RALEIGH — Sipping a Surprise Attack ale at Big Boss Brewing, Stephanie Benner contemplated her transformation to self-proclaimed beer snob.
The 26-year-old from New York said it started in Raleigh. "We've developed quite a beer taste since moving here," Benner said Tuesday as she tasted the English Strong Ale. "Being able to experience all these small breweries has been eye opening."
Beer lovers' options are likely to expand after a small tweak to the state's alcohol laws opens the door for a major expansion of the state's craft brewery industry.
The legislation now before Gov. Bev Perdue is aimed at attracting Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, two well-known midsize breweries, to western North Carolina. But brewers hope it further ferments the state's reputation as a beer capital.
"It's one of those 'the more the merrier' things," said Jesse Clark, the tavern manager at Big Boss in Raleigh. "It helps everybody out because it generates interest."
Mark Doble at Aviator Brewing Co. in Fuquay-Varina agrees. "It kind of gives North Carolina more of a beer tourism destination feel," he said.
The legislature approved the change Monday as part of House Bill 796, a catch-all measure that also included fixes to recent laws governing community colleges and school funding.
If signed into law, the beer industry provision would allow all breweries in the state, regardless of size, to offer tastings and sell beer on site, even beers they produce outside North Carolina.
Until now, state law reserved the beer garden niche to breweries that produced less than 25,000 barrels a year, using the cap as a way to help regulate alcohol sales. All of the state's approximately 50 small craft breweries fit under the ceiling in the existing law.
State Rep. Tim Moffitt, an Asheville Republican, said the change would help attract the Colorado-based New Belgium and the California-based Sierra Nevada to open East Coast production facilities, potentially creating about 275 jobs and more than $200 million in capital investments.
New Belgium is looking to open a facility in Asheville and Sierra Nevada is eyeing property in Hendersonville, officials said.
"Asheville is becoming the craft brewery capital of the Southeast, if not the nation," Moffitt said. "This was a small change in the law to allow our state to benefit from additional jobs and additional investment."
The bulk of North Carolina's current small breweries produce less than 20,000 barrels a year, but the two new companies could each produce about 200,000 barrels annually, officials said.
But by removing the cap, the law also would allow mega-beer producers, such as Budweiser and MillerCoors, to tread on the craft brewers' turf with tasting rooms. MillerCoors owns a brewery in Eden that produces 9 million barrels a day, but a beverage industry representative told lawmakers there are no current plans for it to develop an onsite retail component.
'The American way'
For a number of small breweries, including Fullsteam in Durham, the brewpub and retail sales represent a significant portion of their revenues. But many brewers in the Triangle are not fazed.
"If Miller opens up, and people enjoy it and have a good time, they are more likely to come to our place," said Andy Miller, the owner of Triangle Brewing Co. in Durham.
"The Bud drinkers are always going to be Bud drinkers, and the craft drinkers are always going to drink better beer," Big Boss' Clark added.
But for the Asheville beer market - dubbed Beer City USA in 2010 - it certainly means more competition.
Oscar Wong is the founder of Asheville's Highland Brewing Co., the state's largest brewery, producing 23,000 barrels a year. He acknowledges the new midsize breweries would cut into his market share.
"As far as competition for us, it may kick our (butt) a little bit, but it's the American way," he said.
But Wong, a member of the local Chamber of Commerce, felt conflicted because it would benefit his community.
"As they say, pioneers get shot at more," he said. "We'll just have to keep up and do our thing."