In the mid-1980s, Uli Bennewitz was farming near Manteo when his brother in Munich persuaded him to buy some beer-brewing equipment.
Bennewitz did, and he planned to open a brewery. Later someone mentioned that he should probably check with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, which he knew only by its initials -- ABC.
"I thought it was a learning center," Bennewitz recalls. "I had no idea that there was an agency strictly for alcohol. I found out it was truly illegal to operate such a [brewing] facility in North Carolina."
Working with ABC officials, Bennewitz got the law changed to allow him to brew and sell his beer. His brewery, Weeping Radish, became the first in the state.
Fast-forward 20 years, and North Carolina now has almost 40 breweries and brewpubs. Brewers here and throughout the Southeast are experimenting with styles of beer that have already been seen in other parts of the country -- double India Pale Ales, dark stouts and Belgian variations, for instance. Their craftsmanship is paying off with awards and national recognition.
"There is increasing awareness among beer drinkers that North Carolina is a great beer state," says Sean Wilson, co-founder and former member of Pop the Cap, a grassroots lobbying group that in 2005 persuaded North Carolina lawmakers to change the state law limiting beer to 6 percent alcohol or less.
Wilson plans to open his own brewery, Fullsteam Brewery, in Durham this year. It would be the fourth new brewery to open in the Triangle since November.
He plans to offer a uniquely Southern take on beer, using regional food products not only for flavor but to aid fermentation. In the works: Rhubarb Ale, a sour, low-alcohol beer; Sweet Potato Amber; and one called Hogwash, a hickory-smoked porter to drink with barbecue.
In January, 300 people showed up at a brewery tucked away in a North Raleigh industrial park for LoneRider Brewing Co.'s first Friday night tour.
On a recent Friday night at Lone Rider, more than 100 people stood drinking free pints of Shotgun Betty, the brewery's Hefeweizen, and a limited release porter called DeadEye Jack.
Jennifer Early, 30, and Kyle McPeek, 42, both of Fuquay-Varina, heard about the new brewery at American Brewmaster, Raleigh's store for home brewing equipment. Early and McPeek are homebrewers.
"I much prefer drinking local beers [rather] than the nationals," Early says.
Asked about the evolution of the local beer scene, McPeek says, "It's getting better."
Pioneers of the craft
How did North Carolina get so thirsty for craft beer all of the sudden?
Aside from the previous cap on alcohol, Wilson says the state has had laws that made it easy for brewers to start successful businesses. The laws allowed a number of different business models. A brewer could open a production-only brewery or a brewpub and self-distribute beer up to 775,000 gallons or hire a distributor.
But Wilson also credits the decade or so of beer advocacy by some unsung pioneers of the state's craft beer scene. Among them:
Tyrone Irby, a bartender and entrepreneur who hosted the Triangle's first beer festival in 1994.
Daniel Bradford, the publisher of the Durham-based magazine All About Beer, who held the first World Beer Festival in Durham in 1996.
Tyler Huntington, who opened Tyler's Taproom in Carrboro in 1998, now owns taprooms in Apex and Durham and plans to open a fourth in Raleigh this fall.
In 1992, when Bradford moved here from Colorado, he found a bleak scene: "I came from one of the beervanas of the country to one without a beer culture."
Breweries and brewpubs were few and far between in North Carolina at the time. By 1994, the handful included Bennewitz's Weeping Radish and Greenshields in Raleigh.
That year, Irby, who worked at Second City Grill in Chapel Hill, decided to host a microbrew beer festival on one of the restaurant's slow nights.
He drove to other states to bring back beer to sample. The event was such a hit that Irby was soon hosting similar events at a hotel in downtown Durham.
"It was an opportunity to bring something unique to people who didn't know much about beer," says Irby, 44, of Durham, who also started the Southeastern Microbrewers Association.
But when Bradford decided to start the World Beer Festival in 1996, he was able to use his contacts in Colorado and as a beer magazine publisher to elevate these events.
World Beer Festivals are now held in Durham, Raleigh, Columbia, S.C., and a soon-to-be-named fourth city. The events attract 8,000 people, who pay $40 each. The Triangle events sell out quickly -- in 36 hours, on one occasion.
"Having a world beer festival here created a lot of energy around beer culture," Bradford says. "Ten years ago, the beer scene was so small. In 10 years, it's become rather gargantuan."
Part of that transition was educating local beer drinkers about microbrews, which is how taprooms such as Tyler's in Carrboro helped grow the local craft beer scene.
Huntington, who worked as a brewer at Red Hook in Seattle for three years, came back to North Carolina and eventually decided to open a taproom in his hometown.
Unlike a beer festival where folks are already interested in microbrews, Huntington says a taproom will draw people who have little knowledge of microbrews and can feel intimidated.
His staff has to be willing to educate consumers about the beer on tap.
Huntington says he started with 16 tap handles in Carrboro. He didn't want to offer the ubiquitous Sam Adams and so he struggled to find microbrews to pour. Now, the Tyler's in Apex has 80 tap handles and a waiting list.
"It's come a long way in 10 years," Huntington says.
What also helped along the way was Pop the Cap, Huntington says. Wilson and Julie Johnson, an editor at All About Beer and former beer columnist for The News & Observer, co-founded the organization.
A lot of people wanted to see the 6 percent law changed, Huntington says, but they had businesses to run. Wilson was a neutral person without a financial stake in the beer industry at the time, who could champion better beer in the state.
"Getting that law changed opened the gates for a lot of great beer to come into a market that was already primed for it," Huntington says.
That led us to where we are today: LoneRider Brewing Co. now has to limit Friday night brewery tours to 120 people by having people register for tickets.
Brewpub fans can thank the Triangle's pioneering microbrewers, who are exploring new tastes through a combination of enthusiasm for craft beer and sometimes a bit of good fortune.
LoneRider's Sumit Vohra and his two business partners, Steve Kramling and Mihir Patel, met at Cisco Systems, where they had cubicles next to each other. Vohra has an MBA, and the two others are software engineers who liked to home-brew beer. They all kept their day jobs but decided to start a brewery when they found a good price on equipment.
"Everybody who is a home-brewer has this dream," Kramling says. They stored the brewing equipment, large copper tanks called fermenters, in their garages until the brewery space was ready in an industrial park not far from the Angus Barn.
In November, Mark Doble opened Aviator Brewing Co. in an airport hangar in Fuquay-Varina. Doble says he lucked into finding a hangar for his plane and then lucked into getting some brewing equipment.
In February, home-brewer Andrew Leager converted the unused second floor of his cabinetmaking business near downtown into the Boylan Bridge Brewpub.
"As more breweries open in North Carolina and the level of skill and willingness of brewers to push the boundaries of beer grows, I see a fantastic future for beer in [the] Triangle," Huntington wrote in an e-mail.
"Some folks seem to think we are experiencing the peak of the craft beer industry in our area, but I believe we can't even see the summit yet."
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