Why Charlotte Breweries Thrive Through Cooperation
Something about craft brewing inspires would-be competitors, here and elsewhere, to share the wealth
Suzie and Todd Ford and brewer Chad Henderson opened NoDa Brewing Company just before Halloween 2011, in an old textile processing shop at North Davidson and East 26th streets. Less than two months later, in a similar space close enough to strike with a flicked growler cap, Chris and Tara Goulet established Birdsong Brewing Co. as NoDa’s second flagship craft brewery. Henderson had foregone a career in health care to join the craft beer revolution, and he was initially aghast at the thought of a direct competitor in the building next door. “We were just getting started,” he says. “And now we had another brewery opening up across the alley?”
It’s a little more than a decade later, and Henderson and I chat in the expanse of NoDa Brewing’s main taproom on North Tryon Street, which opened in 2015. It’s triple the size of the original. NoDa Brewing is one of North Carolina’s most heralded breweries, as is Birdsong, which moved its operations to a larger building up North Davidson the same year. Neither suffered from its initial proximity to the other. Just the opposite: Until the breweries moved into their new spaces, drinkers hopped between the two, and that corner of NoDa became a party alley, with food trucks, cornhole matches, and double the beer options.
Henderson quickly realized the benefits. The two breweries collaborated on a drinkable nonaggression pact of sorts, a kettle sour they called “26th Street Collab.” To celebrate their 10th anniversaries last year, they collaborated on a similar beer, a Berliner Weisse they named “Hey Neighbor.” Over the years, Henderson has discovered something that small, independent brewers have come to learn and love about their blossoming sub-industry: Participants cooperate more than compete.
Brewers collaborate not just on beers but in business and life in general. They trade recipes, ingredients, equipment, and advice, among breweries, neighborhoods, and cities. They applaud (and drink) each others’ successes. They do it in Charlotte, and Richmond, and Austin, and Denver, and Portland. In market after market, the collaborative spirit is a fundamental aspect of craft brewing, difficult to quantify but universal; it runs counter to the cutthroat, zero-sum ethos of many industries, in which rivals can view each other as blood enemies.
“When you take out the competition side of it, and you all work as a community, the community feels that,” Henderson says. “And whether or not your business is the one that (customers are) going to go to all the time, everyone’s going to feel more positive … knowing that we’re not out there trying to stab each other in the back or cut each other’s throats or kick our legs out from underneath each other. We all actually want us, as a group, as an industry, to do well.”
The reasons spring from independent brewing’s attachments to specific places and people. Since the movement’s beginnings in the 1980s, homebrewers have turned their hobbies into livelihoods, says Neil Reid, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toledo and an authority on the beer industry. (Reid is known as “The Beer Professor.”) So it’s natural for small groups of homebrewers in a specific city or neighborhood to maintain their connections even if members open separate breweries.
That sense of tribe extends to craft brewers from different cities when they gather at events like the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver. (Henderson still talks about an event early in his brewing career at which Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, one of craft brewing’s founding fathers, took several minutes to talk with Henderson as 75 or so people waited in line behind him.) Collegiality is part of it—but also a broader conception of who the competition really is. Scholars have written academic papers on the subject, including one Reid cites as a landmark in the study of craft brewing culture and economics.
Written by University of Washington law professor Zahr Said and published in the Lewis & Clark Law Review in 2019, the 69-page paper examines the collaborative nature of craft brewing in Seattle and identifies “collective oppositional identity” as one of its hallmarks. It’s the brewing version of what you might call the artisanal manifesto: Small, distinctive, and place-based is cooler than big, homogenized, and global.
“Collectively, they’re the small guy, right? And the craft brewery down the street is not the enemy. The enemy is the big guy—Anheuser-Busch, the big multinationals,” Reid says. “I don’t want to call it a siege mentality, because I think that’s not quite what it is. But there’s this idea that, working together, they can promote the industry as a whole.”
Collaboration can help people outside their circle, too. Last year, COVID prevented Nils Weldy, who founded the annual Queen City Brewers Festival in 2012, from organizing the 10th anniversary event. Weldy, the executive director of the Charlotte Independent Brewers Alliance, contacted Henderson and Chris Tropeano, founder of Resident Culture Brewing Company, who together created the recipe for a double IPA that Weldy, an avid tennis player, named “Court Shoes Only.” Then he reached out to as many Charlotte-area breweries as he could.
More than 40 agreed to put their own spins on the basic recipe, can the result, sell it, and direct the proceeds—more than $23,000, raised between late January and the end of March 2021—to ACEing Autism, a national nonprofit. ACEing Autism helps autistic children make friends and stay fit through tennis, and Weldy is the southeast regional program director. The Brewers Alliance plans to repeat the benefit beginning in April.
“That speaks to how special the brewery community is in Charlotte,” Weldy says. “When they get behind something and do so as a group, its impact can be tremendous. It truly is a force. That’s exactly what the Charlotte Independent Brewers Alliance is striving to achieve, to make these guys as successful as possible.”
Henderson says four of every five NoDa Brewing collaborations with other breweries these days raise money for charitable causes. It’s something relatively new to him, and to Charlotte—carbonated philanthropy, with varying alcohol content—but it matches the idea, often cited by craft brewers, that a rising tide lifts all boats, and cans, and growlers. “That’s a common thread that’s been going on in craft beer for as long as I’ve been involved with it,” he says.
“What gravitated me to the industry is genuine people trying to do something that they love to do and want to share with you. That fosters an idea of community and respect and collaboration. It doesn’t foster, you know, ‘I’ve got my money scheme, and screw these other guys who are trying to do the same thing.’ It’s the complete opposite.”
Greg Lacour is the editor.