Friday, September 30, 2022

For a craft brewery culture to survive and thrive, it takes a little help from friends

How supporting industries play a vital role in the financial health of the craft beer market.

The business of craft brewing, seen here in action at Front Street Brewery, which opened in 1995, before Wilmington’s 2010 brewery boom.(Port City Daily file photo)

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

WILMINGTON —A ripple effect of craft beer’s arrival in Wilmington can be seen in the presence of supporting industries that encourage local participation and regional tourism.

Any market disruption Wilmington breweries have caused has not yet been formally studied, however, space has been carved for shifting industry norms, employment opportunities and potentially even an evolution in consumer behavior.

RELATED: Is there room in Wilmington’s market for more breweries?

A brews cruise

The Port City Brew Bus started in 2014, the semi-annual magazine, Wilmington Ale Trail, started in 2015 and the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance was formed in 2016. Jeremy Tomlinson has his hands in all three aligning organizations.

As president of the alliance and owner of the brew bus and magazine, Tomlinson recognized early on that breweries need kin businesses in order to grease the wheels of the brew machine, or bus.

He studied comparable markets with teeming craft beer communities and learned from the models our western neighbors in Asheville had employed.

“We did a little research, saw a lot of cities that had breweries also had a tour,” Tomlinson said. “We decided to enter the market.”

With a brew bus in tow, he spearheaded the next market gap: a brew guide.

“(Successful) cities also have a brewery guide once they hit a certain number of breweries,” he said.

The Wilmington Ale Trail was created with the help of his wife, who specializes in graphic design, to spread the wealth and hops around town. They have collaborated with breweries since the beginning of the boom to help encourage growth and market stability in the Port City.

“We really worked with them on what was going to be best for the breweries,” he said. “We kind of were approaching it as this kind of helps promotes Wilmington and promotes beer.”

A page out of the Wilmington Ale Trail, a semi-annual magazine that started in the fall of 2015. (Courtesy of Wilmington Ale Trail)

The goal, according to Tomlinson?

“Making Wilmington a destination for beer tourism.”

Tomlinson’s estimates his brew bus passengers are 55 percent local, 45 percent tourist.

“The majority of people who ride the bus are still local,” he said.”Probably next year we should be starting to get more national, regional recognition.”

“We’ve seen a lot of people say, ‘All I drank was Miller Lite until I rode your bus.’”

It’s been his mission to make beer drinkers in the Cape Fear region and beyond aware of the breadth of options both breweries and bottle shops offer.

“Our goal is to take the person that drinks Bud Light, take them to one of our breweries, and find them a beer that they really like,” he said. So much more of that money will stay locally.”

The brain drain

Breweries can function as both job creators and attractors.

“Wilmington needs industry,” Tomlinson said. “Graduates go to Raleigh or Charlotte because they can’t get jobs here.”

“Where the real change happens is when the baseline knowledge goes up,” said Harrison Hickok, senior business analyst at Untappd, who has over a decade of experience in breweries and the craft beer industry.

“I think the way Wilmington is set up is great, it’s a beer-centric town,” Hickok said.

With headquarters in historic downtown Wilmington, Untappd is a nationally recognized application with seven million users.

“If more people come here, more young people come here because there are jobs like Untappd to provide them a living, then I think it’ll be fine, I think it’ll keep growing more breweries,” Hickok.

To drink craft beer, you generally need a disposable income. Breweries and craft beer businesses rely on individuals and a population that is willing to spend more per brew than perhaps they have been used to.

Tomlinson sees Wilmington’s “brain drain” as a potential threat to the progress breweries could bring.

“Wilmington needs industry,” Tomlinson said. “Graduates go to Raleigh or Charlotte because they can’t get jobs here.”

For companies to come here, their employees need to come here. What do they want to see when you come to a town? They like breweries. That’s a draw for a business if they can make their employees happy.”

Working with researchers at UNCW to produce economic data tied to the brewery boom in Wilmington, Tomlinson hopes tangible information will be released sometime next year.

Until then, industry leaders are left to speculate.

Change in business or behavior?

Are consumers demanding better, craft beer? Are they giving it a try because it’s now available and in their backyards? Could be both.

For Ellie Craig, a director of the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance who has also been with Wilmington’s original brewery, Front Street Brewery for nine years and counting, it’s a natural evolution.

“Not only are we brewing a lot of beer, we’re brewing good beer,” Craig said.

With a front-row look at the new breweries on the block, Front Street welcomes their new neighbors.

“For us, it’s more kids in the sandbox to play with,” Craig said. “The fact of the matter is the good breweries are going to rise to the top and there are going to be some breweries that don’t cut it. That’s just capitalism.”

With a concentration of breweries in the downtown area, Craig believes consumer behavior is shifting.

“I think there’s plenty of room in the market,” she said. “I think what we’re seeing is we’re seeing a shift in drinking trends.”

Whether it be the chicken or the egg, consumers may be drinking less volume of beer compared to previous patterns.

“I think as we continue to see those trends change and see the general consumer of craft beer change their mentality from drinking nine beers a night to two or three,” Craig said.

The caveat? Craft beer can sometimes pack in a much higher alcohol by volume than most popular, mainstream light brews.

“People are more apt now to pay six or seven dollars for a finely crafted local beer than just have five or six of a two dollar beer,” Craig said.

A bank for your brew

Live Oak Bank recognized the economic vitality of the brewery industry and quickly added craft beer lending programs to their specialized local roster just in time for the boom that began in 2014.

Though they cannot identify which breweries they have helped fund, they work with “quite a few” breweries in town.

“We want to make sure that the individuals have worked in the industry before,” said Kate Smith, a loan officer for Live Oak’s Wine and Craft Beverage program.

An extremely capital-intensive industry to enter, Smith and her associates are well aware of both national and regional craft beer trends.

“I think that for breweries to stay around for the long term it really is about the artisanal craft,” she said. “Can they keep consumers coming back to their taproom?”

Smith notes legislative changes that have lifted restraints on brewers and the role that alliances like the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance and the North Carolina Brewer’s Guild play in paving the way for that change.

“The North Carolina Brewer’s Guild works really hard for our state,” she said.

Rather than see one another as competition, brewers report an open source trend in education and partnership.

“It’s very collaborative,” Smith said. “They realize the whole makes it stronger.”

Finally, find out how prohibition ties into the market equation in our series finale on Wilmington’s brewery market tomorrow morning.

Related Articles