Brewing at the Beach
Solar Brewing Company brings the craft brewery experience to Oak Island.
Sand, sunshine and Shibumi shades line the 10 miles of pristine Oak Island beaches for a good portion of the year, and the seaside town is filled with excellent restaurants, eclectic shops and all the amenities anyone could need to live their best lives. Except one.
Michael Bartlett felt something was missing and made it his mission to fill the void. With the Halloween 2022 opening of Solar Brewing Company, located at 8108 E. Oak Island Drive, the island now has its first true brewpub.
Owner and Head Brewer Bartlett and his team are looking to ferment a long-term relationship with the island’s nearly 10,000 full-time residents as well as tap into the more than 40,000 people who vacation in Oak Island each year.
“We wanted to open after the peak vacation season so the locals would know we’re here for them,” Bartlett says. “We are locals ourselves and consider this a community brewery. We want people to think of us as a communal meeting place.”
The name Solar Brewing is in part a nod to the sense of community Bartlett and former Director of Operations Josh Edwards wished to create. The sun, Bartlett explains, is something we all share and all need. “Everything grows under the sun, including relationships,” Bartlett says. “We want to foster cultural inclusivity.”
Bartlett adds that the name also stems from the fact that when he first conceived the idea of the brewery, he planned to power it with solar panels. The expense proved too great, but he hopes the establishment will be solar powered down the road.
The brewpub opened with 16 taps, half of which flowed with craft IPAs, stouts and other varieties made on site. Within six months of opening Bartlett, affectionately known as Mike the Brewer, had a dozen of his creations on tap, along with two house-made craft sodas. More taps will be phased in over time. The state-of-the-art facility has a 70-person seating capacity and, in addition to beer, offers prosecco, wine, pizza and other pub fare.
Bartlett’s passion for combining water, malt, hops and yeast dates to 1988, when he began home brewing. He eventually went to trade school and received a brewing and distillation technology certificate in 2019. He’s also received guidance from the proprietors of the former Check Six Brewing Co. of Southport, from whom he purchased the brewing equipment now housed at Solar Brewing.
“Once I made the decision to lock this in as my career, I knew I wanted to try a brewpub in my hometown,” Bartlett says. “There was a pent-up demand and a need for one, and this was an opportunity to share my passion with the people of my community.”
According to the Brewers Association, an organization representing a wide variety of individuals associated with the fermented beverage, craft beer sales account for just under 27% of the $100 billion U.S. beer market. Small and independent brewers comprise almost 15% of the U.S. beer market by volume.
As of 2021, there were 364 craft breweries in North Carolina creating more than 955,000 barrels of craft beer annually, according to the association. Both figures place North Carolina in the top 10 nationally.
In addition to Solar Brewing, Oak Island has two other brewing establishments. Another Oak Island establishment serving North Carolina brewed beer is Lonerider, which opened on the west end of the island in mid-2022. It’s technically not a brewpub, however, as the Lonerider beers it serves are brewed in Raleigh. Carolina Crab Brewing Company, slated to open later this year on the mainland side of Oak Island, will serve beer brewed on-site. Its brewmaster, Justin Maggard, was the former brewer at the Check Six Brewery.
Bartlett welcomes these new taverns.
“We don’t consider them competition because the more the merrier,” he says. “The more of us there are, the better it is for residents and visitors, and the greater the boost to the local economy.”
He does, however, want Solar Brewing to “set the benchmark on Oak Island,” and much time and effort has gone into ensuring this will be the case. He offers as an example an online ordering system that allows patrons to place orders up to two weeks ahead of time.
To date, Solar’s bestseller has been its Sunset Irish Amber, a medium-body brew with a citrus and black pepper aroma and a spicy caramel finish. “That’s the one we would take to a competition,” Bartlett says.
Additional beers are in the works. A vibrant golden lager known as Munich Helles was close to debuting as of this writing, as was a Marzen and a Bald Head Brown. A wheat beer will be added as the weather warms, and Bartlett is also considering a Flanders Red, a sour Belgian-style ale.
Bartlett doesn’t want the beers to completely overshadow the craft sodas he also brews. He’s proud of them and believes they are an important part of the menu for families. He wants to be sure those not old enough to drink can enjoy Solar’s offerings as much as their elders.
“It’s a piece of my artistry just for them,” Bartlett says.
If you want to try a locally brewed beer or soda and enjoy a tasty meal or snack on Oak Island, check out Solar Brewing.
Photography by Leigh Roberts