Beer lists are getting longer these days as more people pass up big names like Budweiser, Miller, and Coors for something more distinctive: craft beer. Smaller breweries are turning out hoppy IPA’s, hefty ales, and dark stouts. North Carolina has developed a craft beer reputation with the Asheville area being the brewery center in the state. But Charlotte’s is making a name for itself, too. Six breweries have opened in the city since 2009. And the city council has just taken a step to encourage that growth.
Pete Morris is a regular at Charlotte’s NoDa Brewing Company, which opened about a year and a half ago in an industrial area just north of uptown. There’s a brewery next door and another one a few blocks away. Morris is drinking a combination of NoDa’s imperial IPA with Monk’s Trunks and Ghost Hops.
NoDa has a small tap room with a few tables. You can a drink a beer as you watch how it’s being made through a large glass window behind the bar. For Morris, it’s all about the flavor and variety of craft beer. But knowing who actually makes your beer? Well, that’s pretty cool, too.
“I really appreciate the people involved,” Morris says. “You know when you get to know the people. Todd and Suzie here, they’re great people.”
That would be Todd and Suzie Ford, the owners of the NoDa Brewing Company. Both left their jobs to start the brewery. Suzie was a banker. Todd – a longtime home brewer – was an airline pilot.
Their old jobs paid better. But “didn’t offer the intrinsic compensation you get from running your own business and crafting your own marketing plan, and crafting your own beverage,” Todd Ford says.
Encouraged by the national boom in craft beer, the Fords decided to make a go of it in Charlotte. Plus, they saw a few other small breweries around town were doing well. While it may seem like a new thing for Charlotte, the city’s brewing history goes back more than two centuries. Daniel Hartis is the author of the book “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.”
“There were people brewing here in colonial times just as they were in most small towns in those days,” Hartis says.
He says it wasn’t until after prohibition in the late thirties that an actual brewery setup in Charlotte. It was part of the Atlantic Coal and Ice Company and lasted about twenty years.
“They had three styles,” Hartis says. “I think a boch, an ale, and one I think they just called ‘beer’ which I assume was a lager or a light lager at the time.”
After Atlantic closed Charlotte went through, forgive the pun, a “dry spell.”
And then, in the 80s and 90s, craft brewing took off. Small brewers began popping up around the country, and in Charlotte, too. Dilworth Brewing Company, the Johnson Beer Company and South End Brewery came on to the scene. But none of them lasted. The craft beer boom kind of whimpered out.
These new brewers have staked their future on the bet that the city’s latest craft beer boom will stick. “Buy local” has become a catch phrase and brewers like Todd Ford are making that part of their pitch.
“Obviously the product is fresher, if it’s made in your neighborhood versus being shipped across the country,” Ford says. “Or heaven forbid shipped across the world.”
The city of Charlotte wants to make it easier for breweries to set up and attract customers. Just this week, the city changed zoning rules to allow more breweries to open alongside shops and restaurants instead of being confined to industrial areas. That’s encouraging news to small-time brewers like Jason Alexander.
He’s is in his backyard, adding hops to his latest batch of beer. They look like dried green buds. It’s pouring rain.
“We’re going to put them in here, and these guys will just kind of hang out,” Alexander says. “We’ll start getting ready to boil in about 20 minutes.”
Alexander and his brother brew in their spare time under the name Free Range Brewing. They can’t legally sell their beer until they actually open a brewery, which they hope to do this year. They’re looking at spaces in Plaza Midwood, where it’s easy for people to wander in and buy a pint.
“Beer works for everybody,” Alexander says.
And he’s hopeful craft beer will work for Charlotte.