Beer lovers of North Carolina, you don’t even know how good you’ve got it.
Or maybe you do, but I’m going to tell you anyway.
I’ve barely had any beer since my last column, which ran a month ago and focused on the underrated Lynnwood Brewing Concern that’s racking up award after award from tiny digs here in Raleigh.
For most of October and early November I was drinking mostly bourbon because the election left me no time for a leisurely beer. Then I got married and went on a honeymoon to Europe where – and this might surprise you – there is no beer.
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Okay, that’s not true. But during 10 days in France and Spain we went out three or four times a day and found not a single decent local beer. That certainly wasn’t the goal of the honeymoon, but as a beer columnist I at least had to try, right?
Some bars didn’t even serve beer. And when they did it was usually just a choice between Heineken and either Kronebourg 1664 (in France) or tequila-flavored Desperado (in Spain).
Complaining about our limited options, I remarked that this must be what America was like in the ’80s or ’90s. Then I realized that, being a 27-year-old in North Carolina, I’ve never before lacked for craft beer. We have about 180 breweries here now, and stores and restaurants offer beers from all over the world.
So let’s all be thankful for what we have, and for the entrepreneurs who went out on a limb in the belief that we should have options.
For people my age, it’s all we’ve ever known. In the ’90s we were drinking Capri Sun and Sunny Delight, so to hear people talk about the start of the craft brewing movement can feel a bit like history class.
We absolutely take it for granted. Every time I’ve gone to the store or a bar – even when I lived in fairly rural Lee County – there have always been hoppy ales, hazy wheats or chocolatey stouts to choose from. That’s just how it is.
I asked Joe Zonin, a co-founder of one of North Carolina’s oldest craft breweries, Carolina Brewing Co., if he was offended that people like me take those early days for granted.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “I wish I would’ve grown up when there was more craft beer.”
Zonin, now 47, helped Greg and John Shuck perfect homebrew recipes in the early ’90s in Seattle. They moved to Holly Springs, incorporated the brewery and started selling their Carolina Pale Ale in 1995. That recipe hasn’t changed since, but the beer scene has.
“We went around and found the bars and restaurants that had the most draft beers,” Zonin said of the early days. “And this was before the internet, so you had to do the legwork. And we found two that were tied in the Triangle for the most, and they had nine (beers on tap). Now if a place is opening, they have at least 15 or 16.”
That’s true, and now even 90 taps won’t get you first place. That honor belongs to the Raleigh Beer Garden, which had a whopping 366 taps last time I checked, plus plans to install more.
It’s too bad for tourists (and locals) that craft beer hasn’t really hit France and Spain yet. We heard almost nothing but American and English music there – and not just pop hits. I even heard J-Dilla. But American culture hasn’t encroached on drinking habits.
In the U.S. in 2015, according to the Brewers Association, craft beer had a 12 percent total market share – and more than a fifth of retail sales. Not so much in France and Spain.
We came across two breweries in four cities. At one in Barcelona, which made only three beers, I struggled through a few sips of the pilsner before giving up and switching to sangria.
France’s lack of good beer was even more surprising, since it borders beer-laden Belgium and Germany. An article from the website Food Revolution last year said there wasn’t a single craft brewery in the Paris metro area in 2005, and “now it has nearly a dozen.”
Pardon me if I’m not impressed.
The Triangle has about a tenth of the population of Paris, but twice as many breweries. American exceptionalism, confirmed.
I got back to the U.S. on Thanksgiving, newly thankful for the local beer scene and wondering if I could get rich opening a bottle shop in Paris.
And then I did the impossible, gleefully paying $10 for an airport beer. And then another. And then I turned on my phone, saw friends in a group message talking about $3 beer specials, and didn’t even care.
It was just good to be back.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran
December beer events
Saturday, Dec. 3: N.C. History Museum pop-up exhibit at Fullsteam in Durham, from 2-4 p.m. Come get some beer and/or learn a little about North Carolina history. Details at ncmuseumofhistory.org/events.
Monday Dec. 5: Ryan Self, sales director for Charlotte’s Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, will be in Raleigh for a free lunch presentation noon-1 p.m., called “North Carolina Craft Beer: How We Got To Be Best in the South, and How We Become Best in the Country.” It’s hosted by the John Locke Foundation. For details and to register for a seat, go to johnlocke.org/upcoming-events.
Saturday, Dec. 10: Big Boss Brewing’s 10th anniversary. Find food trucks and a small market, plus hourly releases of specially brewed beers at the Raleigh brewery from noon-5 p.m. Details at facebook.com/bigbossbrewing.
Sunday, Dec. 11: Mystery Brewing’s winter beer release and holiday bake-off contest, from noon-10 p.m. at the Hillsborough pub. More details at facebook.com/pg/MysteryBrewing.