North Carolina Goes West…and Dominates: The Great American Beer Festival

I made the pilgrimage. I went to The Great American Beer Festival last week in Denver, Colorado.

Of course, it was delicious and fun. Of course, you should go. Of course, I had all the rare beers.

But the experience was also filled with surprises. Three days prior to the festival I was offered a Wicked Weed beer at a barbecue joint in Boulder. Our waiter met my surprise with a cool, “Oh, it’s our third Wicked Weed keg.” Fast forward to a conversation with Certified Cicerone© Chris Westgard of Crafty Beer Guys, and I learn that many breweries around the country opt to distribute in popular beer cities in addition to or sometimes in lieu of local distribution. The delicious, agriculturally-focused Fonta Flora in Morganton practices this distribution method.

[Side note: It’s just another example of how there is no one right way to be in the beer business and the importance of leaving growth and distribution choices to each brewery regardless of production.]

Medals, Medals, and More Medals!

First, the medal count. North Carolina’s success this year is unprecedented. Seventeen and the best Very Small Brewing Company and Brewer of the Year (Brown Truck Brewery in High Point, opened in 2016 and yes the taproom is open daily!)

Seventeen medals. Only three states took home more: California (68), Colorado (38), and Oregon (21), which are home to some of the most popular and experienced breweries in the nation. North Carolina is a major player.

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In the  Charlotte-area, D9 Brewing Company (Cornelius) won Gold for Experimental Beer with Dry Hopped Systema of Naturae – Scuppernong & Lily and NoDa Brewing (Charlotte) won Gold for Herb and Spice Beer with NoDajito.  Suzie Ford, president of NoDa, was particularly excited for NoDajito winning gold, as it “makes us even more excited to get in and put our own twist on traditional styles; that’s what the NoDable Series is all about. Beer is fun and winning for NoDajito, a truly fun beer, reminded us of that.”

It was also a fantastic festival for some of our state’s older breweries, who have paved the way for the Wicked Weeds, Crank Arms, and Birdsongs out there. Foothills Brewing (Winston-Salem) won Bronze for Bohemian-Style Pilsner with Torch Pilsner, Olde Hickory (Hickory) won Gold for Old Ale or Strong Ale with Irish Walker and Silver for Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout with The Event Horizon, and Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery (Farmville) won Silver for Sweet Stout or Cream Stout with the classic Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout.

The Festival Hall: Where the Beer is Poured!

If you’ve not attended, the hall is divided up by regions, except for a Meet the Brewer area (where NoDa was located so participants could talk to Head Brewer Chad Henderson) and an area for state brewery guilds to answer questions about their state’s beer industry and try local beers that didn’t get a spot on the festival hall floor. Executive Director Margo Metzger of the NC Craft Brewers Guild was at the NC table the first night pouring Gibb’s Hundred, Ponysaurus, New Sarum, Wooden Robot, and others who did not have a table on the hall floor.

Now with 780 breweries in the festival hall, grabbing an attendee’s attention is a little like a book cover trying to capture the attention of someone roaming around a Barnes and Nobles. And despite the regional labeling, within regions there seems to be no method for where breweries are set up. For instance, an NC brewery can be found between a Florida and a Georgia brewery, not beside all the other NC breweries.

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So with all this choice and volume, first impressions and visuals mattered. And entertaining brewery names don’t hurt either. Ass Clown (Cornelius) had a significant and continuous line throughout the festival, a small circular brand sign accompanying the generic festival one. Birdsong covered up the generic sign with their big red branded banner and also saw continual business, as did Catawba Brewing with a banner and flags that attracted a steady crowd. Wicked Weed, with reputation in hand, had a branded ranch-style entrance sign, a hanging hop lamp resembling their logo, and two lines consistently 20-yards long to taste regular beers and their hard-to-get sours.

NoDa and The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery were two local breweries with tables but not the branded signage and the lines did appear significantly shorter. The group I was with felt a little bummed because we love these two breweries — the people and the beer — and felt the lack of branding was detrimental to getting more people at the tables. We wondered if it had anything to do with their respective roles with Craft Freedom, opting to keep all branding efforts stateside, but it turns out, at least in NoDa’s case, sometimes a banner just gets left unpacked – accidentally – in the rush to get out to Denver. But we did see the immediate impact of NoDa winning Gold with NoDajito on Saturday morning, as the NoDa traffic increased significantly at the evening’s imbibe session.

But What About Our Other Breweries?

There were 1,752 breweries in the competition and 780 tables. So most breweries were not lucky enough to snag a spot to pour to the public. This helps explains why Legion, Triple C, D9 Brewery, and our other breweries may not have had tables in the hall. But don’t feel too bad, while consuming all the beer, mere enthusiasts can forget that the festival is also an industry gathering place for brewers and industry folk to learn and connect. I ran into Legion brewer Alexa Long at the festival who beamed over the fact that she had been able to meet with so many other brewers, attend special tastings, and expand her network and knowledge. So while I was hoping to see her pouring her beer to attendees, it proved a proud moment to know our local brewers were engaging and networking with change-makers and influencers in the $22.3 billion-dollar craft beer industry.

Final Thoughts

This was just a small slice of the whole experience. The cheese, the hands-on learning opportunities, the Draught Quality Summit — did I mention the cheese? It is a fantastic three-day event. And for those planning to go next year, as you might imagine, each night gets a bit rowdier, more volunteers and less brewery staff at tables, more costumes, more daytime pre-gaming the event. For those who homebrew or are into sensory experiences, follow the Brewers Association and Cicerone© organization. The big guys and gals are all there, happily willing to chat.

But my main takeaway is that North Carolina is a craft beer state. I encourage you to all check out a few breweries this coming weekend and say, “Thank you.” They did us proud.

Beth Salyers is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. She can be reached at salyers.beth@gmail.com

The Great NC Beer Map

This site has a pretty narrow focus: beer in Charlotte. Be that as it may, I broke that focus last year when I wrote about The Great NC BBQ Map, a project by Amanda Fisher and Paul Bright.

It wasn’t too great a leap, since the duo behind EDIA Maps is based out of Charlotte. The two are also homebrewers and active in the Carolina Brewmasters homebrew club. Plus, what goes better with beer than barbecue?

Clearly Fisher and Bright agree. No justifications need be made for sharing the news of their next project, The Great NC Beer Map. The map will feature more than 160 craft breweries, festivals and general information about brewing.

And just like their previous map’s Kickstarter, they’ve got some great pledge rewards. For $10, you can get a sticker and a map (the latter signed, if you wish). There are a variety of different rewards going up from there, including posters, coasters, exclusive beer dinners and the chance to brew with a variety of NC breweries.

The Kickstarter campaign runs through July 24.

Cabarrus Brewing Co. announces location at The Gibson Mill in Concord

Cabarrus Brewing Company in Concord, North Carolina

Cabarrus Brewing Co. announced today its plans to build in Concord’s Gibson Mill, which is currently home to a large antique mall. The mill is made up of two large buildings with a 15,000-square-foot building between them, and it is here that Cabarrus Brewing Co. will build. In March, High Branch Brewing Co. announced plans to build in a 1,400-square-foot space inside the mill as well.

Up until May, neither brewery would have been able to operate a taproom out of the mill — zoning didn’t allow for it. Steve Steinbacher, one of the owners of Cabarrus Brewing Co., began working with the city’s planning department in January to come up with a text amendment that would allow breweries to operate taprooms and sell beer on premise.

With that amendment now passed, Steinbacher has signed a lease in the Gibson Mill and is on the cusp of ordering his three-vessel, 15-barrel brewhouse.

“Cabarrus county has a very rich textile and manufacturing history,” Steinbacher said. “We have old mills everywhere. Some are falling down and dilapidated shells, and some are being repurposed.”

The Gibson Mill is squarely in the latter camp. Right now, The Depot at Gibson Mill is home to rows upon rows of old antiques and memorabilia that draw visitors from all over.

“It’s already really becoming quite a destination, not just during the weekend but during the week,” said Steinbacher.

Plans for the design of the taproom are still being finalized, but Steinbacher foresees an open floorplan that leaves in place many of the building’s historical elements. He points to San Diego’s Mission Brewery, whose building was once home to a Wonder Bread factory, as an inspiration.

“The interior of that space is eerily similar in terms of what our building will look like,” said Steinbacher.

Unlike many brewery owners, Steinbacher is not a homebrewer with dreams of going pro. He has brewed before, but doesn’t consider himself an avid homebrewer by any means. He’s just had a taste for and interest in craft beer for years. For the brewing, he will turn to Jason McKnight. If you’re familiar with your Charlotte beer history (shameless plug), you might remember that McKnight once brewed for The Mill Bakery, Eatery and Brewery during the 1990s. Now, the Siebel-trained brewer is once again picking up the mash paddle.

“A lot of people have been egging him to get back into the game,” said Steinbacher. “We’re thrilled he’s going to be a partner in this business.”

Joining Steinbacher as a founding partner is also Keith Griffin. As far as potential beers, Steinbacher said to expect good representations of traditional styles without getting “too out there.”

“We’re really going to focus not just on the beer, but the environment,” said Steinbacher. “We want this to be a really big showcase for Cabarrus county.”

To keep up with Cabarrus Brewing Co. as they build the brewery, follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

NC Brewers Collaborate on “North Carolina Gose West”

North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild

Denver’s Great American Beer Festival on Oct. 2-4 is fast approaching, and the NC Craft Brewers Guild wants to put the state’s best foot forward at this prestigious event.

More than twenty NC brewers will come together this weekend at Mystery Brewing Co. to brew a beer using only ingredients sourced from the Old North State. The beer is called “North Carolina Gose West,” and as the name suggests it will be a Gose, that sour and salty wheat beer that is becoming increasingly popular in the craft beer community. Going into this beer will be barley and wheat from Asheville’s Riverbend Malt House; muscadine grapes from Lu Mil Vineyard in Dublin, NC; fresh hops from several NC hop farms; and Outer Banks sea salt from Southern Shores, NC.

Charlotte’s NoDa Brewing recently released their “What Gose Round,” and they will be among the breweries participating in this collaborative brew, which is a first for the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild. Dan Wade and Josh Patton from Wooden Robot Brewery, which is currently negotiating for a space in Charlotte’s SouthEnd, will also journey to Hillsborough to brew this weekend.

The public is invited to come celebrate this collaboration at Mystery Brewing’s Public House on Aug. 23. You’ll have a chance to mingle with participating breweries and try some of their beers at the event, which is a fundraiser for the guild. The rally starts at 4 p.m., and at 5 p.m. a panel of brewers will take the stage to answer questions from the audience. At 8 p.m., Andrew Kasab will be playing some harp guitar.

“North Carolina Gose West” will be tapped at the Great American Beer Festival between Oct. 2-4 in the Guild Pavilion area. It will also be available at the World Beer Festival in Durham on Oct. 11., and it will be on tap at participating breweries throughout September and October.

The full list of NC breweries participating breweries includes:

  • Bull City Burger and Brewery
  • Carolina Brewery
  • Carolina Brewing Company
  • Compass Rose Brewery
  • Deep River Brewing
  • Double Barley Brewing
  • Gizmo Brew Works
  • Lonerider
  • Mystery Brewing
  • NoDa Brewing
  • Ponysaurus Brewing
  • Bombshell Brewing
  • RCC Center for Brewing Sciences
  • Top of the Hill Brewery
  • Triangle Brewing Co.
  • Regulator Brewing
  • Wooden Robot Brewery