WILMINGTON — The city’s craft beer industry keeps booming as one of the 18 breweries in the region prepares to quadruple production, eyeing statewide distribution by 2020.
Bill’s Brewing Company co-owner Donnie Stone said they will start demolition on a recently purchased building in April — on Cinema Drive, 15 feet from Capt’n Bill’s volleyball courts — that will house production offices, a taproom, and a new 20-barrel brewhouse.
He expects to begin operating from the new facility by November 2019.
“This summer we noticed the demand got higher than we were capable of keeping up with,” Stone said on Friday morning while handing buckets of hops to head brewer Jim Deaton, who was “dry-hopping” the most recently brewed batch.
We’re going to have our hands full next year
Stone and Deaton were in the original 7-barrel brewhouse that sits open beside the bar and restaurant of Bill’s Front Porch.
To understand brewery-speak you need to start with the barrel, a European measure of liquid equal to 31 gallons. Brewhouses are classified by the batch size they produce, meaning each time Deaton brews a batch of beer he brews seven barrels of it — or roughly 217 gallons.
Stone said the typical start-up brewery has similar production capabilities. For Bill’s, expanding to 20 barrels alleviates a production bottleneck that has so far limited their distribution capabilities.
“We’re going to have our hands full next year,” Stone said.
In a small, cluttered office next to the bar, distribution manager Nicholas Alexander showed a map of outside accounts they are distributing kegs to throughout the Cape Fear and Triangle regions — 70 locally and 30 near Raleigh. At any given time there are about 375 kegs and 150 open taps in bars, restaurants, bottle shops, and country clubs throughout the area.
“We’ll go from roughly 630 gallons a week to about 1,900 gallons a week. The expansion will give us the ability to pick up hundreds of accounts,” Alexander said. “We’ll hopefully be going statewide by the end of 2020.”
Stone then walked in with a fresh order from Hopsail Island, a craft beer taproom and bottle shop in Surf City.
“We feel 20 barrels is enough to reach throughout the state, and be consistent with that. Whereas on our 7-barrel system we are limited to Wilmington and Raleigh for the most part,” Stone said.
Wilmington area turning into Asheville East
Their expansion comes at a time when other local breweries have also grown to match a rising demand. According to Stone, Wilmington’s New Anthem Beer Project recently ramped up production from a 15-barrel system to a new 30-barrel production facility. Surf City’s new Salty Turtle Brewing Company had to bring in guest taps their first summer because they couldn’t keep up with production.
“The way the craft beer scene is booming, a lot of breweries are going from small-scale [production] and ramping it up a bit,” Stone said. “We’re turning into a little Asheville East. Not only are our breweries growing, but we’re putting out great beer and getting notoriety throughout the state.”
Before joining Bill’s, Deaton was the head of production at Blowing Rock Brewing Company near Boone, which along with nearby Asheville houses some of the state’s — and the country’s — largest craft breweries.
“I came from the mountains … Wilmington’s got something going on here,” Deaton said.
Growing out of the city
Stone has been using a mobile packaging line called Tap Hopper Canning out of Greensboro to can their beers in-house, reflecting a national trend that has given small-scale breweries the ability to package without having dedicated bottling and canning line space.
Currently, Tap Hopper cans about 21 barrels once a month, hooking up directly to tanks inside the brewhouse. This yields approximately 150 cases of 16-ounce cans per month.
While their cans are in most bottle shops in Wilmington — Fermental, Lighthouse, and Cape Fear Wine and Beer to name a few — as well as a few popular bars and bottle shops in the Triangle area, Stone is looking to push cans throughout the state, especially in thriving markets like Charlotte.
Canning, however, limits their ability to get kegs out during the week of the operation because it uses coveted tank space.
“That’s the benefit of going to the new production facility: we’ll be able to can pretty much all of the time, while continuing to have kegs out on the market,” Stone said. “We’re keeping an eye on where our taps are at — it’s the only way to really gauge how are beer is doing in the market, how people are responding to it.”
Keg distribution and can sales, Alexander said, are already accomplishing one of any young brewery’s main objectives: to become an established house brand in Wilmington and increase awareness in the Raleigh area. With the expansion, however, the level of production will turn can sales into a much more profitable enterprise.
“Because we can only can so much [now] it’s more for building the brand; more notoriety than profitability,” Stone said.
Aside from reaching an economy of scale that will bring higher profits, Stone’s main goal with the expansion is to get their beer on shelves and in taprooms throughout the state while appealing more to restaurants and bars beyond “craft beer-forward” bottle shops and taprooms.
But ultimately, Stone said it’s about increasing the appeal of Wilmington as a beer town, especially compared to the thriving Asheville region.
“The craft beer scene there is great — I’m proud to say it’s booming here in Wilmington too,” Stone said.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com