Wilmington brews its way toward Beer City
By Jason Frye • Photographs by Andrew Sherman
For too long Wilmington was a footnote in North Carolina’s beer scene. While Asheville was earning their Beer City USA crown (three times), while Raleigh played host to beer festivals and made itself into a brewery- and food-truck-friendly city, while Charlotte grew into a Southern beer city, we lagged behind. Why? Not for lack of interest but for lack of opportunity. Despite our dedicated drinkers, Wilmington wasn’t a city friendly to beer.
Oh, we had plenty of home-brewers and plenty of beer enthusiasts, but we didn’t have a city that welcomed the hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments required to open a brewery and taproom. In our cups by the time our city council and county commissioners decided to unravel the mystery of zoning for breweries, we were far behind the rest of the state.
But now the pieces are in place for the Port City to charge forward!
The North Carolina Brewers Guild works with member brewers here to help raise the visibility of Wilmington. Our own Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance has sprung up and is working hard to do the job of promoting Wilmington as a beer city. And we’re seeing growth in both areas.
Statewide, April was North Carolina Beer Month, which brought festivals, fetes and special beer releases from the mountains to the sea. Locally, the reception was remarkable for Cape Fear Craft Beer Week and the wildly successful Cape Fear Craft & Cuisine, where 20 breweries and restaurants teamed up to present pairings of food and drink in Airlie Gardens. The events were packed, kicking off both Beer Month and Azalea Festival week.
More than just a good time, as a whole, craft beer in North Carolina is responsible for $1.2 billion in economic impact annually. We’ve grown from 45 breweries in 2010 to more than 190 breweries in 2017 (with more than 50 that will open in 2017 and 18). Locally, we account for more than two dozen of those breweries. For a long time we’ve been wanting to write “Beersville” on the map by our name, but we needed two things: breweries and a signature festival. We now have both.
Wilmington is a city that loves its suds. We have a thriving home-brew scene. We have throngs of thirsty beer lovers. We have brewers who make magic with a handful of simple ingredients.
Wilmington’s oldest, Front Street Brewery, has a new brewer working to refresh their recipes and get new versions of their stalwart beers into the hands of regulars and visitors. Ironclad’s new brewer is embracing his role with enthusiasm. Waterline has already expanded. Wilmington Brewing Company is hopping on Friday night. Bottle shops — Bombers, Palate, Fermental, Hey! Beer — have popped up around town. Bars — like Cape Fear Wine and Beer — are finding room in their tap rotations for a keg or two from right up the street.
And best of all, new breweries keep opening.
Wrightsville Beach Brewing
Oysters and beer. Is there a more perfect pairing than a freshly shucked oyster and a swallow of cold beer? That’s what inspired Wrightsville Beach Brewing (WBB). One of the most recent additions to the Wilmington beer scene, WBB delivers seven beers (though only three are on tap as of this writing) that are easy to drink and set to become summertime favorites. The Pompano Porter is aptly billed as “silky” and “smooth.” Lighter and indeed smooth, it had the porter notes you’re looking for — a touch of oaty sweetness, some coffee on the nose and delivering a little bitterness to the back end of a sip — and as the weather climbs to its summer highs, this will stand out as a brew dark beer lovers will turn to.
At the brewery on Oleander Drive (sort of behind the O.G. Saltworks), their tanks and brewhouse are on display, but the co-stars of this spot come in a glass and on the plate. Founder, owner, brewer and head oyster shucker Jud Watkins pours his passion into pint glasses while Chef Owens (no one is sure if Chef is a title, a name or both) shows his stuff on the plate. Seven house-brewed beers and nearly two dozen other drafts complement Chef Owens’ menu, which features the requisite oysters — steamed, baked, even as a pizza topping — a new take on calamari, shrimp and grits, and a half-dozen pizzas (including a shrimp and grits pizza. Don’t overthink it, just order it).
Inside, the bar area and dining room can grow a little raucous — loud conversation stands as a testament to the quality of the brews — but in a way that draws the crowd closer. A small exterior space — string lights in the live oaks and a small standup bar — remind you of hanging out in the backyard at a friend’s house. And that’s the point, isn’t it?
New Anthem Beer Project
Downtown Wilmington’s newest brewery, New Anthem Beer Project, found the perfect place on Dock Street. Comfortable, fun and Instagrammable from every angle, New Anthem’s tap room illustrates the brewery’s mission perfectly — “to wake up every day and know we are doing something we love.” It shows in the space, the music, the vibe and, most importantly, the glass. As you sit at the horseshoe-shaped bar, giant steel tanks of beer let you know it’s a serious brewery, and the chalkboard listing 11 of their own beers to sample back it up.
With 11 beers to choose from, New Anthem is going hard. These 11 are known as “The Usual Suspects” because all or most of them are on tap at any given time, but they have more to choose from. There’s a pair of seasonals, some funky beers in the works, and plans for limited release and barrel-aged brews. The Rascal Prince — an American-style Biere de Garde — drinks easy. Somewhere between a Saison and Dubbel, it hits with a light, fruity note, a bit of malt backbone and just a touch of bitterness to bring it back in balance. Pistola (de Dedos) is a simple, straightforward Saison, walking a fine line between bitter and malt, but dry with a hit of wheat.
Aside from the A+ beer, New Anthem scores high marks on environment. It’s comfortable, it’s lovely, and the garage door on one wall opens to the street. A simple bar — live-edged wood — and a few stools give a lucky few prime spots, all while allowing light and air to flow through the taproom.
Bill’s Front Porch Pub and Brewery
The sister spot to Captain Bill’s Worldwide Beach Volleyball Headquarters (not really the worldwide HQ, but they do have a bunch of sandy courts and feisty players show up on the regular) sits right on Market Street: Bill’s Front Porch Pub and Brewery. Once a seafood restaurant, then a Mexican joint, then a banquet hall, Bill’s Front Porch has finally settled on an identity as a go-to for excellent pub grub and a slate of beers.
But what will keep you coming back? The wings or fried chicken? A burger or maybe the Pub-Fil-A, a cheeky take on a popular chicken sandwich, but made with fried thighs and topped with house-made IPA pickles? Or something in a glass?
One of each is most likely.
Jim Deaton, Head Brewer, cut his teeth on homebrew systems, then moved to Blowing Rock and Hickory before making his way to the coast. Now he’s here and puts out a dozen brews to thirsty customers — volleyball players, spectators, and folks who simply love beer — in a room smelling of malt and hops. Sitting at one of the barrels-turned-tables, some adorned with carved bears — it’s easy to get comfy.
And the beer. The Scotch Ale is a nitro, so it delivers a creamy mouthfeel and doesn’t skimp on flavor. Their other beers are sounded — carbonated through the natural processes of the yeast rather than by adding outside CO2 to each batch — causing the formation of tiny, delicate bubbles that give each pint a fine head and rich body. All the brews are balanced out, and even hop-forward beers like the Citra or Mosaic IPA are friendly to those who may eschew the style. And if you’re a hophead, they deliver on the flavor and character of each hop variety.
Donnie Stone, general manager of Bill’s Front Porch, is excited about what’s going on here and around town. “We want to be successful, sure,” he says. “But we want Wilmington to be successful, too. I think we are on track to be — in a couple of years — one of the first cities you name when talking about beer in the Southeast.”
Cheers. We’ll drink to that.
Where can you grab a pint in the Port City and beyond? Here’s a broad sampling list of breweries open and in-the-works across the region, a list growing by the year.
Front Street Brewery
Waterline Brewing Co.
Broomtail Craft Brewery
The Sour Barn
Wilmington Brewing Company
New Anthem Beer Project
Good Hops Brewing
Wrightsville Beach Brewery
Bill’s Front Porch Pub and Brewery
Flying Machine Brewing Company
Edward Teach Brewing
Check Six Brewing Company
The Mash House Brewing Company
Southern Pines Brewing Company
Mother Earth Brewing
3rd Rock Brewing Company
Mill Whistle Brewing
Tight Lines Brewing Co.