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Craft beer scene in Charlotte is (finally) hoppin'

By Helen Schwab
Restaurant Writer

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  • On tap: A guide to Charlotte-area breweries
  • Are you a beer nerd?

    So what is the difference between:

    A porter and an IPA: Some historians say ‘porter’ comes from how much 18th-century London transportation workers loved this, a blend of soured, brown and mild ales engineered to sell widely. Modern American porters are mellow, dark beers with a roasted flavor. IPA stands for India Pale Ale, created by the British to survive the long ship time to soldiers in India. To do it, brewers used more hops as preservative, creating this bitter-edged, “hoppy” brew.

    IPA and IBUs: How hoppy is that IPA? You can tell by its IBU number – International Bitterness Units, determined with chemical formulas. NoDa’s Brewing’s NoDaRyeZ’d double rye IPA has an IBU rating of 90; a Budweiser has about 11 IBUs.

    A bomber and a growler: A bomber is a large bottle, holding 22 ounces. A growler is essentially a refillable glass jug, holding a half gallon (64 ounces), though there are other sizes, too.

  • More information

    Here’s a quick rundown of area breweries, all of which sell to a variety of bars and restaurants, as well as to individuals (some bottle; some offer growlers for take-home):

    •  Heist is housed in the circa-1900 Highland Park cotton mill, and keeps 10-12 different beers on hand, six year-round and six in rotation (two seasonal, two Belgian, two fruit). Hogan says brewer Zach Hart’s I2PA Imperial Pale Ale and oatmeal stout are signatures. Open for lunch and dinner daily (the accompanying restaurant offers chef Rob Masone’s “Twisted American” cuisine); 2909 N. Davidson St.; 704-375-8260;

    •  Triple C keeps about five brews on hand for sale and in its taproom. A sixth, Up All Night breakfast porter, is slated to debut around Thanksgiving as a seasonal addition from brewer Scott Kimball. Co-owner Chris Harker (with Christinia and Chris Murphy) says smoked amber ale is most noteworthy. Tap room is open Tuesday-Sunday and though it doesn’t serve food, food trucks regularly park in its lot. 2900 Griffith St.;

    •  Olde Mecklenburg’s signature beer is Copper, which owner John Marrino has sold since ’09 and calls “the wine replacement beer.” It’s a Dusseldorf-style altbier that’s actually a “lagered ale” – the explanation of which is for true beer geeks. The tap room here is open Tuesday-Sunday and serves a short menu of pretzels, sandwiches and more; 215 Southside Drive; 704-525-5644; www.oldemeckbrew/com.

    •  NoDa Brewing Company, which opened in October 2011, sells about 10 styles to bars and restaurants and brews small batches of all sorts of things that are then offered in the “NoDable Series” at the tap room (brewer Chad Henderson even does videos; check out Suzie Ford of the brewery estimates they’ve done 75 to 80 all told, with Coco Loco porter the signature. Tap room’s open daily. 2229 N. Davidson St.; 704-451-1394;

    •  Birdsong also opened in 2011 and keeps six to eight beers available: four year-round ones and seasonals, and a new small-batch recipe each Thursday. Brewer Conor Robinson’s Lazy Bird Brown Ale is its signature (though the IPA sells the most, and the jalapeno pale ale gets the most attention). Tap room is open Wednesday-Sunday. 2315 N. Davidson St.; 704-332-1810;

    •  Ass Clown founder Matt Glidden figures he’s been through 400 to 500 recipes and says he rotates through about 100 beers in small batches, with vanilla brown, dark chocolate sea salt and orange spice IPA among favorites. Tap room’s open Thursday-Saturday. 10620 Bailey Road, Cornelius; 704-995-7767;

    •  Four Friends, which began selling to the public 2010, has closed its taproom for now, to focus on production – which includes a near-doubling expansion of its space in the Steele Creek area. Jon Fulcher says plans call for a new tasting room/gift shop, slated to open in spring 2013. Its flagship beer is i77, an American IPA, and you’ll find Four Friends in stores and restaurants in Mecklenburg and upstate South Carolina. 10913 C Office Park Drive; 704-233-7071;

    • Brothers Jason and Jeff Alexander hope to find a Plaza Midwood spot for their Free Range Brewing, but in the interim take brews to festivals and events (like this arts project: The two collaborated with Birdsong to produce Rice Rice Baby, a lactose-free, vegan rice-milk stout, and with Catawba Brewing to make Afternoon Delight, a Belgian pale ale. An extra pale ale called Art, Son of Pale may become their signature, says Jason.

    • National-chain brewpubs Hops (which calls itself a “microbrewery restaurant”), and Rock Bottom (“restaurant brewery”) both came to Charlotte in 1997.

Know the difference between a porter and an IPA? Between an IPA and its IBUs? Between a bomber and a growler?

Brush up, because Charlotte’s craft beer scene is hopping forward. Fast.

Seven breweries now call our area home – plus at least one outfit seeking a site, and two outposts of national chains. Brewpubs are flourishing and specialty suds shops are opening – most recently the Good Bottle Company in South End – where you can both taste beers and take them home. The Common Market in Plaza Midwood kicked off a new 15-tap system at the end of October, and the newest brewery/restaurant in town, Heist, held its grand opening in late October in NoDa.

Why the surge?

Opinions vary, but figure proximity, price and possibility have a lot to do with it.

Proximity first: “Local” counts with consumers more and more, and “people like supporting local when it makes sense,” says Chris Harker of Triple C Brewing Co., which opened this August in South End. Says Olde Mecklenburg Brewery’s John Marrino, who began serving his beer in 2009: Charlotteans “are choosing in droves to drink better beer.” He says his production grew about 70 percent in the last year.

Locally produced brews add that personal touch – apparently in vogue nationwide: The national Brewers Association says the microbrewery business grew 26.4 percent in 2011.

As for price? Back in 2009, when he and Matthew Pera opened the beercentric Liberty gastropub, chef Tom Condron said: “In this economy, it’s a lot easier to spend $6 for a well-crafted beer than $12 for a halfway decent glass of wine.”

In this economy, too. And when a flight of beer – four 4-ounce servings, so you can sip and muse – goes for $6, as it does at most taprooms around town now, drinkers can also afford to explore.

Possibility spans law and competition. First, North Carolina lets brewers do something not all states allow: distribute to bars and restaurants, sell to consumers on-site and serve in-house, in taprooms. Second, in 2005, the state bumped up – from 6 to 15 – the allowable percentage of alcohol by volume in beer sold here.

American lagers – think Bud and Miller – are in the 5 range; many craft beers are just getting started at the 6 mark. So the industry could take off, and it did – but mostly elsewhere, like four-time “BeerCity USA” Asheville.

Our city has been, shall we say, underserved.

“Charlotte is in its infancy,” says Kurt Hogan of Heist. “When I was deciding (where to start a business), I saw it was Olde Meck and Four Friends pretty much (here)… and the demographics are just perfect. A young, active crowd. Exactly what craft beer caters to. It’s a no-brainer.”

Charlotte is also, for brewers thinking of the future, ideally situated: central, with easy access to highways for putting beer on the road to other towns, and other states.

Chris Hunt, owner of Good Bottle, had traveled through the Southeast in a corporate development job, noticing bottle stores – where you can build your own six-pack, bottle by bottle -- opening successfully. “Charlotte was missing an all-inclusive beer store,” he says. “We want to introduce people to craft beer … let people come in and ask stupid questions that are not stupid questions at all.” He relishes introducing people to brewers at tastings and creating fans of both local and national craft brews.

Breweries, bars and brewpubs, and beer-centric stores are the three key components of a smart beer town, says Hunt.

Daniel Hartis, who runs and has a book on Charlotte beer coming out in February, also gives a nod to the Carolina BrewMasters club, begun in 1982. “They championed craft beer long before the ’90s breweries came to town,” and brought the ongoing Charlotte Oktoberfest to town in 1999, he says. Hartis declares Charlotte is “quietly becoming one of the better beer cities in the nation.”

When will we know we’ve arrived? “A bigger reach,” says Hogan. “If you start having brews winning medals at GABF (Great American Beer Festival), that puts us on the map – and people start to look (and say) ‘It’s not only Asheville. Charlotte is popping!’ ”

Which happens to have happened at the 2012 Festival: NoDa Brewing’s Coco Loco won a silver medal among Robust Porters, and Olde Meck’s Mecktoberfest took silver in the German-style Marzen category.

Check the box with this story for a look at individual breweries. As for stores, noteworthy new ones are Good Bottle (12 taps, 500+ bottled/canned beers), Salud (8 taps, 300+ bottles/cans in NoDa, with an express store in uptown’s 7th Street Public Market) and Tampa-based chain World of Beer in South End (60 rotating taps, 500+ bottles/cans). You can also buy at Common Market’s two locations, in South End and Plaza Midwood.

Brawley’s Beverage on Park Road, meanwhile, has offered beer fans choices since before there were many choices: nearly a decade.

And there’s more to come: Carolina Beer Temple is slated to open in Matthews by early 2013, with 8-16 taps, half N.C. brews.

“The N.C. market has taken off by leaps and bounds,” says co-owner Rob Jacik, “and Charlotte is super-exciting.”

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