Wilmington’s first solar-powered brewery is looking for votes on the final two days of the Brews from the Sun contest. Meanwhile the owners discuss expansion plans, beginning with a limited line of cans sold from the taproom in coming months.
WILMINGTON — A year after opening, Mad Mole Brewing is in a back-and-forth battle with Birdsong Brewing Company for the title of ‘America’s Favorite Solar Craft Brewery.’
The two North Carolina breweries traded the first place spot at least five times in the Brews from the Sun contest’s final week of voting, which ends Saturday night. Both accounted for a combined 45 percent of 5,800 total votes submitted for the microbrewery category — breweries that produce less than 15,000 barrels a year — as of late Thursday night.
Wilmington’s first solar-powered brewery trailed by 15 votes Thursday afternoon before finding a 172-point lead by the end of the night.
The second annual competition is organized by Solar United Neighbors, a Washington D.C. nonprofit that has advocated for solar incentives and legislative changes in Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland, and Florida. More than 140 craft breweries in the U.S. have installed solar panels to help power their beer production, according to SUN spokesperson Ben Delman.
To celebrate beer “brewed by the sun” and gather some local support for the contest’s final day of voting, Mad Mole will host a Sustainable Saturday fundraising party. Beginning at noon, silent auctions and raffles will be held all day at the brewery, with proceeds going to the Cape Fear River Watch.
Mad Mole’s solar energy setup is the product of two software programmers, Ole Pederson and Martin de Jongh. They work for Chris Worden, CEO of Worden Brothers, a firm that designs software for online stock traders.
Worden owns a building in the same parking lot, and when a tenant on the far west side moved out, Pederson and Jongh made their final pitch.
“These guys were like, ‘That’s it, we’re taking the spot,'” Worden remembered. “And from that point on, they were not saying no. It was an ultimatum.”
Worden said the programmers’ growing reputation as homebrewers in their own neighborhood, fueled by a scientific, detailed approach to refining their beer recipes, was all the evidence he needed. In April 2017, Pederson and Jongh went to the Craft Brewers’ Conference in Washington D.C. to begin studying options for equipment and the layout of the brewhouse.
“They were looking at all the equipment like they were drinking out of a fire hose,” Worden remembers. “They went into full research mode. They already knew the recipes but didn’t know how to scale up. It’s one thing to brew at home; it’s another to scale it big.”
Most breweries use gas or steam-powered brewing systems, Worden said, but Pederson and Jongh decided to go completely electric. And going electric meant they could go solar.
The building’s large, gently sloped roof was ideal for solar production — because it faced south-southwest, the sun’s arch across the southern sky gave it maximum hours of direct sunlight. Soon after the three partners opened Mad Mole Brewing together in June 2018, 63 solar panels on the roof were producing 22 kilowatts of energy — enough to completely power the brewhouse and roughly a third of Mad Mole’s total energy consumption.
For the longtime work colleagues and business partners, the move to solar was both an environmental and economic decision. Although Worden estimated another eight to 12 years to break even on the solar investment, from there on out it was 100 percent free and clean energy.
“It’s infinite at that point,” Worden said.
He also said the roof’s system was installed to easily double the number of panels when the brewery expands production in the future. With the entire south-facing roof covered in panels, Worden said solar energy would account for two-thirds of the brewery’s total energy consumption.
Expansion plans are already in the works. The three partners plan to sell cans from the taproom within two to three months and eventually to bottle shops in Wilmington. They’ve installed a walk-in cooler in 1,500 square feet of space next to the brewery that will allow an increase in production by storing cans and kegs for distribution in Wilmington.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com