Restaurant News & Reviews

Olde Meck founder reflects on 10 years of craft beer — and the decision to go German

John Marrino founded The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in 2009. The brewery will host 10th anniversary celebrations next weekend, March 23-24.
John Marrino founded The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in 2009. The brewery will host 10th anniversary celebrations next weekend, March 23-24. Courtesy of The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery

The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery will celebrate its 10th anniversary next weekend with live music, caricatures, face painting, balloon animals and, of course, beer (including the release of Anniversary Alt, a bigger version of the brewery’s flagship Copper). We caught up with founder John Marrino to talk about the brewery’s past, present and future, and to get his thoughts on big beer, hazy IPAs and Aesop’s Fables.

On his inspiration:

“I was inspired by the German breweries in Düsseldorf. But Narragansett was the spark. I was on an RV trip trying to figure out what to do with my life, and I read the Wall Street Journal one day. There was an article about Narragansett rebuilding their brand in New England, and it was a lightbulb moment for me. I realized Charlotte didn’t have its own brewery. And I said, ‘That’s what I’ll do when I go back. I’ll start a brewery in Charlotte and I’ll make the German beer that I missed so much from when I lived in Germany.’”

On whether it was a risk to focus on German styles:

“I figured if I could make the beer just as good as it was in Germany and serve it fresh, people would like it. Obviously whenever you start a new business there’s a certain risk. But I felt like none of these beers are extreme beers, they’re very drinkable beers. And honestly, at the time, a lot of craft brewers were not serving that segment of the population that was like me. A lot of the beers were just too bitter or too extreme for me.”

On the challenges he faced as a new brewery:

“The biggest challenge was convincing people we could make quality beer week in and week out, make it consistently and deliver it reliably as a small, local brewery. There was a lot of skepticism. We were struggling to get the bars and restaurants to give us a shot. That was a long, slow process. The first couple years were very tough. As other breweries opened, it made it easier. It ended up creating more of a buzz around craft breweries in town, and you know a rising tide lifts all boats. We were the beneficiaries of the first wave of breweries that came after us.”

On his challenges today:

“I wouldn’t say we have too many breweries, but we have a lot now. It’s getting much more challenging for all the breweries, not just us. Our growth has slowed, and most craft breweries are actually struggling right now in the country. It’s a much different market today. We’ve decided we’re going to work within the confines of our business model. We’re not going to try to be all things to all people. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to produce new and unique flavors, but we’re going to do it within the confines of all-natural beer, beer-flavored beer, beer made with the four ingredients.”

“The velocity of product cycles has gotten so fast. People are literally coming out with a new beer every week. I wonder if people are going to be able to have lasting customer relationships if their product is changing every day, and if they miss a trend is that going to kill them? So I might be sacrificing growth in the short run, but in the long run the tortoise wins the race. We’re going to continue being the tortoise. I think Aesop’s Fables are a great way to figure out how the world works.”

On what has surprised him over the last decade:

“The whole IPA craze has surprised me. I still can’t understand it. I do think the new hazy IPAs are much more drinkable than the original IPAs. I think they’re reaching a much wider audience. It’s like drinking a glass of orange juice, or fruit juice — with the pulp in it.”

On big beer:

“Big beer is, I think, more dangerous now than they’ve ever been because of their stealth craft component. By buying up some well-known craft brands and taking regional craft brands and making them national, that makes it that much more difficult for local brands because most consumers don’t know what’s local. Our challenge is to educate consumers about who’s local and who’s not, but more importantly, why that matters.”

On upcoming beer releases:

“We just brought Southside Weiss back for the 10-year anniversary. We introduced the Munzler’s Vienna Lager last spring only on draft, and this year we’re bringing it out in draft and package. We just did a hop-forward Kellerbier last week. I’m really excited about that beer. I think it might be something special. We’re going to do some cool stuff this year. We’re going to bring some things out that I think will interest people.”

On whether Copper was always to be the flagship:

“Copper was always going to be the flagship. It was a little bit selfish because it was my favorite beer of all time, Düsseldorf Altbier. When I first went to Düsseldorf in 1990 and tried Altbier, I was just blown away. I was like, ‘Why can’t we get this beer in the United States?’ You literally couldn’t get the beer in the United States. And I would argue that you still can’t, except in Charlotte.”

For the full schedule of anniversary activities from March 23-24, check the brewery’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/OldeMeckBrewery.

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