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In the beer-ginning 

Much like Oktoberfest, Charlotte breweries stumbled a bit before finding their feet.

On Sept. 27, the 16th annual Charlotte Oktoberfest takes place for the second straight year at the N.C. Music Factory. One of the most anticipated beer events in the city, the fest didn't have the smoothest of starts. In its second year, an initial sponsor started going under. For some time following, the festival's continuation was in doubt, as organizers struggled to keep a consistent venue. Initial locations, which swung between Uptown, South End and NoDa, were tied to sponsors' whims. The fledgling festival hadn't yet found its legs. Of course, all of that changed, and as of publication, all Charlotte breweries are planning to represent on Saturday.

I assumed a festival's spatial needs might make for a rocky beginning, but what about the breweries that will be represented there? When they first opened their doors, how did they manage to secure existing retailers? I reached out to Charlotte breweries and posed a line of simple questions about their first 10 accounts, not just the Where but the Why. After all, as Carl Sagan opined, "You have to know the past to understand the present." Specifically, I was curious about how much weight personal connections and geography carried, and if there were just some spots that are universally sought-after as being prime craft-friendly accounts. From my research, there are three breweries worth drawing attention to: Olde Mecklenburg, the oldest Charlotte brewery, and Unknown Brewing and Sugar Creek Brewing, the newest two.

I find it a beautiful coincidence that Oktoberfest's initial festival locations and Charlotte's breweries all trend toward South End and NoDa. This is both a testament to the dedication of those neighborhoods to "beer from here," and also a reminder that other areas of town are criminally overlooked.

What was surprising to me, though, was learning that brewers leaned on previous personal connections and geographic factors only around an average of 52 percent with their first 10 accounts. The remainder of the breweries' first 10 accounts stemmed from those must-visit beer bars in town. Proverbial king-maker accounts start to emerge from the data, places such as Duckworth's, the Liberty and Revolution Pizza, that will sound familiar to those who follow the Charlotte craft beer scene. (I'll present complete results in a follow-up piece, as current column-size limits created my own spatial needs conundrum.)

Olde Mecklenburg blazed the trail for everyone in its wake, as the first independent Charlotte-based microbrewery in nearly a decade. There was no blueprint to follow, no plethora of craft-focused bars as there is now. Another wild card was its focus on German-style beers. This afforded them a tap at the Waldhorn, a local German mainstay, making them the only American craft beer presence on tap there to this day.

For a brewery employing a slogan of "live without boundaries," Unknown opened with one massive boundary: its own walls. A hugely successful November kick-off party was followed by a period of its beer only being available in the taproom. The following March, Unknown made up for lost time in a big way, going across Charlotte and then statewide. Unknown is also the fastest Charlotte brewery to move into bottling and canning, opening up account prospects even further.

Sugar Creek takes the opposite route of Unknown, as its taproom is still under construction. This will make it the first Charlotte brewery to have outside accounts sans taproom. It also relies largely on personal connections for on-premise accounts, as the owners drew some of their start-up capital from the restaurant group that owns Leroy Fox, Mortimer's and Cowbell. As of this writing, these three plus BlackFinn are the only on-premise accounts Sugar Creek has; off-premise bottle shops such as Total Wine make up the remainder of its first accounts.

The landscape of beer in Charlotte has changed dramatically since that first Oktoberfest in 1999, and it continues to evolve. Oktoberfest grew from 12 participating breweries its first year to at least 93 in 2014. Likewise in the next six months, at least three new breweries are slated to open in the area, bringing the total into the double digits. Under-served areas of town may finally see their own neighborhood beer offerings. Much like Oktoberfest, the local beer scene has found its legs, and now controls its own destiny.

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