Craft beer comes to Concord

Concord native Robert Burrage Jr. and his family - founders of the iconic Cabarrus Creamery - have lived in the area for six generations. So when out-of-towners visit his 15-month-old craft beer store and say they never knew downtown Concord existed, it stings a bit.

The 39-year-old owns Lil' Robert's Place, a specialty store on Union Street that excels in the sale of craft beer by the bottle and on draft. Craft beer refers to distinctive, flavorful beer brewed using traditional methods on a small scale and often with unique ingredients.

Burrage's 3,800-square-foot venue doubles as a gallery for area artists, and musicians of all ages can showcase original music during open mic night events at 5-10:30 p.m. each Wednesday. It also serves lunch and dinner.

It is the first business of its kind in Cabarrus County, and next month Burrage will find out if the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission will grant him permanent beer, wine and liquor sales permits. His temporary permits expire June 12.

If the commission grants Burrage the permits, he will operate as he has been. If not, Burrage may move his store where rent is lower, restructure his store or, possibly, stop serving beer on draft, which is why hundreds of patrons visit Lil' Robert's Place.

"I have more customers come here from Charlotte - for me - to buy beer and listen to the music, and some have said they didn't even know downtown Concord existed," said Burrage, who is setting out to offer the largest craft beer selection in the area.

As of last week, Burrage had more than 500 beers from around the globe for sale by the bottle. He said his store's beer offerings are comparable to that of Brawley's Beverage in Charlotte.

Businesses like Bruisin Ales in Asheville, City Beverage in Winston-Salem and Peabody's Wine and Beer Merchants in Boone already cater to consumers who follow craft brewers and their beers. Some say Lil' Robert's Place has similar potential and could create tourism traffic for downtown Concord by drawing from a growing niche market.

"Given the popularity of craft beer across the state and country, Lil' Robert's Place is a great way for our visitors and residents to experience that trend locally," said Donna Carpenter, president and chief executive officer of the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Asheville is gaining recognition as a great place for local beer on a national scale - the city was just named Beer City USA for the third year in a row - and that's pretty close to home for us in Cabarrus County. I'm thrilled that historic downtown Concord has a great option for beer enthusiasts - whether they happen to be locals or visitors."

Brian St. Clair is a sales representative with Tryon Distributing, a statewide distributor of craft beers. He said Lil' Robert's Place is ahead of its time for the area. It's one of his top-10 clients in the Charlotte area.

"The rest of the state seems to get it," he said. "Craft beer sales throughout the nation are continuing to rise but (Cabarrus), to me, is a few years behind. There is nothing of this quality in Cabarrus County."

Burrage, who has a bachelor's in business administration from Pfeiffer University, admits his business doesn't fit the norm but he wanted to create a job for himself that revolved around selling craft beer.

"I don't want to serve liquor," said Burrage. "There are bars for that in either direction from my place. I want to be a place where you can come in, have a couple drinks, listen to good music, buy a six pack and go home. I don't want a late-night crowd..."

"For the majority of state, if you have liquor by the drink, you can get a beer, wine or liquor permit," said Burrage. "In Concord, in order to get a beer or wine permit, a business owner has to have all three permits."

The city's liquor permits require his business sell certain type of foods, mainly entrees and appetizers prepared on site, said Burrage. Food sales also must make up 30 percent of total sales. Burrage also had to make seating for at least 36 people.

If the commission approves the permits, Burrage will have to continue to keep up with his food sales or the commission could revoke the permits.

"As a restaurant, I meet all the requirements but when you add in the retail portion, I might fall short," said Burrage. "I'm not planning on going anywhere, but I'm being realistic in my thoughts and, come June, I might have to do something.

"I just don't want people to think that I gave up or I failed. If it doesn't succeed, it didn't succeed because of government regulations. The plan works. The demand is there."