"For some time, Johnson Beer Company was the largest craft brewer in North Carolina. In 1997, the company was brewing about twelve thousand barrels of beer a year. The only brewery producing more beer in the Southeast was the Abita Brewing Company, their [owners Tim and Susan Johnson] friends in New Orleans."
That statement may surprise many Charlotteans who were not around for the microbrewery boom of the 1980s and early 1990s. If you wanted to meet a Panther or Hornet, SouthEnd Brewery — with its vast network of local investors — was the place to be. Author Daniel Hartis captures this and more in his newly published Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.
Hartis, 30, gained his keen palate for craft beer while attending University of North Carolina Asheville. As a student, he wrote about Asheville's breweries for the school paper. In 2008, he returned to the Charlotte area just as Charlotte's craft brewers were taking off again.
The author sets this current stage by acquainting the reader with the documented history. He begins with the early taverns of Charlottetowne, circa 1780, many of which were located along the historic trade routes that became Trade and Tryon streets. Back then, the most famous barkeep was Captain James Jack, whose tavern stood at Church and Trade. Charlotteans know Captain Jack today from his statue on the Little Sugar Creek greenway and the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery pilsner named for him. Captain Jack is the one who delivered the papers to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia — believed, but not proven, to be the first revolutionary separation statement.
General Cornwallis' troops burned his tavern and, perhaps, the records of what beverages had been served there.
After the Revolution, the history of Charlotte beer goes silent for about 100 years. When it re-emerges in the 1880s, Charlotte had 17 saloons and a beer garden. However, in 1905 — 15 years before the Eighteenth Amendment brought Prohibition to the nation — Charlotteans, backed by the powerful Anti-Saloon League, were successful in voting the city dry. Businesses closed; but Hartis notes that some breweries turned to bottling the newly emerging Southern soft drinks: Coca Cola, Pepsi and Cheerwine.
Hartis then zooms to post-Prohibition times, when the Atlantic Ice and Coal Company had a 120,000-barrel-capacity brewery at 300 S. Graham St., near the current construction site of the baseball stadium. This company distributed beer throughout the region and by the 1950s had a flat-top canning line where they bottled Atlantic Beer, Atlantic Ale and Atlantic Bock. That company closed in 1956, but would be acknowledged later when entrepreneur Bob Binnion, co-owner of Charlotte's first microbrewery, Dilworth Brewing, opened Atlantic Beer and Ice Company — now Fox and Hound — in 1995. And while Hartis regrets never tasting Dilworth Brewing's award winning Albemarle Ale, many readers (like me) will remember that beer.
Hartis offers a complete description of the current craft brew boom, with detailed commentary on the owners, brewers and brews. The final pages feature planned breweries: brothers Jeff and Jason Alexander's Free Range Brewing and Brad Shell's The Unknown Brewing Company. The name Unknown is not "a cute placeholder," but rather part of the corporate vision to encourage drinkers to "step into the Unknown."
Hartis' prose is enthusiastic, conversational and at times abrupt, yet his knowledge of the current players and beer provides a solid foundation for this perceptive social history, making it an entertaining and quick read.