ever had, only to be told that he couldn't buy it in North Carolina. It was illegal. And this was 2003. "It made no sense to me," he says.
The problem was that North Carolina did not allow beer to contain more than 6 percent alcohol by volume, which meant all sorts of highgravity beer was off-limits, including Wilson's favorite new drink.
To understand the fight over beer here, you have to look way back. In 1903, fifteen saloons were open within a stone's throw of what is now The Square. The next year, Charlotte's voters were asked if booze should even be legal. They said no, and total prohibition went into effect in Charlotte in 1905, fourteen years before the 18th Amendment. Some were pleased. "People used to come home from Charlotte drinking and cursing along the public roads," a farmer told Charlotte's Anti-Saloon League in 1908. "Now all that is stopped."
North Carolina waited until 1937 to allow alcohol sales again, two years after nationwide Prohibition ended. In 1985, a brewer named Uli Bennewitz talked the state into allowing brewpubs. But in 2005, the 6 percent cap was the final hurdle. By then, Sean Wilson had become obsessed with craft beer. Fresh out of grad school and unemployed, he started stuffing envelopes for brewers who were asking for the cap to be eliminated. Wilson and other beer lovers formed an advocacy group called Pop the Cap, hired a lobbyist, and convinced lawmakers to raise the limit to 15 percent. "It was the last great handcuff on allowing the brewers to be creative and allowing consumer choice," he says.
Now, Wilson says North Carolina is the best beer state in the Southeast. Beermeisters here can brew nearly anything they want, distribute it themselves, and sell it right at the brewery. All of that keeps costs down and gets beer connoisseurs excited, Wilson says. "There's a reason why North Carolina has forty breweries and Georgia has half of that."
Wilson is a brewer himself, crafting Southern-style beer with ingredients from local farms at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. Wilson says he didn't start Pop the Cap to break into the beer business, but now says he can't imagine doing anything else. "It's one of the few things I'm good at," he says. — J. M.