WILMINGTON — For Christian Stoner, his favorite North Carolina beer is the last one he sipped.
Originally from London, the trained chef landed stateside and fell into a love affair with craft beer from the Tar Heel State — specifically in Raleigh, where he took a job at a neighborhood bottle shop, Hop Yard.
That was six-and-a-half years ago. Today, Stoner is the Hop Yard owner, with his wife, Susan Barnes, and a third business partner, Lance Rogers. In January, they expanded their brand to downtown Wilmington, opening a shop at 108 Grace St., the old Bombers Beverage Co. spot.
It’s not a far path to walk for Stoner, whose calling is in the hospitality industry. Once a bartender at Hop Yard, Stoner learned about various breweries across the state and the art of crafting tasty beer first-hand.
“When you’re working for them, you’re kind of on a fast track because you need to be in the know when people ask questions,” Stoner said.
He was privy to running bars before, specifically one in Southampton, England, which he oversaw with his brother.
“The craft beer scene in England is nothing like it is here,” Stoner said. “We were lucky if Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was in stock.”
These days Stoner is a fan of Casita Brewing Company in Wilson, Burial Beer Company from Asheville and Newgrass out of Shelby. “They’re some of our biggest sellers in our Raleigh branch, and stuff that we’ve been able to pull down here as well,” he said.
Stoner and his business partners are focused on beers not found easily in town. They’re not blind to the fact that beer is big business in the Port City. Currently, more than a dozen bottle shops are set up in Wilmington, with more than 20 breweries.
“I mean, you can’t throw a shoe without hitting a brewery here,” Stoner said. “And everyone is absolutely killing it. You know? The quality of beer being produced is incredible.”
He said before opening the shop, he and his wife already had a condo in Wilmington and often visited on weekends. They would take back kegs of beer from Fly Trap and Flying Machine — two brands then not available in Raleigh — and do tap takeovers.
Hop Yard Wilmington supports local and regional options but does carry some out-of-state brews and staples, such as the Bell’s and Founders brands. The store carries more than 200 beers and 80-plus wines.
“These numbers increase daily,” Stoner said. “We intend to add liquor at a later date. Seemed unwise to begin with as the government is being harsher on places categorized as a bar than a bottle shop.”
In addition to carrying bottled and can varieties, Hop Yard is equipped with 24 taps. Twenty are dedicated to beers, including local flavors from Bill’s Brewing Co., Flying Machine and New Anthem.
“We will be putting the Wilmington breweries’ lesser-known stuff on tap,” Stoner clarified, since folks often go directly to the breweries themselves for the more popular IPAs or other brews. “For instance, at the moment, I’ve got New Anthem’s Belgian pilsner.”
He also carries Hop Fly out of Rocky Mount, a brand distributed in Raleigh but not necessarily Wilmington. Stoner and his partners can bring down supplies as they get it from their other store.
“When we go away, my wife and I will inevitably try and find breweries and vineyards to go to each day,” Stoner added about their curating process.
The other four taps at Hop Yard are dedicated to wine. Stoner’s wife is a level 1 sommelier, so they don’t carry supermarket brands. Half of their wine collection is American, according to Stoner. They carry quite a few varieties from Oregon and California, but also from Europe and Australia.
The bar has an outdoor patio, as well as plenty of seating indoors, at tabletop barrels, or its handmade, shiplap stand-up bar, crafted from Whiskey Run Customs.
Board games are up for grabs and there is a shuffleboard table. More offerings are coming, too, including tastings, live music, vinyl-record night, trivia night and other special events like hosted at the Raleigh store. Art shows will take place, with skateboard decks and paintings already mounted on the walls.
“We are having a mural painted soon,” Stoner said. “It’s kind of like an abstract piece with eyes and noses — probably difficult to describe and make it sound good, but it’s fantastic.”
Anyone can request a taste of something on tap before purchasing it at Hop Yard. Stoner said he will be adding tap takeovers to the bar soon.
“I don’t want people to order a pint sight unseen and not like it, so I prefer if you tasted a few things and take the thing that you like the most,” he said. “I’m confident we have a good selection, and there’s something for everyone.”
The space is dog-friendly, with Franklin, a.k.a. Frankie, Stoner’s terrier-French bulldog mix oftentimes greeting customers with a jump and kiss. He helps Stoner oversee the Wilmington store full-time for now, while Barnes and Rogers run the Raleigh shop. Once things begin to roll smoothly, Stoner said he will be back and forth — or maybe even opening another location.
“I mean, I’d love to think about that in the future,” Stoner said. “In an ideal world, there’d be 100 Hop Yards on an island somewhere.”
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