UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN living off the grid for the past decade, you’ve no doubt witnessed the proliferation of craft breweries across North Carolina, with explosive growth in the Triangle especially. According to the NC Craft Brewers Guild, the Old North State now boasts the most craft breweries in the South, with nearly 250 breweries and brewpubs.
However, the number of new brewery openings has slowed nationwide, from a peak of nearly 800 debuts in 2014 to about 700 in 2016, according to Dave Tollefson of NC Beer Guys, an all-in-one website that features beer news, maps and event listings. North Carolina’s market is no exception to the trend. Tollefsen says the economics of opening a craft brewery are the main reason why we’re seeing fewer new ones. “Early on, it was recommended that a [brewery] system should be no less than 10 barrels,” Tollefson says. (For reference, a barrel of beer is 31 gallons). “Lately, a lot of breweries are opening with two to fi ve barrel systems so the upfront cost isn’t as much and they look to grow and expand later, as needed.”
Fullsteam Brewery founder Sean Lilly Wilson says raising money for the concept of a craft brewery isn’t as easy as it might sound. “Real estate is getting more expensive, labor and input costs are rising and mega brewers are buying up small breweries in an attempt to maintain market share and relevance,” Wilson says. “It’s a competitive market, to say the least.” So, while opening a small-volume brewery may be in the brewers’ best interest, it could make recouping initial funding that much more diffi cult for investors.
Just because rapid expansion has slowed in the Triangle doesn’t mean brewing isn’t alive and well, though. Fullsteam saw 40 percent volume growth last year and is rapidly hitting capacity, according to Wilson. He says the collaborative spirit that defi nes the locavore movement helps breweries defi ne their industry, with established folks helping newcomers fi nd their footing. It’s a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ mentality that fosters collaboration over competition. When Kristie Nystedt started Raleigh Brewing Company in 2013, there were already three large breweries in Raleigh. Nystedt, the first woman to start a brewery in North Carolina, says they all “responded positively to our opening and absolutely set the stage for the enhanced community, culture and great taste that craft breweries create.” Glenn Cutler of NC Beer Guys says it’s the “farm-to-fork, buy lo- cal and healthy living movements of more recent years that have encouraged locals to support local businesses and seek locally sourced food and beverages,” most notably craft beer. Fullsteam has embraced this ethos with its “plow-to-pint” mentality that promotes new ways of thinking about entrepreneurship in the “post-tobacco South.” Wilson credits the state’s abundance of mid-sized cities, “growing urban areas with people who want locally made products and services.”
The newest entry into the local brewing game, just-inside-the-Belt-line’s Funguys Brewing, takes full advantage of the Triangle’s reputation for adventurous, knowledgeable, and thirsty customers, ones who will ideally return week after week. “A brewery normally can’t have the same four beers on tap all year and expect that to make consumers not want to try the new brewery down the street,” says Funguys co-founder Nick Brango. “That really takes a creative mind to keep something new and exciting on tap all the time. So, we feel the Triangle is in this perfect crossroads of having a wealth of ed- ucated consumers, who are eager for more quality beer, and breweries—like us—that are ready to experiment for the betterment of the craft.” New craft breweries may not be opening at the same clip they were a few years ago, but there’s defi nitely change afoot in the current market. Because of the symbiosis between breweries and food trucks, Tollefson envisions more breweries investing in kitchens and off ering full menus. “Food trucks became a staple at breweries to get food into patrons’ hands [but] breweries are destinations and they want to have patrons stay a bit, so the lure now is food.” Funguys’ Brango says that the entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with an emphasis on local ingredients and products, will keep craft breweries sustainable. “Breweries are getting better at knowing what keeps beer fans coming back,” he says.