A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in search of a brewery to waste away a Saturday afternoon. We wanted to try something new but had already been to all of the breweries in Charlotte. We live in south Charlotte (actual south Charlotte and not Cotswold), so the breweries in Lake Norman and Cornelius were a bit too far away.
My wife did a quick search on Google Maps, and Full Spectrum Brewing in Fort Mill popped up. It was roughly the same distance from our house as the breweries in South End but a much shorter drive thanks to traffic on I-77. As I worked my way through a flight of well-executed and balanced beers, I couldn’t believe that this brewery was right in my own backyard.
Given the beer writer that I fancy myself to be, I introduced myself to the head brewer, Troy Bigelow. As we were chatting, Brian O’Neal, owner of Benford Brewing in Lancaster – a brewery I had heard of but knew little about – stopped in and joined the conversation. On our way home, we passed a van for Legal Remedy Brewing out of Rock Hill – another new-to-me brewery. There’s a microcosm of breweries located over the state line that receives little attention in Charlotte beer circles.
“There’s life across the border,” says Loran Sekely, social media manager at Full Spectrum Brewing.
Did the border make that much of a difference? Was this another example of the stranglehold that North Carolina distributors have over craft brewing?
The answer to both questions is: Sort of.
South Carolina is a strict three-tier state, meaning all breweries – no matter the size – must use a distributor. Add to that hurdle the fact that breweries distributing into North Carolina from out of state are forced to use a distributor (the 25,000 barrel cap rule doesn’t apply), and you have a legal and logistical framework that is difficult for a small brewery to maneuver.
Which Sekely said explains why Full Spectrum Brewing can’t be found in taps at your favorite Charlotte beer bar, even though they are brewing on a 30-barrel system. The brewery is waiting for the right distributor – one that takes care of small breweries and isn’t in bed with big beer.
It’s a mistake that Legal Remedy Brewing and Benford Brewing made when they first sought distribution in North Carolina. Both breweries ended up parting ways with their original distributor. For now, Full Spectrum Brewing is concentrating on growing their South Carolina presence from Fort Mill down to Columbia, with the outlook of selling in North Carolina sometime in the next three to five months.
“If you find a good distributor, that’s perfect,”said O’Neal, who supports his family of five with his brewery. “If you end up with a bad distributor, your business is sunk.”
Currently, you can find Benford Brewing’s beers on draft at Carowinds, where Irish Honey is the official beer of the theme park, and at restaurants and bars throughout the Charlotte area. As Benford Brewing also cans, their beers are now widely available in bottle shops and at grocers (Harris Teeter and Target) throughout the region.
“Our beers are a reflection of our lifestyle,” O’Neal said. Visit the farm-based brewery on Saturday’s from noon-5 p.m. for a peek at that lifestyle. After all, Benford Brewing’s beers did garner the attention of Evil Twin Brewing’s Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø for a collaboration beer – The Problem Solver – which is now part of Benford Brewing’s regular line-up.
2271 Boxcar Road, Lancaster, S.C.
Legal Remedy Brewing
Legal Remedy Brewing’s beers can also be found on tap at restaurants and bars throughout Charlotte. Retail is limited to bottle releases (the Malice Maple Bacon Russian Imperial Stout just came out). Legal Remedy Brewing does plan to start canning at the end of March. The first beer they’ll release will be their World Court Mocha Blonde Stout.
Legal Remedy Brewing is the only of the three breweries that is also a brewpub, serving locally inspired and sourced gastropub fare that is worth the drive.
“Beer and bacon. If you don’t like one or the other of those, that’s on you,” Chad McGowan of Legal Remedy said. “Twenty-four LRB beers on tap every day. House made bacon and crafted food. Awesome eco-friendly space. We think we have a combination that you just cannot find within 100 miles.”
129 Oakland Ave., Rock Hill, S.C.
Full Spectrum Brewing
Full Spectrum Brewing is the only brewery on this list that does not currently distribute to Charlotte. However, it is the closest to Charlotte, located right over the border in Fort Mill, so you have no excuse for not checking them out. Stop in Wednesday through Sunday for a sample of their beer.
“We’re not targeting the beer nerd,” Sekely said. “We’re targeting the regular person. Everything is made to be drinkable. Nothing is crazy with flavor, hops, or alcohol.”
2180 Carolina Place Drive #101, Fort Mill, S.C.
Photos: Bryan Richards