Craft Brew Shows No Sign Of Slowing

By Vince Winkel, posted Sep 23, 2016
Aaron Skiles, co-owner of New Anthem Beer Project on Dock Street, is the latest to jump into the craft brewery scene in the area. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)

Drink up Wilmington.

With more local beer flowing than ever before, craft beer breweries in the Cape Fear region are ramping up for a strong finish to the year and another year of growth in 2017. 

On tap

Within the next two weeks, New Anthem Beer Project will open its doors at 116 Dock St. 

“We’re going have the full craft beer experience, but our loves are interesting hoppy beers of all sorts and farmhouse styles,” said New Anthem co-owner Aaron Skiles. “We have some talented and evolving [creatively] brewers making beer here. I also think this pool will become more diverse in both depth of talent and creativity in the next few years.” 

Not long after New Anthem starts to pour, the Wrightsville Beach Brewery is set to open at 6201 Oleander Drive near Bradley Creek. 

“The brew scene in Wilmington is tremendous,” explained Jud Watkins, owner of Wrightsville Beach Brewery. “Breweries are becoming the new neighborhood bars, and it only makes sense. Where are you going to find fresher beer?”

Like other craft brewers in the region, and across the country, Wrightsville Beach Brewery is big on supporting the community as well. It plans to partner with local nonprofits and donate 11 percent of the net proceeds of its “Beer of the Month” to a featured charity.

Wilmington may never overtake Asheville as arguably the hub of North Carolina brewing, but it seems to be giving it a good shot. 

“We want to make Wilmington a beer destination, much like Asheville,” said Jeremy Tomlinson, president of the newly-formed Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance. In addition to heading up the alliance, Tomlinson runs the Port City Brew Bus and also publishes the Wilmington Ale Trail magazine twice a year. 

His brew bus is probably going to need new tires in the near future. 

In addition to the New Anthem and Wrightsville Beach breweries soon tapping their kegs, there are at least four others in the planning stages, two of them in the Monkey Junction area. By this time next year Wilmington may have 15 or 16 breweries, compared to the 10 that are operating today, local industry watchers predict.

Not to be outdone, several of the existing shops in the area are expanding to increase their capacity. 

“The craft brewing business has gone through a dramatic and swift evolution in North Carolina in the last few years,” said Steve Harper, professor of management in the Cameron School of Business at University of North Carolina Wilmington. “What Asheville did a few years ago has caught on in Wilmington. The number of craft brewing companies in Wilmington demonstrates this is not likely to be a fad.

“It is clear that the beer is not the only thing that is attracting customers and social media buzz,” he added. “The ‘extras’ of a craft beer – the atmosphere, staff, specials, a convenient location – as is true with restaurants, illustrates that it’s not just the beer that counts.

“What is noteworthy about the craft beer business is that it appeals to tourists who want to check the Wilmington craft beer scene.” 

The craft beer industry across all of North Carolina is booming. In 2015, craft beer created 10,000 jobs and $1.2 billion in revenue, according to the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild.

In reserves

What’s the latest from Wilmington’s existing craft brewers? 

Down by the river at Front Street Brewery, there is a new head brewer in town. Christopher McGarvey was the assistant brewer at Front Street a few years ago and has returned.

Also causing a buzz at the brewery is its Oak Age Series.

“Our Oak Age Series is really taking off,” according to Front Street’s Ellie Craig. “Because we are the state’s largest whiskey bar, we have gotten our hands on some bourbon and whiskey barrels that no other brewery has ever had the opportunity to work with.” 

Over at Ironclad Brewery, 115 N. Second St., beer and events have turned into a winning combination for owner Ted Coughlin

“People love holding events at wineries and breweries, so we decided to tap into that market,” Coughlin said. “We will hold over 100 events in 2016, and by the number of events we are booking we will easily hold over 150 events in 2017.”

Ironclad is also expanding its capacity. Ironclad has a 10-barrel brewhouse with seven 10-barrel fermenters. They just bought three, American-manufactured 10-barrel bright tanks so they can store more beer. 

Meanwhile around the corner at Flytrap Brewing, 319 Walnut St., major upgrades are in the works.

“We opened with a brewhouse that could make 20 gallons of beer per batch and are upgrading to a three-barrel brewhouse or roughly 93 gallons,” co-owner and head brewer Mike Barlas said. “We’re also adding 12 new fermenters.

“Since opening in October of 2014, we’ve been overwhelmed with the support that we have gotten from the local community,” Barlas added. “After the upgrade, we will still focus mostly on supplying our tap-room but will have a larger spectrum of beers on draft and will be working on ways for guests to take Flytrap beer home with them.”

Barlas said they are planning an expansion party on Oct. 15, with special release beers, live music and food trucks all day. 

The staff at Bill’s Front Porch Pub and Brewery, which opened in June at 4238 Market St., is catching its collective breath after a busy first 90 days. 

“We currently have 13 of our beers on tap and are focusing on distributing to other restaurants and bottle shops in town, as well as to our sister restaurant, Capt’n Bills,” general manager Brookes Musser said. 

“It’s an exciting time to be a brewer, or in a brew-related field,” said local attorney Geoffrey Losee, managing partner at the Rountree Losee law firm, who works with a variety of brew businesses in the area. 

“I believe this area can support even more, because organically, you have restaurants now that are serving this amazing craft beer,” he said. “And now the distribution is starting, and it is starting to take off.”

The Wilmington Brewing Co. recently expanded its brewing system by 25 barrels at its 824 S. Kerr Ave. headquarters. Broomtail Craft Brewery is opening a second location, at 7211 Market St. called The Sour Barn. Good Hops Brewing in Carolina Beach is drawing business with its various ales, and Waterline Brewing beneath the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is building a customer base with its beer, live music and food trucks. 

Can there be too much of a good thing? 

Harper at UNCW says perhaps.

“Yet like many businesses in other industries – coffee, yogurt, mattress stores, tattoos places, nail businesses – there is a saturation point where there are more businesses than customers. It also appears there is a tendency for customers to try other/new craft brews, which means that if one’s beer is not particularly noteworthy, customers will move on,” he said. “Also distribution for craft beers continues to be a challenge.”

Those in the business, at least for now, don’t see those limits.

“The growth is phenomenal,” said Tomlinson of the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance. “It’s a great thing.”

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