Popping Bottles

In Feature Stories, March 2019 by Tracy JonesLeave a Comment

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In Raleigh and the state, neighborhood bottle shops are having a moment.

It’s long been said that American cities were built around taverns, gathering places for locals and travelers to discuss everything from government policy to the price of eggs. Raleigh is no exception; in 1788, North Carolina’s constitutional convention declared that the capital city be no more than 10 miles away from Isaac Hunter’s Tavern.

The 18th century has come and gone, but the concept of gathering around a pint remains unchanged. Taverns of yore pedaling Hunter’s Cherry Bounce whiskey and clean beds have since morphed into the bottle shops that dot our landscape now, evolving our traditional understanding of what a neighborhood bar looks like and creating a hometown atmosphere of friends, family and a rotating tap.

“There’s a joke that there are more laws written here than at the legislature,” says Zack Medford, co-owner of Paddy O’Beers on Fayetteville Street, which is nestled across from the State Capitol building. (Medford also happens to co-own the new iteration of Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, recapturing the heart of Hunter’s original inn.) At Medford’s bottle shop, at any time of day, you’ll find people working, reading or mingling with friends.

“The pressure is off because you can talk to the person you’re with, you can talk to the person next to you or you can talk to the bartender,” says Medford. “We called it Paddy O’Beers on purpose. We want it to be approachable. There are 16 beers on tap at any given minute and that immediately sparks a conversation. During the summer, the patio is always filled with people. Sit outside with your friends, have a beer and people-watch.”

Medford, like other local bottle shop owners, explains that it’s not just about beer, but also about community. On the cooler stashed behind the bar, there’s a picture of Angus, an older man with a friendly smile. Recently, Paddy O’Beers held a going-away party for him. “The regulars came together to wish him farewell, because he’s moving to Durham,” Medford says. “You don’t find that in a nightclub. We had 50 people in here and a potluck. We’re like Central Perk in ‘Friends.’”

While relocating to Durham isn’t exactly like moving to California, or even South Carolina, the fact that Angus was considered to be “going away” shows just how local bottle shops have become.

“Right now, it seems like the bottle shop culture of Raleigh is more of a neighborhood vibe,” says Matt Allen, owner of Pelagic Beer and Wine on Pace Street. “When we opened our shop, we wanted to be a place where people in our neighborhood could come with their dogs and their kids and enjoy a good craft beer in the absence of a brewery. It seems like a lot of the newer spots that have opened have ended up turning into a place that locals identify and frequent. People don’t drive across town, but go and hang out at a place they can walk to, and talk with their neighbors.”

A Symbiotic Relationship

Raleigh has figured out a way to create meeting places within its bottle shops, strategically positioning themselves next to really good restaurants, shops and places friendly to children and pets. Think of Bottle Rev 3 next to Two Roosters Ice Cream, North Street Beer Station across from Sushi Blues and State of Beer next-door to Runologie.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship with Runologie,” says State of Beer co-founder Chris Powers. “A lot of folks will think about the purchase of a pair of shoes with a beer and a sandwich.” There are also events and a Runologie run club every Thursday, where “they’ll finish their day with us,” Powers says.

Unlike many other bottle shops in the area, State of Beer offers food as well. Considering it comes from the team behind Trophy Brewing Company and the now-shuttered Busy Bee Café, food pairing is no surprise.

“We saw a need for a curated bottle shop,” Powers says. “We have beers we think are the best examples of a style. We wanted to offer an opportunity where you can come in, have a great beer and have something to eat while you’re there hanging out.”

Powers says choosing the beer for the bottle shop is no light task.

“We take our beer list very very seriously, similar to what would go into curating a wine list,” he says. “You have to be excited about it and you have to want to share it with people.”

A bottle shop’s flavor ultimately comes from the buyers. With so many options available, and the perpetual public demand for rotating taps, it’s up to the shops themselves to figure out their own bottle identities.

“Each bottle shop, much like a good wine shop, will service a specific style or flavor profile,” says Max Trujillo, cohost of NC Food & Beverage podcast. “You can go to certain wine shops and you know they’ll like old world, subtle, understated, muted tones. Conversely, I go to beer shops where I know the person purchasing the beer has similar flavors to my style, almost like a boutique clothing store. That’s the unique part of bottle shops, getting to know the buyer, because that becomes more stylized to your flavor profile. There’s a human element, too. You like beer in a certain place because you like that person’s palate.”

Whereas “beer burnout” can become an issue with breweries, for bottle shops, variety and abundance is a benefit. The flavor of the day with customers these days tends to be “new.”

“Craft beer burnout might be stressful for brewers, but it’s great for us,” says Paddy O’Beers’ Medford. “It’s a great time to be in the beer business, especially for a bottle shop. It’s an arms race to make the greatest of all styles of beer now.”

Medford adds that, while beer is the highlight at Paddy O’Beers, it’s not the only drink in the shop.

“We’re moving more non-alcoholics than ever these days,” Medford says. “[Customers] get kombucha and hang out. You don’t necessarily need alcohol to have a fun and friendly environment.” Medford’s cooler is also full of cold brew coffee, hard cider, boozy sparkling water and soda.

A Growing Market

Raleigh recently ranked No. 6 in drinks media company Vinepair’s list of the World’s Top 10 Beer Destinations for 2019, beating out major cities like Paris, Seattle and Tokyo. After the state’s “Pop the Cap” movement raised alcohol by volume (ABV) limits more than 13 years ago, Raleigh’s local craft beer scene exploded. It’s no surprise that, as Vinepair puts it, “Raleigh is having a moment.”

The state added 57 new brewery permittees during 2018, reaching a total of 387 by the year’s end according to Tim Kent, the executive director of the North Carolina Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association. Since 2015, North Carolina had the fourth highest growth in the number of breweries since 2015. Three of the largest craft brewers in the U.S. have opened east coast locations in our state: Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues.

“In terms of beer, North Carolina has the most progressive regulatory framework of any state in the Southeast,” Kent says.

It’s a distinction to which we’ll happily raise a pint or two.

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