Swell Ales: A Guide to the Hottest Breweries in Wilmington, NC
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Megan Deitz
“He was a wise man who invented beer.” — Plato
My first sip was Stroh’s. I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 and I couldn’t have liked it less. Did my grandparents — who drank a quart every other Saturday to “flush out our kidneys” and who gave me that first drink from a jelly jar — really like this sour, bitter brew? Why? I didn’t understand the allure of beer. Sure, I saw the commercials with Spuds MacKenzie partying his tail off and lapping up bowl after bowl of Bud Light, but after that one sip, I just didn’t understand why anyone in their right mind would drink the stuff.
Even in college, when beer drinking was de rigueur, I didn’t do beer. Beer was different then; Canadian imports and Mexican cervezas were making their rounds, but to me, they still had that Stroh’s touch: watery, funky like my rugby socks and utterly unappealing
It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina that I had my first good brew. The year was 2005, I’d earned a graduate degree from UNCW and the state passed House Bill 392, the “Pop the Cap” bill that lifted the 6% alcohol by volume cap on beer (raised it to a stately 15%, by the way), opening the door to craft brewing across the state. My friend Adam introduced me to La Chouffe, an unfiltered golden ale from Belgium that was everything the beer I’d known before was not — fruity, tasting faintly of coriander and just a little of the piney bitterness of hops. That one beer opened my eyes.
Flash forward a decade later, and now there are more than 125 breweries in North Carolina. Asheville has been named Beer City USA four or five times and has what seems to be three dozen breweries in the city limits. Sean Lily Wilson of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery has been nominated for several James Beard awards. Companies like Oskar Blues and Sierra Nevada are building East Coast breweries and distribution centers in the Old North State. And here in the Cape Fear area, bottle shops and breweries are popping up like mushrooms after the rain.
Check Six Brewing Company in Southport is, as of this writing, the newest addition to the local breweries here; Front Street Brewery in Wilmington is the oldest.
Five more breweries — Broomtail Craft Brewery, Flytrap Brewing, Good Hops Brewing, Ironclad Brewery and Wilmington Brewing Company — are here, too, and another three are expected to set up shop in the next six to eight months.
And then there are the bottle shops. Spots like Palate Bottle Shop and Reserve, Bomber’s Bev Co., Fermental Beer & Wine, Lighthouse Beer & Wine, Hey! Beer Bottle Shop, and Cape Fear Wine & Beer (which, yes, is more of a bar, but you can get hard-to-find brews to enjoy at home) all boast extensive beer lists and staff who know their suds.
Wine shops — like The Grape & Ale, Southport Wine Rack and The Wine Sampler — are getting in on the action, too, stocking interesting craft brews alongside their reds and whites. Then there are the places to eat and get a delicious brew: Flights in Southport, Wilmington’s Hop’s Supply Co. (which has a brewery in the planning stages) and Ogden Tap Room come to mind.
To celebrate the beer boom in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, we decided to highlight four breweries and brew masters (including one brew mistress) that need to be on your radar.
Front Street Brewery
In 2015 Front Street Brewery (FSB) marks two decades of brewing craft beer in the Port City. FSB took a bold step in 1995, opening a brewery in a town that had none, but since then they’ve been giving tours, holding tastings and serving up countless pints to thirsty patrons. Add to that a large menu that incorporates FSB beer into a number of dishes and one of the largest bourbon and whiskey selections in the state, and you’ve got a winning combination.
Booze isn’t the only reason to hoist a pint in FSB’s honor. One other reason is this: They broke new ground in 2014 when they named a young woman named Kelsie Cole as head brewer. Cole is one of a handful of female head brewers in the state. Women are discovering (or re-discovering) beer in droves, and by appointing Cole as head brewer, FSB is inviting more women to the party, an act that’s only going to improve the scene.
“[Being] head brewer is an honor,” Cole says. “To have creative freedom in my career is priceless, and I take an enormous amount of pride in the recipes I build and beers I produce. Feeling so proud and being a female I think encourages other females to make beer. We’re a minority in the industry, but we’re beginning to see more and more women getting involved in craft beer and I think it’s great.”
When you consider FSB’s recipe book —there are something like 40 brews between flagship, seasonal and one-time releases — and you take Cole’s “creative freedom” statement into account, it’s evident that she has her work cut out for her. Brewing the FSB classics (Coastal Kölsch, Dram Tree Scottish Ale and Port City IPA) she has to find space to be creative within an existing, well-known, well-loved recipe. A new hop varietal, a different malt or altered proportions can give old brews a kick and keep the flavors fresh for brewer and drinker alike. But it’s in the new recipes where Cole can strut her stuff.
“I’m excited to brew my Cucumber Saison [available in August],” says Cole. “We did a small batch, only five gallons, as an experiment and it flew out the door.”
That Cucumber Saison will be part of a new series: Local Love. In Local Love, FSB collaborates with local businesses and farmers to find inspiration and ingredients for forthcoming brews. The Scottish Breakfast (on tap as of this writing) is the first in the series and marks collaboration with Port City Java.
“We blended their single-origin Brazilian roast with our Dram Tree Scottish Ale, vanilla beans and cinnamon,” says Cole. “They were just as excited about the results as I was.”
But that’s not where Cole’s creativity stops.
“I’m itching to create a spicy beer,” she says. “I’ve worked with jalapeños before but I’m aiming for more of a pepper flavor than spice. I want to make a peppery beer with just a little zing. Joan, the assistant brewer and tap manager at Flytrap Brewing, and I have been discussing a poblano beer.”
A creative mind like Cole’s starts somewhere, and hers just happened to start right here at FSB.
She joined the FSB family in 2008 as a hostess. She moved on to server and had to learn her craft beer. After graduating from college, she began bartending down the street at Cape Fear Wine and Beer and really expanded her beer knowledge.
“I stuck my nose into every All About Beer and Beer Advocate I could find,” she says. “That’s when I got the beer bug. I decided I wanted to learn to brew, and Front Street’s former assistant brewer Christopher McGarvey taught me. Soon after, I was brewing at home, then a position in production came open here at Front Street and I made the leap. Now I’m making the beer I’ve been surrounded by since before I could legally drink it.”
The homebrew scene in the region is lively, and for the last eight years, FSB has hosted the Lower Cape Fear Homebrew Competition. In 2014 judges evaluated more than 150 beers entered in six categories, awarding gold, silver and bronze in each category and naming one beer Best in Show. Cole works with that Best in Show recipe to scale it up and brew it on FSB’s 10-barrel system, which is quite the championship prize.
“I love to brew the beers I love to drink,” says Mike Barlas, owner and head brewer at Flytrap Brewing. “The majority of my inspiration is derived from my ever-evolving taste preferences and some time I spent in Belgium. We’re fortunate in that every style we’ve brewed has been well received by our customers.”
One of the new breweries on the block, Flytrap specializes in Belgian and American styles, building off the flavors and traditions of both to offer brews that satisfy a wide range of palates. On their change-it-when-the-keg-kicks draft board, Flytrap offers everything from a Chocolate Milk Stout to hoppy American ales to the tantalizing sour beers that have come to characterize the Belgian brews of late.
This broad approach to styles and palates is one reason Flytrap has become a hot spot for local beer drinkers. Another reason is its partnerships. Sure, of its dozen tap handles, five are dedicated “guest taps,” but it’s the brewery’s relationship with food trucks that have folks flocking to this little brewery on Wilmington’s North 4th Street.
“[Food trucks] are an amazing complement to our business,” says Barlas. “Our customers want super-fresh, tasty food paired with fresh, tasty beer. We’re fortunate to work with many different chefs and trucks to bring a dining option to our guests.”
The food trucks are a hit with Flytrap’s fans. On the nights when there’s one in the parking lot, you’ll find every picnic table packed, every barstool taken and every table inside claimed. Flytrap’s beer flows and the food — from Catch The Food Truck, Pepe’s Taco Truck, Vittles, A&M’s Red Food Truck — is devoured almost as soon as it comes off the grill.
Partnering with food trucks is a great way for Flytrap to spread goodwill to other businesses, but Barlas is looking for more than just a relationship with other businesses—he wants to be part of the community. And that’s where the name Flytrap Brewing comes into play.
“From day one, it was essential [for us] to create a business that supported our local community,” he says. “We felt the closer we were tied to our community, the greater our chances of setting up a situation that was a win-win for us and our neighbors. The Venus flytrap is a unique [plant in] our environment and is native to the Cape Fear region, so it was a natural fit [for our name].”
One glance at Flytrap’s logo and you can see just how natural a fit. The brewery’s logo features a bottle-green Venus flytrap, and that plant also happens to look like a crimped bottle cap. The level of attention that Barlas gave to his logo and to the look and feel of his taproom extends to the brewing floor, where he imbues each batch with the care and passion he’s exhibited in other areas of the business.
Flytrap’s a small operation, so of the dozen or so beers they’ve brewed, only three — Saison, Rehder’s Red and Hoppy Tripel — are their “core beers;” the others are seasonal or limited release. That’s because they’re operating a 20-gallon brew-house. They have four two-barrel fermenters, and four 20-gallon fermenters. Since two barrels is the equivalent to 62 gallons, Barlas has to triple-batch each recipe to fill one of his two-barrel fermenters. And that’s a lot of work. Two, often three, days a week he works 12 to 14 hours brewing. Then he makes the time to do everything else — accounting, marketing and management. Time, he says, is his most precious commodity.
It’s rare to find that creative streak necessary as a brewer in combination with the business mind it takes to run a successful operation. Barlas, fortunately, has both.
When he came to Wilmington in 2004, he’d just graduated from University of Maryland and was looking to settle in a chill coastal town. Having vacationed here in the past, he visited and found he liked the area even more, so he relocated. For a while, he bounced around temp jobs, then found a six-year mini-career at a cellular phone company. There he grew with the business and went on to earn his MBA from UNCW on their dime. After a while, he realized that the corporate world wasn’t for him and decided to follow a passion he discovered in graduate school: brewing beer.
“I was introduced to home brewing by a friend who ordered a kit online,” he says. “When we started, it was mostly just following the recipe without knowing what we were doing. That quickly snowballed into a deep desire to learn the ins and outs of the brewing process, develop our own recipes and brew better and better beer.”
All the while, he had the idea of a brewery floating around in his head. With the support of his wife, Emily, they opened Flytrap just two months after they were married. Fortunately, brewing is strong in Emily’s family — her brother and sister-in-law, John and Michelle Savard, own Wilmington Brewing Company and Wilmington Homebrew Supply — and with the perfect storm of passion, inspiration and support, Barlas was able to see his dream become reality.
Wilmington Brewing Company
John Savard, owner and head brewer at Wilmington Brewing Company and Wilmington Homebrew Supply, was bitten by the beer bug in Asheville. The Wilmington native was attending UNC Asheville, and the town’s lively beer scene got to him.
“In that Asheville culture, surrounded by excellent, small craft breweries, I was hooked,” he says. “I began home brewing with a buddy.”
And that was that.
“I remember the first beer I made, an IPA,” he says. “Michelle [his wife] really enjoyed it, and we’ve been brewing IPAs ever since.”
He may have brewed that first IPA in Asheville, but when he and Michelle moved back to Wilmington, they saw a void in the beer market. Having worked in a homebrew shop and a brewery in the mountains, Savard felt called to open his own in Wilmington. In 2012 they opened Wilmington Homebrew Supply, which supplies home brewers with all they need to make a batch of beer at home. They opened Wilmington Brewing Company in 2014.
At Wilmington Brewing Company, they have 15 taps, which he and his assistant brewers keep flowing with a variety of beer styles. Yes, there are plenty of IPAs — mostly West Coast style, which are typically hoppy and flavor packed — but they also explore other styles and flavors. They get experimental with their Saisons, offering up lemon-ginger, Amarillo-hopped and even jalapeño versions, and they often play with stouts and porters.
Their taproom is small and busy, friendly and energetic, which speaks to the effort they’ve made to become a key part of the brewing scene in the area. Many of their patrons are brewers themselves, having gotten a start — or at least a tip or two — from the Homebrew Supply side of the business.
At Wilmington Homebrew Supply, Savard sells the hops, malts, yeast and equipment needed to brew and also provides recipes, starter kits and full ingredient kits.
The shop offers a free home-brewing class every Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in the brewery.
“If folks want to check [the brewery] out at other times, they can,” he adds.
Savard says the recipe for every beer they brew is available, meaning novice brewers can try their hands at their favorite pints, get tips to improve the brew, try again and forge a strong relationship with Savard and the other brewers at Wilmington Brewing Company.
Check Six Brewing Company
When asked where he learned to brew, Noah Goldman, brewmeister of Southport’s Check Six Brewing Company, has a cheeky answer.
“I think I have a special chromosome or something,” he says. “My grandfather actually had a brewery in the 1920s; unfortunately he lost it in a card game, but that’s a story for another day.”
In short, it’s genetic.
The rest of the story is this: He and his business partner, Tim Hassel, learned the basics from Goldman’s cousin. Then they read every book about beer and brewing they could find. Then they drank a lot of beer for “research.” Then they brewed their own time and again until they got it right.
Goldman and Hassel met in 2006 at a Cub Scout meeting in New Jersey (Goldman’s grandson and Hassel’s son were the Cub Scouts) and started talking home brewing.
“I told [Tim] I had a cousin, Norm, who had been brewing since the early nineties,” says Goldman. “We invited Norm down with his brewing stuff and started making beer. Norm started in Brooklyn [New York] with a 5-gallon setup on a kitchen stove; we started in Tim’s garage with a 10-gallon system and a propane burner; then we moved to the basement.”
Like any good passion project, that 10-gallon system quickly grew. Counter-flow chillers, temperature controllers, pumps, hoses and clamps crowded the basement. It was out of hand. It was fantastic, they say.
Then Goldman retired. Like so many others, he moved south in retirement. Having vacationed on the Outer Banks for countless years, he and his wife thought of going there, but the rough ocean, propensity for hurricanes and bleak winters there forced them to look elsewhere.
“Our youngest son lived in Wilmington at the time and he suggested we look at Southport,” says Goldman. “We fell in love with the place.”
It wasn’t long after moving here that the thought of brewing reappeared. Now, five years after landing in Southport, Check Six Brewing Company is open.
Check Six is a two-family business. Hassel, a Lt. Colonel and F-16 pilot in the New Jersey Air National Guard, and his wife, Wendy, are in New Jersey until retirement comes along, but their oldest son, Jared, represents the family in the brewery. Goldman and his wife, Cathy (the Minister of Hopaganda), work the brewery too, as does their son, Michael.
Check Six’s name garners a lot of questions. The name is a phrase used by air force pilots that means to look behind you for enemy aircraft. References from the pilot’s position and the direction of the aircraft are given in terms of numbers on a clock face. Twelve o’clock is straight ahead, nine o’clock is to the left, three o’clock the right, and six o’clock directly behind.
The brewery’s flight theme carries on through the beers, where all are aeronautical in nature and most have a direct tie to World War I aviation. Brews include Red Baron, a Christmas ale; Curtiss Jenny Brown Ale, which gets its name from a trainer plane; Flying Circus Coconut Hefeweizen, named for the Red Baron’s squadron of brightly colored planes. One beer in particular, the Harley Pope Imperial Porter, has a tie to the area. First Lieutenant Harley Pope was on a mapping mission of the Cape Fear River in 1919 when he crashed his Curtiss Jenny and died. That year, the Army Air Corps renamed the airfield at Fort Bragg to Pope Air Field.
“There’s a lot of history from [WWI] and a lot of stories that are very interesting, so we use them,” says Goldman. “It’s one of the things that differentiate us from other breweries.”
“I get asked about Wendy’s Blonde Ale a lot,” he continues, referencing one of the few non-WWI beers on Check Six’s list. This one features a label that’s right off the nose of a WWII bomber. “Wendy [on the label] is a blonde, and it’s my partner’s wife’s name, and Wendy, she flies… remember Peter Pan?”
Another beer, Dugan’s Chocolate Stout, was named for Michael Dugan, a famous WWI aviator. Or was it for Goldman’s wife, whose maiden name happens to be Dugan? “Either way, Dugan was a distant cousin, we think,” he says.
Check Six is up and running, with events in place and more in mind as the brewery gets settled. Currently there is trivia on Sundays and live music now and then, but Goldman has his sights set on a pig pickin’, food trucks, car shows and other special events. Oh, and just to make sure the craft beer craze stays crazy, he just might be planning a home-brew competition. Stop by and ask for the details, and a pint, next time you’re in town.
Want to go?
Front Street Brewery
9 N. Front Street, Wilmington
319 Walnut Street, Wilmington
Wilmington Brewing Company/Wilmington
824 S. Kerr Avenue, Wilmington
Check Six Brewing Company
5130 Southport-Supply Road, Southport
More local breweries to visit:
115 N. Second Street, Wilmington
Broomtail Craft Brewery
6404 Amsterdam Way, Wilmington
Good Hops Brewing
811 Harper Avenue, Carolina Beach