Years ago, as the craft beer wave swept the Triangle, Asheville and Charlotte, the Port City missed the tide.
Now, after years with a lone brewery and a couple of bottle shops, Wilmington is awash.
“It’s incredible what’s happening here,” said Jason Adams, who opened Lighthouse Beer and Wine in Wrightsville Beach in the 1990s and started a beer and wine festival in 2001, trying to get townsfolk out of the supermarket case.
“We’ve been here going on 18, 19 years, pushing the craft beer movement, and in the last couple of years, it’s wild.”
As in other Tar Heel beer meccas, the scene is springing from a symbiosis of creative entrepreneurs. A food truck, for instance, will keep a crowd from leaving a taproom to eat, while the taps lure hungry diners for the trucks. Brewers provide space for artists, buy from farmers, create jobs for artisans and give musicians some weekend work.
“It’s a cool vibe here,” said Stephen Henson, owner of The Brewer’s Kettle, a year-old bottle shop on Oleander Drive that offers drafts, wine, cigars and stylish seating in an old service station.
“It’s very eclectic. How they design the food trucks, how we design our shops; the beers we serve, the food they serve. It’s a very interesting relationship.”
If you’d like to explore it all, there are several ways.
Downtown, you can spend a full afternoon and evening sampling brews at six locations without wearing out your fitness tracker.
Start at Front Street Brewery, the granddaddy of them all, which opened in 1995 and remains the only downtown brewpub, serving a full food menu. Walk a block north on Front Street to Cape Fear Wine & Beer, a bottle shop with 25 taps that’s also a pioneer, in business since 2003.
A block east on North 2nd Street is Ironclad Brewery, a tribute to Wilmington’s Civil War shipbuilding role that opened in 2015 in an old auto repair shop. About a block north of there is Bombers Bev Co., a dog-friendly bottle shop with 12 rotating taps, wine and cider.
Walk two blocks east on Grace Street and a block north on 4th and you’re in the Brooklyn Arts District at Flytrap, a distinctive nanobrewery and taproom named for the indigenous plant. Owners Mike and Emily Barlas focus on American and Belgian ales, Saisons and sours, and they hit the retro-cool quotient with a free shuffle bowling table.
And half a mile north on 4th Street is Palate Bottle Shop & Reserve, with a wall of taps, an airy, covered patio and a beer garden.
In Midtown, Wilmington Brewing quickly has become one of the area’s most respected brewers. John and Michelle Savard have a taproom and a home-brew supply store, which offers lessons to DIY beer lovers. The Brewer’s Kettle is a mile away, and another shop with taps, Hey!Beer, is between the two.
On the way up U.S. 17 Business toward Topsail, Broomtail Craft Brewery’s taproom looks like an office lobby in an industrial park because, well, that’s what it was. The brews there are highly rated. And the Fermental bottle shop, in a 70-year-old bungalow, has taps, a large beer garden and a delicacy, Mercer’s wine ice cream.
Meanwhile, close enough to the beach to smell the brine, there’s Lighthouse, where the wave began.
A good place to plan a tour is nando.com/ilm.
More Best-Kept Secrets for craft beer lovers:
Blind Squirrel Brewery, Plumtree
Not every brewery offers tubing, ziplines, disc golf, farm tours, on-site lodging, camping and a restaurant with riverside decks serving farm-to-fork creations, grown or raised a mile away. You can make it a weekend at The Blind Squirrel in Plumtree, a wee community on the North Toe River in Avery County. Founders Cleve and Robin Young and their family are, as their logo says, “nuts about beer!” For nearly four years they’ve made a lot of “squirrel juice” – pale ale, amber ale, cream ale, porters, Belgians, IPA, Irish stout, gose, wee heavy, Hefeweizen, blonde, Kolsch, hard cider, some experimental stuff and – of course – a nut brown ale. Where’s Plumtree? Pretty deep in the High Country, on U.S. 19-E between Spear and Roaring Creek, a 25-minute drive from Linville. nando.com/squirrel
Fonta Flora Brewery, Morganton
Beer may have been born by accident, when cereal grains fermented in the early days of agriculture. Fonta Flora honors that heritage, and Appalachian culture, by using local grains and foraging for seasonal flora in the countryside, including honeysuckle, to create what it calls art. Co-founder and brewer Todd Steven Boera’s goal is to make libations, including wild ales and sours, that you’ll find nowhere else. And since Fonta Flora brews aren’t widely distributed, you almost have to go to the downtown brewery and taproom, with its botanical-design taps, to try them. Even Fonta Flora’s name has roots in the Burke County soil – it’s taken from a sharecropper village that was inundated a century ago when Lake James was impounded. (Note the brewery logo: houses under water.) Fonta Flora will celebrate its heritage at the third State of Origin festival on Saturday, June 11, on Morganton’s Courthouse Square, where visiting brewers will serve only beer made from North Carolina ingredients. nando.com/fonta
South Slope (and more), Asheville
OK, it’s about as secret as Donald Trump’s Twitter account – but the South Slope district of Beer City USA has to be on any beer lover’s list. An easy introduction is the walking tour laid out by the Asheville Ale Trail, which takes you past seven breweries in a stroll of about a mile, including two locations of Wicked Weed, one of the state’s highest-rated brewers. But with so much competition, you’ll find a surprise or two in Asheville if you ask around. If you want to leave the beaten path, Edwin Arnaudin and Scott Douglas of Mountain Xpress recommend Oyster House Brewing Co. in West Asheville and Appalachian Vintner at the foot of downtown, near the hospital. Arnaudin also likes Craft Room Growlers in South Asheville, and Douglas touts Wedge Brewing in the River Arts District. The locals – trust me – will have plenty of other ideas. nando.com/slope
If you’ve done Asheville and want to try something new, drive 35 minutes west on I-40 to Waynesville, a town of 10,000 by Lake Junaluska where four breweries have sprung up in six years. On a short downtown stroll, you’ll find the Tipping Point Tavern brewpub, with trivia nights and live music on Fridays; Frog Level Brewing, with a taproom, a creekside deck and take-home “croakers” (think small growlers); and the taproom of Boojum Brewing, which also serves food (its brewery, open for tastings, is about two miles north, near the lake). Mad Anthony’s Bottle Shop & Beer Garden, with more than 40 beer and cider taps, wine and live music, is also downtown. A few blocks north, off U.S. 74, is BearWaters Brewing, featuring what it calls a “family-friendly” taproom and weekly local musicians. On Aug. 20, the town will host its third annual Waynesville Craft Beer Faire – an intimate outdoor tasting event with live music and only 600 tickets available, giving patrons the chance to chat with the 20 brewers present. nando.com/wville
South End, Charlotte
A corridor of cool runs through the Queen City, roughly hugging the Lynx light rail line. North of Uptown is the NoDa district, along North Davidson Street. To the south is the jewel in the crown — the historic South End, with eight breweries (soon to be nine) and at least seven bottle shops. And “the whole thing isn’t a bad walk,” says Matt McKenzie, who writes about beer for Charlotte magazine. If you’d rather ride, the Lynx has five stops in the area. The South End pioneer, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, has been joined by Triple C, Unknown Brewing, Wooden Robot, Lenny Boy, Sycamore, Sugar Creek, Red Clay Ciderworks and, soon, Thirsty Nomad. You may find your biggest surprise at Unknown Brewing. Where the motto is “Live Without Boundaries,” brews have included bacon and cream cheese, cotton candy, catnip flowers and scorpions (uh, yes). McKenzie reports some wild events there, including the “city’s biggest pillow fight,” a “no pants” charity bike ride and some fun with a Jeep-borne gun turret filled with Roman candles (don’t try that one yourself, especially after trying their Russian imperial stout, called Dirty Commie Heathen). nando.com/crownbeer
Haw River Farmhouse Ales, Saxapahaw
Nestled for just 18 months with the Haw River Ballroom, the Eddy Pub, the Saxapahaw General Store and the Left Bank Butchery, Haw River Farmhouse Ales already has deep roots. It’s all about community and sustainability for owners Ben and Dawnya Woodward. Through their Farmhand Exchange, farmers, builders, artisans and the brewery trade goods and services. Ben Woodward says the brewery monitors local harvests and also provides seeds to farmers – some for crops the brewers need, others for ingredients they want to “play with.” “Hopefully we’re introducing some things that people don’t usually think of with gardens or farms, and it’s a unique idea to put some of these ingredients in beer as well,” he said. Haw River specializes in rustic beers – think Belgian, not German or English. It just released a white IPA with foraged pine needles and is testing batches with ground cherries – similar to pineapple tomatillos. After that? Well, Haw River has some folks growing baby doll watermelons and black opal basil. “We’ll buy it back and make beer out of it,” Ben Woodward says. What kind of beer uses basil? “I don’t know,” he says. “We’ll see.” nando.com/hawriver
Eric Frederick: 919-829-8956; @Eric_Frederick
Our Best-Kept Secrets series appears online and in print each Monday through Labor Day.