Five years ago this month, North Carolina became a modern beer state. On Aug. 13, 2005, Gov. Mike Easley signed a bill that swept away one of the more onerous relics of the Prohibition era and opened the way for our developing craft beer culture to flourish.
Before that date, North Carolina was one of only five states that capped the alcohol content in beer at 6 percent by volume. That restriction excluded the entire range of world beer styles that, as part of their character, finish fermentation at higher strengths. German dopplebocks, Belgian triples, English barley wines, Russian imperial stouts and many more were off-limits to North Carolina brewers. Retailers couldn't import them either.
A beer lover arriving in North Carolina from a more enlightened place had to scratch his head at the lack of diversity on our shelves and in our restaurants. Not that local beer wasn't good, or that the quest for alcohol per se was paramount. But it was akin to scanning a wine menu that contains only rosé and chianti, when what you really want is zinfandel; the choice wasn't there.
Frustrated beer drinkers formed the organization Pop the Cap in early 2003. Here I have to declare an interest: I was one of the founders. There followed two and half years of educating, lobbying and fundraising. It was the most remarkably varied political movement I've ever encountered. It seems that Democrats and Republicans, men and women, blacks and whites, the devout and atheists can all find something to like in a beer movement.
We confronted anti-alcohol forces, who were convinced a liberalization of beer laws would lead to more underage drinking, religious elements, who told us we were going to hell, and a surprising degree of resistance from some entrenched interests in the alcohol business, who didn't want to see their boat rocked. But in the end, our group won the day.
The result? Not only do we now have a full range of stronger beer styles to choose from, but most of North Carolina is genuinely beer-friendly across the board. In the Triangle alone, a growing beer culture has prompted three new brewing companies to open just this summer, joining the six already in business.
Raleigh's Roth Brewing Company, the brainchild of brothers Eric and Ryan Roth, opened in June. Its debut beers included a 10.5 percent barley wine and a cinnamon-spiked porter, along with their flagship red ale.
"We'll have our easy-drinking beer, but at any time we'll also have at hand beers you won't find anywhere else," explains Eric, who is the brewing brother. "That's why we don't make an IPA right now; I love hops, but if I need a good IPA, there's a plethora in good beer stores. But there's not a lot of cinnamon porters around."
A Chapel Hill-based brewery with no fixed address, Mystery Brewing Company lives up to it name. Founder Erik Myers—already known to N.C. beer lovers for his blog, Top Fermented, and his role in the North Carolina Brewers' Guild—will brew under a flexible licensing arrangement called alternating proprietorship, by which he will take over an existing brewery for a short time, brew his beer and move on.
Not only will his location change from brew to brew, but the peripatetic brewer doesn't plan to repeat beer recipes. His first beer will be a saison, then a black IPA, then ... "This is my giant risk," says Myers, "but what I see in the marketplace is that consumers really go after the new beer, the next new thing. That rotation really appeals to people. I'm hoping to rotate a minimum of four beers through each year, up to six or eight, with two overlapping each season."
Fullsteam Brewery in Durham is the realization of a dream for Sean Lilly Wilson, the creative force that fueled Pop the Cap. After a summer of introducing beers to the public, Wilson will open the brewery's tavern on the anniversary of the law's change. His "plow-to-pint" philosophy connects the Fullsteam beers to the agricultural heritage of the South, with a range of beers including a hickory-smoked porter named Hogwash, built to go with barbeque, and Carver Sweet Potato Lager.
Wilson's vision is so contagious that Fullsteam's reputation has been in danger of riding too far ahead of its beer. But that's changed, now that the public is getting a chance to taste the beer that his brewers create. On the eve of a major opening, Wilson oscillates between fatigue and renewal. "Our whole focus, our mission—I know it's hokey and all that—centers around optimism and what could be: not what is, but what if? For us, it's beer, it's fun. We're celebrating the good beer culture we have in North Carolina. But we're nothing without great beer."
And today, with a nod to the grassroots efforts of hundreds of beer lovers five years ago, great beer is what we've got.