Some spend the Fourth of July around a grill or out by the pool. Others light fireworks, celebrating the independence of their nation by blowing up a small part of it. I spent the afternoon on an impromptu Tour de Brewery, hitting up the taprooms of NoDa, Triple C and Olde Mecklenburg. My first two stops were prompted by both breweries releasing daring barrel-aged IPAs, and my last stop provided some much-needed perspective on how the Charlotte craft beer community got to this point.
Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, the oldest of Charlotte's currently operating breweries, opened its doors in March 2009. The Queen City hadn't seen an independent brewery inside its city limits since 2001, when the Johnson Brewery shuttered operations. I was one of the first brave souls through that unmarked door on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. John Marrino, the owner, manned the bar himself.
I remember the state of Olde Mecklenburg when it first opened — very unremarkable. A rudimentary plywood bar occupied the corner and there was little in the way of seating, just a cavernous, bare-bones bierhall with giant windows at one end to showcase the beautiful copper-clad brewhouse. The equipment looked familiar; it was originally from Southend Brewery. Today, OMB's taproom walls are adorned with richly stained wood; German flags hang from the ceiling; and rows of simple wooden and steel benches offer a seat for patrons eating sausages from the on-site kitchen.
Soon, OMB will close these doors, only to reopen new ones at the end of the same street in August. The folks there are putting finishing touches on a facility occupying a majestically wooded six acres, easily visible from the end of their current parking lot. Production has already shifted to the new 60-barrel system at the expanded facility.
It's not the only brewery working to expand. NoDa Brewing is planning a $2-million expansion into a facility with location to be announced in the next two months. Birdsong, its current neighbor, already has found a new nest roughly 12 blocks south on North Davidson Street. The owners will upgrade their capacity substantially, with triple the brewing capacity (30 barrels, up from 10) in a much larger space (17,000 square feet up from 4,800).
OMB's current digs won't stay empty for long; it's being bought turnkey by startup Sugar Creek Brewery, whose Belgian-inspired brews will complement its neighbor's Germanic focus. Sugar Creek has already been brewing on OMB's original equipment, and should open shortly after the current occupants finish their relocation.
Breweries aren't the only ones bursting at the seams. Salud in NoDa is primed to double in size by year's end, after expanding into the neighboring space previously occupied by Roux. Owner Jason Glunt plans a one-barrel, on-site nanobrewery in the new space, allowing guest homebrewers to hone their craft and professional brewers to collaborate on small batches. Brawley's on Park Road is putting the finishing touches on a remarkable face-lift harkening back to the building's appearance in 1948, replete with mid-century modern wings and a commanding glass facade. Also coming to Brawley's is a tap system to facilitate on-site beverage consumption plus growler fills, due by year's end. Additionally, a new breed of stores has opened, such as the Beer Growler, focusing solely on growler fills.
And thanks to a recent law change by the Charlotte City Council, breweries will be able to operate more as part of their neighborhoods. Before, breweries could operate no fewer than 400 feet away from residential areas. Now, that easement has been shortened to 100 feet.
Even as the city accommodates this second boom in local beer, Charlotte-made beer is just a drop in the bucket of what's consumed here, with under 2 percent market share. Craft beer consumption altogether still pales compared to that of products from foreign-owned Big Beer macrobreweries, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev & SAB Miller. But there is good news elsewhere. In April, Craft Brew News reported that retail sales of craft beer in Portland outpaced sales of all Macro beer in the first quarter, 45.8 percent versus 40.6 percent, respectively. While craft beer's David still can't beat big beer's Goliath in the overall Charlotte market share, we now know it can be done. We're getting closer with every pint.
Jonathan Wells has been putting his blood, sweat and tears into North Carolina beer (pre-boil of course) since 2009. He finds writing about beer to be infinitely easier than mucking out a mash tun or delivering kegs.