What is Charlotte beer? While this seems an innocent enough question, the waters have muddied a bit in recent months. Now, a trade group of local breweries is seeking to define #CLTbeer, which may result in several players on the outside looking in.
Years ago, a Charlotte brewery could be defined simply: a brewery located in Charlotte. But what happens when breweries from out of town start setting up their own Charlotte locations? Will the beer poured from those lines be considered Charlotte beer, if it is made elsewhere? For those that actively support local breweries, do these imported entries even qualify?
First, let’s meet the players.
Brewers at 4001 Yancey, which opened their LoSo doors in June, might not ring a bell, but the two halves of that joint venture should: Southern Tier Brewing Company and Victory Brewing Company. Together, they operate under the umbrella of Artisanal Brewing Ventures (ABV). They’re the 13th largest craft brewery in the country, with an annual volume of around 270,000 barrels, more than ten times that of Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.
Next, meet Catawba Brewing Co., with its Belmont taproom opening in May 2017, and brewing operations firing up several months later. While not nearly as large as ABV, it underwent a recent acquisition of Charleston’s Palmetto Brewing Co. back in December.
Lastly, there’s the recently-formed Charlotte Independent Brewers Alliance (CIBA), which represents the interests of 27 member breweries in Mecklenburg and contiguous counties. The proverbial ink is still wet on their mission statement, recently finalized and not yet on their website:
The Charlotte Independent Brewers Alliance (CIBA) exists to promote Charlotte beer and cider and the local craft brewers who create it. Membership in CIBA is open to all independent brewers and cidermakers who exclusively sell beer that is produced in Mecklenburg County or its contiguous counties.
As an organization, CIBA will strive to educate our consumers, retail customers and the community, about the merits of Charlotte’s craft beer and cider industry.
So what is Charlotte beer?
Using the CIBA definition, neither Catawba nor Victory/Southern Tier count as Charlotte breweries, because most to all of what they pour is made elsewhere and trucked in. So how much are we talking?
Per Catawba’s taproom manager Jameson France, “(E)ach of our locations have different responsibilities as far as production goes and CLT is responsible for our barrel aging program and our open fermentation tanks.”
So, some of Catawba’s beer comes from either their primary Morganton facility (77 miles away) or from Asheville’s South Slope (126 miles away). Considering flagship beers such as White Zombie are brewed in Morganton, it’s safe to assume a majority of the beers poured come from elsewhere.
Across town, Brewers at 4001 Yancey are still fine-tuning their equipment. David Harries, the Director of Brewing Operations, expects their brewhouse to finally be commissioned in the next two weeks, followed by a round of production soon after, and Charlotte-made beer eventually pouring in September, assuming it so goes to plan. For now, all beer is being brought in from Southern Tier’s primary production facility in New York (609 miles away) or Victory’s facility in Pennsylvania (556 miles).
Is it still Charlotte beer if it’s made in another county? What about another state? Presently, it’s premature to call Yancey a Charlotte brewery; a bar with brewing equipment sounds more applicable, until they’re operational. Catawba’s a bit more morally grey.
While some to all of the beer may be from elsewhere, these folks certainly hire local. Brewers at 4001 Yancey currently have over 160 people on staff, including front and back of house plus production. ABV even relocated their headquarters to Charlotte, bringing another 20 corporate level employees. Catawba’s Charlotte operation is a bit leaner, with 11 front of house and four production staff.
Both of these outfits contribute to Charlotte-area nonprofits, like Charlotte breweries are wont to do. Catawba estimates $4,000 in charitable donations; a recent visit showed three small-batch beers on tap, with proceeds directed toward specific groups. Per a June 28 Instagram post, Brewers at 4001 Yancey donated the proceeds of taproom sales from their soft open Brewers Benefit, sending $8,000 to Second Harvest Metrolina.
On the other side of the coin, there’s a pattern of obfuscation from both outfits that needs to be addressed, while walking a fine line wielding a nativism argument in this political climate.
Perhaps you’ve seen cans of Catawba’s CLT IPA on shelves; the label reads it was “brewed in honor of our new Charlotte taproom,” and also that it is made in Morganton. It debuted in February 2017, over three months before the Belmont facility opened and five months before brewing began.
Then there’s the matter of their Rebellion Roads hazy IPA, brewed and canned in Charlotte. It honors an area of Charleston, home to recently-acquired Palmetto (both Catawba and Palmetto beers are on tap in Charlotte). While Charlotte’s namesake beer may hail from 77 miles away, that’s certainly closer than the 210 miles of separation for the Charleston-named offering.
Staff at Yancey sport shirts with an elaborate CLT logo emblazoned on the chest, which speaks more to where the employee is from versus where the beer they’re serving is sourced. The food menu is generously sprinkled with regionally-sourced NC shrimp and grits, SC mustard, Carolina pulled pork, and Carolina Gold Rice. Flip the menu over, and learn about the future cocktail menu, featuring liquors from Southern Tier Distilling Company, based less than a mile from the production brewery in Lakeland, NY.
Peel back the veneer of place-named beers and local ingredients, and there’s a clear pattern of willful deception, intended to convey a greater connection to the Queen City than is reality.
So do I think these are Charlotte breweries? Let’s look at the numbers: Charlotte is the fourth location for Catawba (Morganton, two in Asheville) not counting their ownership of Palmetto. Similarly, this may be the first joint location for ABV, but it’s the fourth overall for Victory (Downington, Kennett Square, and Parksburg, PA) and soon to be one of five for Southern Tier (Brewery and distillery in Lakeland, brewpubs in Pittsburgh and soon-to-open Cleveland).
In how many locations can one be “local” before it’s cliche? What could be done to bring them into the #CLTbeer fold?
Transparency would go a long way: have menu boards accurately show where the beers pouring are made. This won’t be enough for CIBA; remember those bylaws that essentially mandate “all beer poured must be made here.” Will Catawba or Brewers at 4001 Yancey be willing to pour only Charlotte-made beer?
Perhaps some middle ground can be found?
And how will this affect consumer behavior?
According to CIBA figures, over 90% of every beer dollar spent at a local member brewery stays local, supporting local vendors and agriculture. Their website touts the half-million-dollars of goods and services donated to Charlotte-area nonprofits by area breweries in 2017, among other figures.
We’re fortunate in Charlotte to have a plethora of quality breweries that deserve our time and dollar, and our community benefits from a vibrant, local manufacturing industry. If you want to simply drink beer because it tastes good, go for it. But, if your altruistic side prefers to keep your money truly local, perhaps you should visit a homegrown operation instead, and we’ve never had more to choose from. So, here are your choices: do you want beer from a Charlotte brewery, or will a brewery in Charlotte suffice?