The “brewery under the bridge” is stepping up its Kölsch production in response to growing local demand in a Wilmington market dominated by hoppy ales.
WILMINGTON — In a craft beer market crowded by variations on the India Pale Ale (IPA), Waterline Brewing Company is expanding production of its flagship Kölsch ale to meet a growing local demand for a beer known for its lightness and drinkability – a ‘gateway beer’ for those accustomed to traditional domestics.
The brewery is installing four new 20-barrel fermentation and carbonation tanks, doubling its total cellar capacity as it plans to increase distribution of its trademark yellow Kölsch tap handles in bars and restaurants throughout the Wilmington area.
When the brewery first opened in December 2015, brand manager Mark Anthony Mueller said they expected their red ale and rye beers to become the flagships.
“But we learned very quickly that most of the accounts wanted something different, something lighter, so our Kölsch was our go-to,” Mueller said. “Kölsch is now about 80 percent of our production. We have to brew as much Kölsch as we can possibly make, and we can hardly keep up as it is.”
He also said the expanded cellar space – where the beer ferments, carbonates, and awaits kegging after the brewing process – allows the brewers to dedicate more space to their flagship beer while relieving certain production constraints behind brewing more niche beers like the Wee Heavy Scotch Ale and Gose’ Aroma (brewed with sun-dried tomato-infused salts and fresh basil).
“Everyone has their specialties and some of the country’s best IPAs are made here in Wilmington,” Mueller said. “Wilmington Brewing Company, New Anthem – those guys kill it. So when we first started distributing, I talked to all the bar managers and owners around town and said, ‘Hey, just so you know, I’m not going to try to sell you IPAs.’ And they said, ‘Thank God, because that’s all everyone tries to sell.’”
And so they found their niche with the Kölsch, an easy-drinking beer in a beach town. The goal, he said, was for people to walk into a bar, see the yellow tap handle, and say, “I know what that is; I like that; I want that.”
Aaron Carter, a bartender at Duck and Dive Pub on Dock Street, said Waterline’s Kölsch allows him to move customers who typically drink Bud Light or Miller Light into the local craft beer world.
“It’s the kind of beer you want to have on a hot day,” Carter said. “Whereas the offset of that is the IPA market. To be honest with you, it’s to the point where I don’t even know the difference between them anymore. And I used to have what I thought is a good palette. Not to mention, people are a lot more manageable on Kolsch [beers] than they are on IPAs.”
He said Waterline was able to identify and fill a niche within a large, crowded market because “no one knew the customer was looking for something like that.”
“And the good news is: It costs so much money to get [a brewery] started, that you know whether you have a good product or not. The proof is in the pudding by the people ordering them. You’re either selling or you’re dying.”
Head brewer Dani Bearss said her team was trying to solve the central problem of “how [they were] going to create more beer” to meet a growing distribution demand. Eliminating accounts and outsourcing brewing operations were not appealing options.
“This gave us the most autonomy to take care of those accounts, expand, and do it ourselves,” Bearss said. “So that we’re still in control of our product.”
President and founder Rob Robinson attributed this to a measured expansion process, one that reacts to demand and allows Bearss to get ahead on Kölsch production while being able to focus on some of the brewery’s award-winning niche beers typically featured in the taproom.
Ultimately, he said the brewery’s core focus on Kölsch beers came from a simple response to what the Wilmington market was asking for.
“Other people have different strategies, but for us … Kölsch happened to be the beer that caught on the most for us,” Robinson said.
And they plan to keep it local. Although Mueller said the brewery’s initial strategy was to distribute to cities like Charlotte, Raleigh, and Asheville, they are now focused on supplying a growing thirst in the Wilmington area – including bars and restaurants in Surf City, Jacksonville, and Carolina Beach.
“It just turns out that Wilmington drinks enough beer to consume all we have,” Mueller said.
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