WILMINGTON — Since 2016, the Wilmington area has been celebrating its local beer scene with Cape Fear Craft Beer Week.
The 10-day event kicks off March 24 and has more than a dozen ways to celebrate an industry that is boosting the state’s bottom line by roughly $2 billion, NC State Extension reports. North Carolina ranked in the top 10 nationally for craft beer production in 2020 and 2021, adding 18,000 jobs across nearly 400 breweries, according to stats released by the Colorado-based Brewers Association.
READ MORE: Wilmington places on 2022 survey ranking best beer cities
Though only two breweries existed in Wilmington in 2014 — the oldest, Front Street Brewery, opened in 1995 and Broomtail followed almost 20 years later — today, 20 can be found across the tri-county region.
And plenty more are on the way.
Pender County’s Surf City Brewing Company is moving along to open this year and Burgaw Brewing will launch Friday.
Brunswick County welcomed Solar Brewing Company to Oak Island and Brunswick Beer and Cider in Leland. Soon, Cape Side Brewing will operate in Southport, and Leland Brewing Company and Mannkind Brewing in Leland.
“They will be invited to join our organization so we can continue to market these coastal beach areas as a great place to drink craft beer,” said Ellie Craig, president of Cape Fear Beer Alliance and the sales and marketing director for Front Street Brewery.
Cape Fear Craft Beer Week is presented by the Cape Fear Beer Alliance and Craft on the Coast. The group focuses on education and promotion to strengthen craft beer tourism regionally. It organizes the week to offer opportunities to taste new sips, engage in the craft-beer-making community and indulge in coastal cuisine.
Craig said 18 breweries are participating in this year’s festivities.
A crucial part of the alliance and craft beer week initiative is fundraising, which over the last three years has been dedicated to NourishNC. The Wilmington agency helps feed area students and also worked with Cape Fear Beer Alliance to devise a free grocery program for employees affected by the shutdowns in the food and beverage industry at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We have a really great symbiotic relationship with them,” Craig said. “We appreciate what they do and they appreciate what we do in return.”
Since 2020, a group of brewers have come together to create a specialty beer for NourishNC as part of the week, with sales benefitting the nonprofit. This year’s flavor is a fruit-forward American pale ale, titled “Future Fuel,” created with cone whole hops, donated by Carolina Malt House.
“They used an Idaho seven,” Craig explained, which means hops ripe with herbaceous and citrus-y notes. “Hops yield so many different flavors — sometimes you can get really piney and resinous and sometimes a lot of really fruity flavors, like mango and tropical fruits.”
Alexis Scrivani of the soon-to-launch Mannkind Brewing and Neil Kadala of Waterline Brewing Co. brought together seven other brewers to create Future Fuel in mid-February. They brewed 20 barrels out of Waterline — essentially enough for 40 standard kegs — to be distributed as four–pack cans and on draft at local breweries and bottle shops during craft beer week.
“We will decide how much we will keg off and how much we will can later this week, based on which locations choose to put it on draft,” Craig said.
And once it’s gone, it’s gone.
“Last year, we sold out in probably 12 days,” she added. “That’s another thing that really engages people in our community — when they’re familiar with these organizations and want to support them, and also want to support local craft breweries and drink local craft beer.”
The beer alliance has given “thousands of dollars” to NourishNC over the years, Craig indicated. In 2022, the specialty collaboration brought in around $2,000 for the nonprofit.
In 2023, beer week has a new fundraiser. In addition to sales from Future Fuel, CFCBA also is hosting a raffle for one person to win a trip to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany this year. One entry is received for every $5 donated to NourishNC, tracked by scanning a QR code at participating breweries and bottle shops — Bill’s Brewing Company, Catawba Brewing Company, DrumTrout Brewing Company, Edward Teach Brewery, Fermental, Front Street Brewery, Flytrap Brewing, Hi-Wire Brewing, Panacea Brewing Company, Pour Taproom, Session Beer Market, Waterline Brewing Company and Wrightsville Beach Brewery.
“The brewery that gets the most donations for Nourish will also have the winner selected from entries at that brewery,” Craig said.
The alliance expects to raise a little more than $6,000 through the raffle.
Two highlights of Cape Fear Craft Beer Week week are the Ultimate Brewing Championship, which kicks off the 10-day celebration on March 24, and Cape Fear Craft and Cuisine, the bookend to festivities on April 2.
The brewing championship will be held at Hannah Block USO and Community Center in downtown Wilmington, with tickets priced $25 (must be 21 and over to attend). A wrestling-themed competition, it pins local beermakers in a friendly “brew”haha to develop unique styles from unusual ingredients. New Anthem won last year with its chocolate and maple syrup brown ale.
Breweries gathered in January at the alliance’s annual chili cookoff to draw their two ingredients,to be used to make the Ultimate Brewing Championship beer, from a list of 36.
“We did a snake draft like a fantasy football draft, for ingredients,” Craig said. “So brewers drew a name out of a bag and that was their draft number, and then we went in order, selecting ingredients from list number one, and it snaked back around.”
Craft brewers must use the two ingredients from the draft, but can add other flavors to create any beer style and alcohol by volume they choose. Some of the ingredient pairings this year include coconut and peanut butter, blackberry and chocolate, blood orange and ginger, mango and spruce, grapefruit and lemongrass, and yuzu and cardamom.
The audience judges their favorite sip via blind tasting. Each booth at the event only says the kind of beer, ingredients and ABV; it doesn’t delineate which brewery made it.
“It’s an opportunity for all of the brewers in town to get together and just cut loose and have some fun,” Craig said. “Everybody’s dressed up and in wrestling attire because it’s a wrestling-themed event.”
The winner receives bragging rights and a wrestling belt to hang in their respective brewery.
Another friendly competition is the ILM Battle of the Breweries Blood Drive for the American Red Cross of Eastern NC. Area craft breweries battle it out for who can recruit the most donors, with the blood drive taking place Wednesday, March 29, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Aloft Hotel in downtown Wilmington. Pre-registration is open here.
Craft beer week concludes with a premier food-and-beer pairing. Cape Fear Craft and Cuisine puts 18 local chefs with 18 local and regional North Carolina brewers to provide a balanced bite and sip. The event takes place at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher on Saturday, April 1, 7 p.m., with tickets costing $100 here.
New this year is JohnnyLukes, Soulful Twist and PinPoint, as well as local breweries DrumTrout and Outer Dunes. Craig said Front Street’s Doppelback will be paired with PinPoint’s braised beef short ribs slider with sunchoke mustard and a thin-sliced pickle.
“The chef and brewer worked closely together to figure out the flavor profiles of each beer and what food is going to pair well with that with those flavor profiles,” Craig said.
In Rebellion’s case, co-partner Travis Weiss told Waterline to choose the beer first and decided to build a different dish around it than what Rebellion — known for its stacked-high burgers and pork sandwiches — normally serves.
“Their new strawberry hibiscus hefeweizen screamed fresh seafood for me,” said Weiss, who was reared in the Chesapeake Bay area and surrounded by fresh seafood. “Wilmington is similar where fresh local catches are year round — so why not honor that?”
Rebellion, which began participating in Craft and Cuisine last year, is serving an acidic, briney and spicy ceviche to pair with the fruit-froward profile of the beer. “It begged for salt and chiles,” Wiesse said. The dish will be created from a fresh catch and served with strawberry, aguachile, lime, radish, cilantro oil, and Hatteras Saltworks sea salt.
Beer Barrio chef Stephen Durley chose to do a Carolina beef tongue taco, stuffed with braised beef tongue, vinegar sauce, and spicy lime slaw on a corn tortilla. It will pair with Edward Teach Brewery’s Devil’s Son IPA.
“The lingering spiciness of the taco is washed away with the hoppyness of the beer, leaving your palate refreshed and ready for more,” Durley wrote to PCD.
Beer Barrio has participated annually since the Craft and Cuisine inception. “It’s a wonderful way for the community to get introduced to a wide variety of local offerings and meet some of the people making it possible,” Durley wrote.
Craig added it’s been called a premier culinary and craft beer event statewide: “It’s great exposure to all the things that we have to offer here in the Cape Fear region in terms of the culinary world and the craft beer world.”
More about CFCBW and its events, including a beer, whiskey and food pairing at Front Street Brewery, a mullet pageant at Bill’s Brewing Co., new beer releases, tap takeovers, and celebrations, can be found here.
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