WILMINGTON — Wilmington is about to become a beer connoisseur’s heaven, with at least five new craft breweries working in various stages to open this spring and summer.
Port City residents and tourists will be able to go to the source for brews made in batches from just a few barrels up to 120 at larger craft establishments.
The new businesses will join the long-standing craft brewer Front Street Brewery downtown at 9 N. Front St.
Wilmington is joining a trend that has brought just over 100 craft breweries to the state, with 30 in the planning stage, according to Margo Knight Metzger, executive director of the five-year-old, independent N.C. Craft Brewers Guild.
The breweries’ value is not lost on Wilmington officials.
The city’s interdepartmental Brewery Initiative Project Team, in existence since July, is working with Wilmington Business Development to help attract Stone Brewing Co.’s East Coast production facilities. Using 2012 barrel counts, the company is the nation’s 10th largest craft brewer, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade group for craft brewers.
WBD has responded to a request for proposals from San Diego-based Stone, pushing vacant land near the airport as a suitable site for its brewery.
“The focus of our team initiative has been on craft brewers, especially local,” said Phil Prete, a senior planner with the city. “Our primary interest is in the microbrewery or small regional craft brewery range.”
Though the city is very interested in supporting local small businesses, that isn’t to the exclusion of expansions from other areas, he said.
“Our focus has been looking at city codes and processes and opportunities,” Prete added. “Are we getting in the way? If so, how can we make things smoother?
“It’s sort of an emerging artisan industry and it’s had a pretty good track record in North Carolina and elsewhere. We have looked to other cities to see what their experiences have been.”
In cities such as Asheville and Charlotte local craft breweries have become destinations much like wine districts, Prete added. Patrons hop from one brewery to another.
“It’s huge for tourism,” said John Savard, who with wife Michelle runs Wilmington Homebrew Supply at 4405 Wrightsville Ave.
The Savards are expanding their brew shop at 824 S. Kerr Ave. and adding a tap room.
“It would be a good idea to do some kind of craft brew trolley,” said Lisa Owings, who with husband Barry expects to open BroomTail Craft Brewing next month in the Dutch Square Industrial Park.
Looking to Asheville
But there are advantages to breweries beyond the purely economic, Prete said.
“There also is anecdotal evidence that these small businesses take an interest in the community and are looking for opportunities to re-purpose businesses, sometimes in depressed areas, and that’s a real attraction,” he said.
“The brewery community is a very open and community-oriented industry, and the craft brewing industry has been involved in revitalizing areas in cities across the country,” said Mike Barlas, whose Flytrap Brewing is under construction at Fourth and Walnut streets. “They get support from local people and thrive in areas where businesses would have a hard time surviving.”
“There is a lot of camaraderie in the beer movement,” Owings said. “It’s sort of like Asheville. They actually help business out.”
Asheville is often held up as an example to emulate.
In 2012, three Western breweries announced they were going to expand by adding North Carolina facilities. Two of those are in Asheville. California’s Sierra Nevada and New Belgium of Colorado are set to open in August and next year, respectively, Metzger said. Oskar Blues has already opened in Brevard.
A better example for the Port City might be Charlotte, Savard said.
“I think our goal is to be a little more like Charlotte,” which has about six breweries, he said. “Reasonable expectations are good.”
Veteran brewer Paige Snow has great expectations. Snow has been a gypsy brewer, brewing at various facilities when tanks have opened up.
Now with funding in place, he’ll have his own place - the 11,000-square-foot Good Vibes Brewing - in a renovated building at 115 N. Second St. He plans an early summer opening.
Though Snow says he will be the biggest craft brewery in town, he’s enthusiastic about the smaller ones that are popping up.
“It’s exciting that all the younger guys are setting up small tasting rooms,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for Wilmington and the beer community.”