In 2014, Stone Brewing announced plans to open a brewery on the East Coast. To many of us in the Queen City, Charlotte seemed like the natural choice. After all, the city was home to Stone’s Most Arrogant Bar in America two years in a row.
However, despite a campaign led by the Chamber of Commerce, Stone Brewing chose Richmond, Va., for its new distribution center and destination brewery.
At the same time, national breweries like Sierra Nevada Brewing, New Belgium Brewing, and Oskar Blues Brewery were either opening breweries in the Asheville area or making plans to – with rumors that many others would follow suit. It seemed like Charlotte would never land a national brewery.
Then, 2016 brought announcements that regional and national breweries Catawba Brewing, Fat Head’s Brewery and the new Southern Tier Brewing/Victory Brewing joint venture, Artisanal Brewing Ventures (ABV), were all opening breweries in Charlotte, with ABV even placing its headquarters here.
And homegrown brewery Resident Culture recently announced plans to open in Plaza Midwood, bringing on Chris Tropeano from California’s Russian River Brewing as their head brewer.
With so many announcements so quickly, I started to wonder: Why Charlotte? What makes our town so appealing to outside breweries? But more importantly, what was Stone thinking when they skipped over us?
The answer for most breweries on why they’re moving to Charlotte is easy – demographics.
“You can’t deny the demographics,” said Billy Pyatt, owner and founder of Catawba Brewing. “Charlotte’s the second-fastest growing city in the Southeast and the fastest-growing city for millennials.”
It’s the same reason why Brad Ledbetter, founder of Thirsty Nomad Brewing, moved to Charlotte from Utah to open his brewery.
“There’s a lot of young people with disposable incomes,” said Ledbetter. “Plus, there’s a lot of people with a good knowledge and taste in beer that aren’t beer nerds.”
Ryan Self, Sales Director of Olde Mecklenburg Brewery agreed. “Charlotte’s still an untapped market even with the amount of breweries that we have,” he said. “Local breweries still don’t make 3 percent of the beer sold in the city. …
“I think Charlotte is the best beer city in the Southeast. Our access is great with Atlanta, Raleigh, and Washington all a short drive away.”
Tropeano adds that the laws are also more brewery friendly.
“As far as Southern states go, the laws are pretty good here. I never wanted to aspire to be at a big brewery, so the 25,000 (barrel) cap didn’t affect me,” he said, referring to N.C.’s self-distribution cap that The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and others are trying to get changed.
The laws Tropeano is referring to are Pop the Cap, which passed in 2005 and raised the alcohol by volume cap on beers sold and produced in North Carolina from 6 percent to 15 percent, and more relaxed zoning laws in recent years allowing newer breweries to open outside of the same industrial neighborhoods as original breweries like OMB and NoDa Brewing.
How do Charlotte-based breweries feel about their new neighbors, knowing that outsiders are moving in to capitalize on their lobbying efforts?
“A rising tide raises all ships. More breweries equals more beer education,” said Brad Shell, owner of Unknown Brewing. “We have to remember that this is fun. It’s not about competition, but we get to make beer for a living.”
Self agreed, with the caveat that he hopes locals will remember which breweries are truly local. “All of our jobs from the brewer to the CEO are here and that’s local,” he said. “People understand that. At the same time, breweries moving in aren’t the enemy. They can help continue to win the hearts and minds of others to craft beer.”
That’s exactly what Pyatt aims to do.
“I see a lot of variety in Charlotte beer from great mainstream beers like excellent lagers from OMB to more experimental beers like those from Free Range and Wooden Robot,” he said. “Then there’s Brad at Unknown who will brew just about anything that pops into his head. I want to compliment what those breweries are doing.”
Photos: Catawba rendering courtesy of D3 Studio; CharlotteFive file