Winston-Salem Tapping Into Craft Beer Market

Winston-Salem is now home to six craft breweries and eight tasting rooms. Three of those tasting rooms opened in the last year, and another is set to open soon in Bailey Power Plant.

This flood of new breweries has a lot of people asking, “Who is drinking all this beer? And when will the market be flooded?”

If it seems as if Winston-Salem has a lot, consider that Asheville, with a population about a third of the size of Winston-Salem, has about 20 breweries. Asheville also bills itself as having the most breweries per capita in the entire country.

“Winston-Salem is definitely playing catch-up,” said Jamie Bartholomaus, the president and co-owner of Foothills Brewing and the president of the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild.

Still, the same kind of growth happening here is also happening all over the state and the country as interest in craft beer continues to grow.

The craft-beer movement in North Carolina has been gaining steam since 2005 when the N.C. General Assembly passed the “Pop the Cap” law that raised the limit on alcohol level in beers — a limit that had essentially made a long list of popular beer styles illegal in the state. Once that cap was lifted, opening a craft brewery became a much more interesting proposition, and the craft industry in North Carolina was off and running.

According to the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild, the state had 45 breweries by 2010 — among them Foothills, now the second-largest craft brewer in the state, behind Highland Brewing in Asheville. That number rose to 100 in 2012 and 120 in 2014. But in the last four years, the number has more than doubled.

Bartholomaus said that North Carolina had about 250 breweries at the beginning of 2018, and that the number has risen to 277 already this year. “I would not be surprised to see 30 more open their doors this year,” he said. “I am guessing we will hit 300 before the end of the year.”

Nationwide, the numbers tell a similar story. The country had 2,420 craft breweries in 2012, and the number almost tripled to 6,266 in 2017, according to the Brewers Association.

North Carolina ranks eighth nationwide in the number of breweries per capita, the Brewers Association said.

Craft breweries are defined as small, traditional and independent breweries that produce less than 6 million barrels a year. In essence, they are the antithesis of the homogeneous beer produced by such big corporations as MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch.

Craft beer still makes up only about 10 percent of the beer sales in this country. But a certain segment of the population is responding to the full-flavored and often creative beers that these breweries are producing, and to an entire lifestyle that differs significantly from that of beer drinkers of previous generations.

In Winston-Salem, it’s easy to see this new beer culture in action.

Bartholomaus said that craft beer has ties to the local food movement. “Beer is food. People want to connect more and more with the story of what they’re eating,” he said.

Craft beer also is a hobby for lots of people, so-called “brew nerds.” People like to brew it. They like to study it. They plan their free time around it. “Some people like to talk about sports. Some people like to talk about food. Some people like to talk about beer,” Bartholomaus said.

David Ashe, a co-owner of Fiddlin’ Fish Brewing Co., said that people get very involved in learning about their favorite breweries. “People have this ownership and pride in breweries they really like,” he said. “And they’ll plan their vacations to go explore breweries.”

Within the craft-brewery model, there is room for breweries of all sizes and shapes. Foothills sells beer in supermarkets in six Southern states. It will produce about 44,000 barrels of beer this year, and it has both a brewpub restaurant downtown and a separate tasting room at its brewery off South Stratford Road.

In contrast, Fiddlin’ Fish probably will make less than 1,000 barrels this year, but it aims to sell it all directly from its tasting room.

Wise Man Brewing made about 1,000 barrels its first year and sells mostly from its tasting room. But it also sells kegs, cans and bottles off-site. And it now is leasing a separate warehouse to increase distribution.

“Our tap room sales are strong,” said Dan Rossow, Wise Man’s taproom manager. “But I think there’s more opportunity for distribution.”

Joymongers, based in Greensboro, took a different tack in opening its second tasting room in Winston-Salem. Joymongers Beer Hall doesn’t brew beer, but it does age beers in barrels, so this second tasting room always has some different beers from what Joymongers sells in Greensboro.

The two other breweries in Winston-Salem, Small Batch Beer Co. and Hoots Beer Co., are also full bars that have always sold other companies’ beers and other alcohol. “We’re really small,” said Eric Swaim, a co-owner of Hoots. “But we’re really a neighborhood bar that happens to brew beer.”

Small Batch is small, too, but one of its owners opened Burger Batch restaurant next door.

“There are so many ways to be a brewery,” Swaim said. “I think it’s still such a new concept for people.”

Aside from the beer itself, what really sets brewery tasting rooms apart from traditional bars is the family-friendly atmosphere.

Few parents would push their baby in a stroller into a conventional bar. But strollers and kids of all ages are common at craft breweries. These breweries welcome kids, and even offer cornhole and other games to make them feel at home.

“It’s a very social place,” said Wise Man’s Rossow. “We have games. We have sodas. We have snacks, like popcorn.”

Trivia nights have been popular. “Trivia night has been huge for us,” Ashe said. “The other week, we had 38 trivia teams one night.”

Wise Man bills Tuesday nights as “Healthy, Wealthy & Wise — from the famous Ben Franklin quote,” Rossow said. On Tuesdays, the brewery sponsors a run club and a yoga class. And it partners with a local nonprofit group each month, donating a portion of Tuesday’s sales.

Live music is another popular event that breweries use to draw in customers and get them to stay awhile. Fiddlin’ Fish has so much music and other events that it recently hired a full-time event coordinator.

Perhaps more than anything else, though, food trucks have proven to be a big draw for brewery customers. Food-truck owners have called breweries their bread and butter. And breweries praise food trucks for giving them the amenities of a restaurant without all the expenditure and headaches.

“It’s a great symbiotic relationship. People love that they can come here and have a meal,” said Ashe, whose Fiddlin’ Fish has a food truck every day of the week and twice on Saturdays.

Bartholomaus said that having food trucks not only helps foster community, but also is good business. “If you’re drinking and don’t have food, you’re going to get more intoxicated,” he said. “And if you come here with your kids, as soon as they get hungry, you’re gone. You have to leave. But if there’s a truck, you can have a taco and stay longer.”

Ashe said that U.S. tasting rooms have become a lot like European beer halls, where people will happily spend all afternoon or evening because they can bring their families, play games, listen to music, and have lunch or dinner.

“It’s not the restaurant model. We’re not trying to turn tables (to move customers in and out quickly),” he said. “People have the license to bring their kids and their dogs and hang out all afternoon.

Local brewery owners said they expect to see more growth in Winston-Salem. They think the suburbs and nearby towns, such as Clemmons and Lewisville, are particularly ripe for brewery openings.

Rossow said that Asheville demonstrated how having more breweries helps everyone because it creates a critical mass that draws visitors to the city.

Still, craft beer is somewhat of a luxury product, as its customers are generally people with plenty of disposable income. If you just want a beer, supermarkets are filled with cheaper options. As Bartholomaus put it, “If there’s an economic downturn, some of these breweries will close.”

He also said that craft beer’s customers are still predominantly young white males, and that demographic will need to broaden for the industry to grow in the long term.

But the industry expects continued strong growth for the next few years as more and more people discover the craft-brew culture.

“We always intended to be about more than just the beer, and that’s what people like,” Ashe said.

Or as Bartholomaus said, “We focus on being a community meeting place.”


Photo Credit: cerdadebbie [Creative Commons CC0], via Creative Commons