How Lake Norman’s brewery scene has gained momentum

With eight breweries flourishing in the Lake Norman region between 2011 and 2016, the area’s brewery scene has cemented its own identity, distinct from the one sprawling down old industrial corridors in Charlotte.

That success has also fueled business elsewhere in the community, from expanded restaurant taps to craft beer bottle shops, including Crafty Beer Guys in Huntersville. There, the Lake Norman brewers peeled away from the books and the brew kettles to discuss the evolution of breweries in the area.

A bit of history

Between the 2000 U.S. census and the 2010 census, Lake Norman municipalities saw population increases between 50 and 100 percent. With that influx of tens of thousands of people from other parts of the U.S. came a yearning for a piece of life core to communities elsewhere—local breweries.

But the market was not always favorable. Before North Carolina updated its laws in the 2000s, breweries were constrained in what they could brew and where they could sell it. Restricting beer to 6 percent alcohol limited the styles that could be produced, and even then, on-premise sales were forbidden unless it was a relatively small brewing system attached to an establishment primarily operating as a restaurant—itself a difficult business endeavor. But more styles were soon in production after the alcohol cap was raised to 15 percent, and breweries could focus on their craft.

Lake Norman Magazine – 2016 Beer Round Table LunahZon Photography

Pouring in

In just five years, eight area breweries have emerged and thrived: Ass Clown Brewing (Cornelius), D9 Brewing Company (Cornelius), Lake Norman Brewing Company (Mooresville), Bayne Brewing Company (Cornelius), Primal Brewery(Huntersville), High Branch (Concord), Cabarrus (Concord), and Ghostface (Mooresville). Each is distinctive in the styles of beer it brews and even in their business approaches.

At the roundtable discussion at bottle shop and taproom Crafty Beer Guys in Huntersville, many of the brewers are from as far away as New York, Seattle and—in the case of Crafty Beer Guys owner Kristian Pedersen—Norway. Still, they have lived in the area for years and eventually yearned for the breweries they once knew—yes, for the beer, but also for the hub where the community could come together and socialize.

Because of old state laws, the concept of a community hub and brewery in one was foreign to Lake Norman and really much of the Southeast. What was a brewery? Not a brewpub, but just a brewery.

Introducing the Lake Norman community to that concept was the first hurdle, but one quickly jumped on their way to a mutual embrace with the community.

Lake Norman Magazine – 2016 Beer Round Table LunahZon Photography

“Breweries are not bars,” says Andrew Durstewitz, a New York native and one of three who founded, manages, and brews at Cornelius’ D9 Brewing, which launched in 2013. “…People are coming in to have a social experience and enjoy a locally produced product. It’s a very different model than a typical bar model.”

The business of brewing

Looking at the past five years, to call the boom of breweries synergistic or momentous would be an understatement. In addition to the eight breweries north of Charlotte, the Queen City itself has seen 18 breweries open since 2009. More are on the way.

Ass Clown, D9, Primal, and Crafty Beer Guys all stretch along N.C. 115. Durstewitz sees the momentum that creates. “I’ll talk to someone and ask, ‘What’ve you been up to tonight?’ ‘Oh, I was just at Primal, or going to Primal or going to Ass Clown. We’re on a trip of breweries.’ I hardly hear, ‘This is our only place tonight.’”

Pederson of Crafty Beer Guys, who also owns restaurants, adds that the momentum has carried elsewhere, too. “It truly is moving with ‘local,’” he says. “When we’re talking about bringing in more breweries, it actually brings in an excitement to the restaurant and the bars. When Cabarrus opened up, it was my bartenders, my general managers who were all saying, ‘Hey when are we getting their beer?’ Why are you asking me? Call them. They’ll be more than happy to bring it to you. The community craves that. All our beer is less than 14 days old. Customers know that. They come there for those reasons. They’re excited when they see new stuff.”

The full version of this story originally ran in Lake Norman Magazine’s October 2016 issue.

Photos: LunahZon Photography.