When people think of beer in North Carolina, Asheville—home to craft stars Burial, Highland, Wicked Weed and many others—gets the most attention. But beer culture is on the rise across the state.
One such place is Durham. When I visited a friend in April, she pointed out the many places that did not exist when she was growing up there—or even five years ago. Sections of the city's downtown had been dominated by warehouses and manufacturing plants, mainly for tobacco. "Good bones for a brewery, but not an area that anybody would go to as a hang-out spot," said Sean Lilly Wilson, owner of Fullsteam Brewery. Now these districts are thriving with restaurants, shops and entertainment.
Fullsteam was the first of its kind to arrive in Durham; it opened in 2010 in an old RC Cola factory, which is now the brewery and public taproom. Lilly Wilson came to the industry when he started Pop the Cap, a group of craft-beer lovers who successfully lobbied to remove North Carolina's alcohol cap of 6 percent by volume for beer. Five years after it was lifted, he started Fullsteam with his wife, Carolyn Lilly Wilson.
The Lilly Wilsons set out to create a concept for a "distinctly Southern brewery" that would support the community. Their first beer was brewed with local wheat and basil. It was a huge hit, and Southern Basil is still among their seasonal roster. Today, they continue to use North Carolina's agricultural bounty, like their ales brewed with triticale, a wheat and rye hybrid that's farmed and malted in the state.
"Our state has such an agricultural background that we can, with an entire recipe, use all North Carolina ingredients," said brewmaster Keil Jansen, who started Ponysaurus Brewing in 2013. He adds that this allows them to support local producers who have started to grow malt and hops, as well as to "brew with the seasons."
Ponysaurus, which has been in its current facility with a taproom since 2015, brews an even split of American and Belgian styles, but Jansen considers the latter their strength, particularly the saisons. Two highlights of mine from the taproom include the Bière de Garde, a farmhouse ale with notes of Golden Delicious apple and a nutty quality, and the Golden Rule saison, a showier style whose can flaunts the message "Don't be mean to people." (The beer was created to raise awareness of the so-called "bathroom bill.")
One of the newest brewers on the scene is Durty Bull, founded in 2016. Owner Matt Pennisi, who used to work in cancer research, was a homebrewer for years before tackling it professionally. His biology background got him focused on different types of yeasts, which he experiments with in his barrel-aged and sour beers. The brewery uses mainly Bourbon barrels, as well as some red-wine barrels from local wineries and California; it also makes hop-forward IPAs.
Pennisi pins Durham's successful and unique beer scene to its "gritty artisty vibe," the disposable income coming from the education and science industries, and tourism, notably from basketball games.
On the same trip, I visited nearby Raleigh's Brewery Bhavana, which had just opened with an impressive 40-tap wall of brews, as well as an adjoining dim sum dining space, flower shop and bookstore. When I was briefly in Charlotte last summer, I stopped by Triple C Brewing, whose taproom is also revitalizing a formerly industrial neighborhood.
"There's so many more mid-size cities that can support a number of breweries," said Lilly Wilson of the lay of the land in North Carolina compared to other states. In Durham, he adds, there is "a good solid foundation of scrappy entrepreneurial ventures that build on top of each other and support each other"—and these make the experience for visitors and locals that much richer.
After you've sampled a few beers, head over to Motorco. Located in a former car dealership, it has a live-music venue as well as Parts & Labor eatery next door, where I refueled one day with a couple seared-tuna sliders, "hipster poutine" topped with bulgogi beef and kimchi, and their take on a banh-mi sandwich.