Monday, June 24, 2024

With more breweries per capita than Charlotte, is Wilmington poised to be another Asheville?

An introduction to our series on the impact of craft breweries in the Port City

Wilmington's independent craft brewery scene has been booming since 2014 and doesn't seem to show any signs of slowing down. (Port City Daily photo/ JOHANNA FEREBEE)
Wilmington’s independent craft brewery scene has been booming since 2014 and doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down. (Port City Daily photo / JOHANNA FEREBEE)

Editor’s note: This is part one of a series looking at Wilmington’s craft brewing culture.

WILMINGTON — A beach and good beer is a hard combination to beat; it goes without saying that the Port City hosts a wide and fine selection of craft brews.

The industry that’s been brewing in our backyard over the last three years might end up being bigger than expected.

The craft beer market had a 2.42 billion dollar impact on the North Carolina economy in 2016, according to data gathered by the Brewer’s Association, a national non-profit organization. Since 2014, Wilmington brewers have been after a piece of that pie.

With Edward Teach and Flying Machine set to open within the coming year, and Tidewater having filed a preliminary development permit two weeks ago, freshman breweries aren’t showing signs of slowing down anytime soon.

The next Asheville?

As of 2017, Wilmington has more than three times the number of breweries per capita in comparison to Charlotte and more than twice that of Raleigh.

This data, drawn from U.S. Census estimates and the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, show Wilmington may be a clear contender to join the leagues of Asheville in North Carolina’s craft beer tourist economy.

Wilmington is at an economic tipping point that has some craft beer enthusiasts and locals wondering, will we dive headfirst into becoming a craft beer tourist destination on par with Asheville? Or, will we level out to a flagship number of neighborhood breweries?

“Now you can come to the beach when you used to have to go to the mountains,” said Ellie Craig, a director of the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance. “Beer tourism is alive and well in Wilmington.

“There will always be changing brewery trends, it’s almost like clockwork,” Craig said. “Shifts in the market are what make the craft beer market fresh.”

An absence of formal economic impact data on craft beer’s stamp on Wilmington leaves much of the conversation anecdotal, but there are still means of digesting the growth we’ve experienced in recent years and why this growth hit the Port City later than comparable markets.

Every operating brewery in the Wilmington city limits opened during or after 2014, with the exception of Front Street Brewery, which has operated since 1995. With an average brewery requiring overhead in the millions, that’s an enormous potential shift in the local economy.

Wilmington may become a nationally ranked craft beer destination; right now industry experts say the locals still haven’t fully vetted the craft beer scene in town. That may be because Wilmington is late to the game, or it might just be that Port City’s brewing culture is still North Carolina’s best-kept secret, though it doesn’t seem it will be kept a secret for long.

At 7.6 breweries per 100,000 people, Wilmington has more than three times the number of breweries per capita compared to Charlotte and more than twice that of Raleigh. (Port City Daily graphic / JOHANNA FEREBEE)

The national craft beer explosion hit western markets in the early 2010s and started taking a larger share of the sales away from domestic and imported giants, which had dominated the industry for the last century.

In response to the 2010s boom, brewery distribution models are shifting from wholesale to taproom pours to maintain and secure their market share. According to several Wilmington brewers, breweries in town are benefiting from the lessons other places learned earlier by adding mainly neighborhood, smaller-scale breweries.

Tourism and surrounding industries form an essential piece of the market puzzle, and so far, the basic ingredients to make Wilmington a craft beer destination are here: An organized information source, supply and pour shops, tourist transportation service and a buzzing brewery scene.

This conglomeration of craft beer enthusiasts support the existing and freshman breweries to stay afloat and prosper in our rookie market filled with veteran brewers.

For the market to continue to attract craft customers, who pay more per brew than they’ve been used to this decade, takes competitive cooperation on a large scale according to the vice president of the North Carolina’s Craft Brewers Guild and others.

Since Wilmington is still climbing its way to a more mature brewery market, it can learn lessons from stabilized western metropolises on how to respond to saturation and demystification, which have hit them first.

Keep up with Port City Daily’s brewery series twice a day. This afternoon’s update is on what some say is the future of craft brewing, canning.  

A map updated by the North Carolina Craft Brewer’s Guild as of May 2017 shows breweries across the state, with Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington as clear hubs for craft beer activity. (Courtesy of NCCBG)

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