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Monday, May 20, 2024

Solar Brewing Co. looks to open Oak Island’s first brewery by late summer

Under-slab plumbing pipes laid out beneath the future Solar Brewing Co. in Oak Island. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy Michael Bartlett)

OAK ISLAND — Oak Island’s first brewpub, Solar Brewing Co., is planning to open next to Shagger Jacks sometime between June and August with a 50-person seating capacity, 16 taps, and pizza offerings. Owner Michael Bartlett said he expects to install solar panels to help supply power to the brewery’s operations.

When the former homebrewer was studying for his brewing and distillation technology certificate at a trade school near Detroit, his marketing teacher once told him to avoid any hesitation of starting a brewery because of what appeared to be a tapped-out craft beer market.

Sure, there were breweries popping up throughout the country at a record rate, but it was nothing new when compared to the country’s total population. As far back as the 1870s, there was one brewery per 9,334 people in the U.S., according to data from the Brewers Association and U.S. Census Bureau. In 2019 — the last year of data published by the Brewers Association — 8,386 breweries operated in the U.S. Although the number may seem staggering, the ratio amounts to one brewery per 39,161 people.

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“To match that today, we’d have to have 39,000 breweries,” Bartlett said. “We’re not even close to that today.”

A reason why so many breweries can thrive in today’s beer market is simple: Many stay focused on reaching local consumers rather than pursuing larger distribution strategies.

“It’s difficult to get grocery store space. Mass-marketed breweries control that market,” Bartlett said, referring to the three-tier system of distribution giving companies like Anheuser-Busch lopsided power when it comes to refrigerator and shelf space. “But one thing that’s easier to do: Be your best local brewery.”

Bartlett said the types of beers he will offer in the taproom will depend on further analysis of a market that has a “high number of retirees naturally gravitating to wine.” He’s considering a Flanders Red, a sour Belgian-style ale that the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) describes as “red wine-like” featuring a “balanced to intense sour aroma” with a dry finish. The beer is typically aged in barrels for eight to 18 months, and “wild yeast” is added during secondary fermentation.

The historical U.S. brewery count, which shows a sharp increase beginning in the early 90s. (Courtesy Brewers Association)
The historical U.S. brewery count, which shows a sharp increase beginning in the early 90s. (Courtesy Brewers Association)

“Known as the Burgundy of Belgium, it is more wine-like than any other beer style,” according to the BJCP 2015 Beer Style Guidelines.

But a release of a Flanders Red may be further down the line. For the immediate future, Bartlett plans to focus on malty styles — “because I’m a ‘malt-head’ myself” — and a clean cream ale will serve as the flagship. He may also brew a Kölsch, though the German lager takes longer to produce than most ales.

“Count on a little of everything when I get rolling,” Bartlett said. “I’d like to put in a good selection of beers, some at the high-gravity end of wine strength for people who like boozy beers. But, on the other end of the scale, I like Scottish light beers at 2-to-3 percent [ABV]. Not every beer has to knock you on the floor.”

In neighboring Southport, Check Six Brewing closed its doors in the summer of 2019, citing struggles through recent hurricanes and distribution challenges. Bartlett said he bought its brewing equipment, and has received plenty of guidance from its former owners.

“One thing is for sure: I’m not afraid to borrow ideas from other people,” Bartlett said.

The opening would mark Brunswick County’s third craft brewery — and Oak Island’s first — according to the Southport-Oak Island Chamber of Commerce’s Karen Sphar.

Elsewhere in coastal North Carolina, Makai Brewing Company operates at Ocean Isle Beach and Good Hops Brewing at Carolina Beach. A new brewery, 7Twenty6 Brewing, plans to open in the fast-growing town of Leland about 20 miles north of Oak Island.

“It’s still going to come,” said Dana Fisher of the North Brunswick Chamber of Commerce. “They just had to take a step back due to Covid-19 [capacity limitations].”

Additionally, Wrightsville Beach Brewery in Wilmington has announced plans to open a second location in Leland called “Brunswick Beer & Cider Company.”

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“All systems are a go,” front-of-house manager John Hanna said Thursday afternoon.

“[It’s] hard to have a grand opening during a pandemic,” owner Jud Watkins added. “But we are still proceeding. We hope to break ground this summer and be open before next summer (2022).”

Construction of Solar Brewing Co. is taking place at 8108 East Oak Island Drive.

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