Charlotte’s beer scene continues to grow up.
It’s been nearly a decade since Charlotte’s first craft brewery, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, opened in early 2009. Since then, the city’s beer scene has exploded. Today, about 21 breweries are operating in Charlotte.
But this year seems to mark something of a turning point for the local craft beer scene. Most of the activity is on two ends of the spectrum — small openings or big expansions.
The pace of new brewery openings has slowed considerably. The few in the works tend to be smaller ventures with aims of being a neighborhood hangout, not the next big brand name on tap handles across the city.
For the established players, this year has been all about expansion. At least four big projects are underway from popular Charlotte breweries.
- Wooden Robot Brewery in South End is opening a new location in NoDa with a rooftop beer garden.
- Legion Brewing is opening SouthPark’s first brewery with a taproom and event space.
- Olde Mecklenburg Brewery is building a new taproom, brewhouse and beer garden in Cornelius.
- Heist Brewing is working on a massive barrel aging and taproom facility in North End.
These come after two big investments — from Sycamore Brewing and Triple C Brewing — in expanding production capacity last year. Other breweries — like Unknown Brewing — have recently expanded their current space.
“We’ve got a few years under our belt and found some success,” said Phil Buchy, owner of Legion Brewing. “It’s just the logical next step.”
This trend is part of the natural order of things in the beer world. Everything comes in waves.
OMB, NoDa and Triple C represented the first wave, creating a market for craft beer in Charlotte.
That led to the second wave, breweries like Sugar Creek Brewing, Unknown Brewing, Sycamore and Three Spirits. This group is coming into its own.
For brand new breweries, it takes some time to perfect the beer, refine your operations, build a loyal customer base and perhaps get a little distribution. But then sometime between years three and six, there comes an inflection point.
“That’s the time where you kind of have to make a decision as a company,” said Dan Wade, co-founder of Wooden Robot Brewery. “Are we going to keep expanding and growing?”
There are two major options for brewers who decide they want to get bigger. They can invest in more production capacity, facilities where they can make enough beer to get on the shelves at Harris Teeter and Publix.
Or they can focus on the taproom experience, bottle it up and bring it to another location.
How will new breweries survive going forward? Going small.
Charlotte still has plenty of room for more breweries. On the West Coast, the city of Portland has more than 100. Asheville, a much smaller city than Charlotte, has about 40.
But at this stage in Charlotte’s beer scene development, the path the first and second wave of breweries have taken is becoming more difficult.
“We’re getting to the point where the Charlotte market is a little more mature,” Wade said. “It’s not a no-brainer that you’re going to open up and make a ton of money.”
Investments in big brewing facilities with the expectation of getting in all the bars and restaurants might not pay off. Instead, Charlotte beer insiders say going small is a safer bet.
The city’s newest brewery — Resident Culture — is a pretty good example. They’ve focused heavily on being a neighborhood gathering spot for Plaza Midwood.
The upcoming Town Brewing will likely take the same path for FreeMoreWest when it opens later this year.
“The bigger Charlotte gets, the more insular the neighborhoods will be. Everyone will have their haunts they go to,” Buchy said. “But shelf space — that’s not growing. And with competition, it’s only getting smaller.”