People can sample and purchase lagers, stouts and India pale ales at this year’s N.C. State Fair, but only just outside the fairgrounds.
This is the first year that craft breweries have joined wineries serving and selling their libations at the Hunt Horse Complex, across Youth Center Drive from the fairgrounds. Among those sampling Friday afternoon were friends Blake Christiana, 38, and Rick Bugel, 31, both of Raleigh.
“We thought there was beer in the fair,” said Christiana, who had envisioned sipping a beer while people watching. “Instead, we’re watching horses.”
The breweries were happy to be this close to the annual 11-day event that attracts nearly 1 million people to the fairgrounds and celebrates the state’s agricultural industry.
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“It’s just fantastic recognition by the Department of Agriculture that beer is an important part of the story here,” said Margo Knight-Metzger, executive director of the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild, who noted that farmers are growing more and more barley, wheat and hops for the state’s 120 breweries. “The agriculture component is getting stronger by the month.”
The state’s breweries generate an estimated $791 million annually and employ about 10,000 people, according to 2012 numbers from the Brewers Association, a national trade group. Knight-Metzger points out that those 2012 numbers don’t reflect the expansion of such breweries as Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and New Belgium in the state.
“We’ve grown a lot since 2012,” she said, noting that North Carolina is the fifth fastest-growing state for craft beer production and has 40 more breweries in the works.
Winemakers had lobbied for years to have a presence at the fair. But their efforts were stymied by state rules prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol at the fair and banning people from walking around with liquids in glass bottles. Last year, state agriculture officials came up with a compromise: allowing winemakers to offer samples and sell at the horse arena, where alcohol sales are permitted. At the time, officials acknowledged that beer would likely be added this year.
Those in the craft beer industry are happy to get the kind of exposure that only the State Fair offers.
“I’m an N.C. State grad. I know how big the fair is,” said Scott Andrews of the Beer Army brewery in Trenton. “We’re really excited to be up there and show people what we’re all about.”
Knight-Metzger would like to see breweries eventually get a presence inside the fairgrounds. One possibility, she said, would be a beer garden offering a flight of small samples of several different beers, as is done at the Minnesota State Fair as a fundraiser for that state’s beer guild.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to better integrate into the State Fair experience,” she said. “We’re taking baby steps.”
Some fairgoers were fine with the current setup.
“It’s probably just as well,” said Bobbi Wallace, 64, of Pittsboro. “Keeping things a little bit sober is probably just a good idea.”
Her friend, Alice Sliwa, 56, of Rolesville, added: “People who want it will be willing to walk across the street.”
Sliwa said she was happy she got to sample several new craft beers. “Now I’d go into a store and be more willing to buy it,” she said.