by Cassandra Ling, photography by Abby Reimer
A wooden lit-up star overlooks the jumbled murmurs of a humming crowd. Orange family-style tables shelter the coat of beer foam spread sporadically on the concrete floor.
A rowdy group starts serenading with the happy birthday song in an off-pitch, beer-buzzed tone.
Sean Wilson, owner of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery, carefully watches the gears of this complex machine in action, soaking up the babbles of the conversations and celebrations. Nobody knows who he is, but he doesn’t mind.
Wilson is tall, with his jeans as black as his hair. To beat the summer heat, a short-sleeve light denim shirt shields his broad shoulders, and rests neatly tucked beneath his black leather belt. He glances over to the community room where he notices a 65-year-old couple playing Trivial Pursuit, beers in hand, at the next table over.
Wilson takes a new approach to crafting beer by using an eclectic mix of ingredients like sweet potatoes, apples, basil and ginger.
But the story of Fullsteam’s success isn’t just about the beer. Instead, its success fits into a larger tale of a thriving craft-beer community that had to fight to even exist.
Wilson often reminisces about how he got to this point of sitting, watching, and appreciating this community that he built around him, a surprising outcome for this transplant to North Carolina.
Fullsteam Brewery, with a backwards F, resides in the “DIY District” in Durham, N.C. next to an abandoned car dealership morphed into a bar, an upscale barbeque joint and alternating temporary food trucks. Even though this place is big enough to fit a forklift and has room to add a kitchen, it lacks the space for a bottling plant and expansion.
15 and a half miles away, another entrepreneurial brewer sips his beer delicately. Erik Myers, founder of Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough, N.C., is not a threat or competitor to Wilson, but a friend.
Myers is a large jolly type with a slight beard and somewhat bald, much different from the Wilson’s hip image. His initial interest in the craft beer industry stemmed from his fascination of science and the process of brewing beer, and his home-brewing experiments eventually made him a business owner, brewer and author.
Like Wilson, Myers is a North Carolina transplant who stayed because of the friendships and quality of life.
Strange Ingredients, Southern Beer
The breweries make beers highlighting the unfamiliar and surprising. In his Pickwick beer, Mystery Brewery’s Myers uses a variety of British hops with hints of caramel and toffee.
Wilson uses more farm, earthy ingredients in his brewing style. Yet the craft breweries share a focus on seasonal brewing.
Wilson from Fullsteam knows that most people who taste his southern craft beer might not ever set foot in the place, so he aims to make a product that embodies the sense of community in the bar.
While working at Magnolia Grill in Durham before his entrepreneurial days, Wilson learned more about southern-style food. He used this to try what no one else had, “southern seasonality for beer.”
Starting up, Wilson said he received “hate mail” about this new style of beer, and knew he was on the right track. Hate mail is a good thing? Not necessarily, but it meant that people were talking.
“We are on to something here,” he said.
His beers capture North Carolina: sweet potatoes in the Carver beer, and the forgotten paw-paw fruit, a native North-American fruit that tastes like banana caramel and rots too fast to do most people much good, in the Paw-Paw beer.
“We want people to be curious about distinctly southern beer,” Wilson said. “But more curious about what grows here and makes our land unique.”
A Craft Beer Revolution
Wilson and Myers don’t just share a love for brewing, but the memory and hard work of a political campaign that changed the brewing industry in North Carolina.
“Pop the Cap” campaign, spearheaded by Wilson and aided by 34 others, ignited the craft beer industry and spread wildly through the state of North Carolina, which now holds more craft breweries than any other state in the American South. Microbreweries and craft beer have changed the southern economy.
North Carolina does not have a big-scale brewing history, since the climate makes it difficult to grow barley and hops. The heat and humidity in the South made storage a nightmare, and farming tactics inconvenient. Most North Carolina beer in the 19th century was “table beer,” designed to be refreshing at meals and low in alcohol content.
For nearly 70 years, North Carolina had enforced a 6 percent alcohol cap on beer brewed and sold in the state. This made it hard for breweries to create gourmet style beers, IPAs and other types that differentiate from the light, almost tasteless lagers mostly stocking the shelves at the time.
While Wilson was attending graduate school at Duke University, with no particular interest in beer, he attended a small party on campus with a fellow classmate. He walked into the dorm, and several different brown bottles with champagne corks dressed the table proudly. A homemade label on one read “Batch #1.” He asked his friend why these flavorful, robust beers were discretely packaged. He soon found out that all of the beers he tried that night were illegal to brew and sell in North Carolina.
“It got under my skin,” Wilson said. “I should look into this, I should figure something out.”
And he did.
In 2003, 35 beer-lovers collected to take a stance on this ABV content cap of 6 percent. After hiring lobbyist Theresa Kostrzewa, this two-year grassroots movement made it all the way to the Senate floor. On Aug. 13, 2005, Governor Mike Easley signed House Bill 392 into law, which lifted the 6 percent ABV cap to 15 percent. This movement was met with resistance, but they “called, wrote and conquered” and “popped the cap,” Wilson said.
“It wasn’t about brewing high alcohol beer just to brew it,” Wilson said. “It was just being able to get rid of those shackles and have the freedom to do what we want on the beer side.”
Now that the shackles were off, the brewing community foamed over North Carolina, changing the agriculture and tourism of the state.
Margo Metzger never thought her photojournalism degree from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would lead her into the craft beverage industry.
She is now the first executive director for the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild and is responsible for marketing, media events, tourism, and beer competitions throughout North Carolina. She fell in love with the concept of handcrafted beverages, and even more so with the craft-beer community.
“There are no TVs in breweries,” she said. “It’s a quality-of-life factor in a place where no one would expect to find one.”
Myers shares an appreciation for this North Carolina quality of life. It’s a good place to be because many are now looking to North Carolina as a popular beer state, which is transforming the economy, he said.
“It’s the California of the East Coast,” Myers said.
Growth and Community
Beer has become the economic driver of North Carolina tourism, agriculture, and community. The people in the business have a passion and love for beer, and also share that same love for each other.
“It typifies craft beer,” Wilson says. “It is misunderstood, a little counterculture, but fast moving.”
Fast moving is an understatement. Wilson goes through about 500 barrels in two days, and serves 400 accounts in the Carolinas. With hopes to expand, opening a bottling plant is an option, though there is a tug to keep the current location, which has turned into a community center.
Even with all the growth, Wilson still says his favorite part is hearing Fullsteam fill with the happy birthday song.
The kids are playing Ping-Pong, and the old couple sits setting up Trivial Pursuit. George, a local beer aficionado with his long brown hair and Beastie Boys shirt, carries in a box from the food truck to enjoy with his Hog Wash brown porter. The dogs eagerly eye the bartender for the biscuits they know are behind the bar somewhere. Nobody is glancing at a cell phone, or glued to a TV.
“Watching community happen here is the most rewarding,” Wilson said quietly.