As 2014 dawned in Wilmington, Front Street Brewery owned the market. Today, 20 microbreweries are open or under construction in the Cape Fear area.
That growth trend earned Wilmington seventh place on a list of top 10 U.S. cities for beer drinkers in 2015. Last year, Wilmington maintained that position, tying with Denver for seventh, according to smartasset.com.
Asheville, Wilmington’s beer big sister, reigns No. 1 with 30 microbreweries launched in 25 years.
As the local craft beer scene moves at warp speed, some local brewery owners took pause to share their journey and lessons learned.
Broomtail Craft Brewery led the wave of new brew houses opening in 2014. Located on the edge of the Kings Grant and Summerfield neighborhoods in an industrial park, Broomtail realized immediate success.
“We were sold out after the first three months and could not meet demand with our three-barrel system,” co-owner Barry Owings said.
Owings erred on the side of starting too small.
“Looking back, starting with a 10-barrel system would have been better. However, we decided not to finance anything. But it would have made life easier today,” he said.
Six months ago Broomtail upgraded to an 8.5-barrel system but still can’t meet demand.
“Within two months we’ll be out of supply,” Owings said recently, adding that he is currently looking for property to build a 30-barrel operation in Pender County.
Last year Broomtail opened a second location called the Sour Barn to cater to the new sour beer trend. Once again, demand is strong. The first sour sold out the first week.
Good Hops Brewing, in Carolina Beach, opened a couple of months after Broomtail with a three-barrel setup. Expansion is not on the horizon for co-owner Patricia Jones.
“We believe in being debt free, and that’s where we are,” she said.
Good Hops has found a growth business in focusing on English Ales for its taproom and its 30 outside customers such as bottle shops. The pub pumps out about 1,000 barrels a year.
“We’re growing 12 percent to 17 percent annually,” Jones said, adding that locals make up 40 percent of the customer base.
Flytrap Brewing, a neighborhood pub in the Brooklyn Arts District, produces about 500 barrels a year. Co-owner Mike Barlas said he started with little more than a homebrew setup making 20-gallon batches before upgrading to a 100-gallon capacity last year.
“We do a lot of small batches and keep our core beers fresh. Our beers are clean and crisp with a lot of subtle complexity – a lot of flavors for a pleasant experience,” Barlas said.
To attract the neighborhood crowd, Flytrap hosts “crafts and drafts” activities on weekends that include succulent plantings, macramé plant hangers and macramé wreath making.
Of his start in late 2014, Barlas said, “It was so much harder than I ever thought it would be. I wish I knew how capital intensive it is, from an operation and growth standpoint. We put everything we had into it.”
The venture has created jobs including two brewers who recently graduated from the fermentation sciences program at Appalachian State University.
Next year, Barlas said, he plans to edge production up another 100 barrels while limiting distribution to a handful of restaurants.
Tim Hassel and Noah Goldman, owners of Check Six Brewery in Southport, planned to distribute their libations from week one when they first opened in 2015.
An explosion of local and statewide craft breweries and distributor problems, however, crept up behind them to limit their plans, said Hassel, who is currently an active duty fighter pilot in the National Guard.
“When we opened there were only a handful of area craft breweries, and we had a lot more accounts in Wilmington than we do now. No matter how good our beer – we’ve won several gold medals – the pressure of rotating taps from the many local microbreweries makes distribution difficult,” Hassel said.
Hassel has seen the number of North Carolina craft breweries rocket from 160 to more than 250 in less than three years, making distribution outside of Wilmington challenging. He has set his sights elsewhere.
“We have a new distributor, and we’re focusing on South Carolina, especially around Columbia,” Hassel said.
Check Six’s four-barrel operation that includes a bottling line on-site was thrown another curve involving its most popular bottled beer, a Vanilla Porter.
Given high demand and bad weather, a key ingredient – Madagascar vanilla beans – shot up from $82 to more than $500 per pound.
“We can’t afford to make it; it’s beyond being a loss leader,” Hassel said.
But in spite of setbacks, Hassel believes the craft beer business has room to grow.
“We’re nowhere near the saturation point,” he said. “Germany still has twice as many breweries per capita as the U.S.”
Waterman’s Brewing Co., located 400 yards from the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge, arrived on the scene in July.
Bob High, co-owner and a former brewer from California, warned that Wilmington is “dangerously close to saturation.”
To survive the growing competition, Waterman’s business model is not dependent on distribution. Instead, High said, hitting the right size for the market matters.
“There is a sweet spot: build large enough but with room to expand,” he said. “If small, it had better be a hobby because you can’t produce enough to make money. And for a massive system built for distribution, where is the demand?