Cape Fear buzzing with industry growth

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By Trevor Normile

Thursday, December 1, 2016


People walk the streets and laugh and smoke cigarettes and spend their dollars in the stores.

It’s a downtown dream: people rubbing shoulders and spending time in the bubbling energy of commerce and culture. Bubbling, like beer.

“[The breweries] have provided jobs ... but another thing in Wilmington is that as we continue to grow, people look at Wilmington as a craft beer destination,” says Jeremy Tomlinson, president of the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance.

“That makes us one of the top brewing communities in the South.”

And Tomlinson should know. The region represented by the Alliance is home to 10 breweries with two under construction and, maybe, three more coming later.

He’s also the man to see for tours of the area’s breweries. With his business, the Port City Beer Bus, he gives beer lovers a quick roundup of the local beer makers, among other things.

As a tourism service, Tomlinson’s bus is directly dependent on the boom of local breweries over the past two and a half years.

A few years ago, he and a partner were working with the University of North Carolina-Wilmington Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship when, he said, they began mixing with people in the town’s brew scene.

After they saw businesses in other towns capitalizing on the tourism-friendly beer industry, they started an Indie GoGo effort to fund the Brew Bus.

“Neither of us were brewers. I used to brew, but I wasn’t very good at it,” Tomlinson laughs.

“We thought, how could we get involved? We saw that every community that had a certain number of breweries had some sort of transportation, so we decided to move forward with it.”

The bus is just one example of the web being built around the town’s breweries, however.

Dr. Stephen Harper is the Progress Energy/Betty Cameron Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship at UNC-Wilmington’s Cameron Business school.

In short form, he teaches management.

Harper describes it as an “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” The source of the energy in a natural ecosystem is usually the sun. In Wilmington’s craft brew scene, it’s the suds.

“Number one, it does help the economy, it provides a product and service," Harper says. "The major impact, in many people’s eyes, is that it adds to the quality of life. And two, is tourists. If there’s enough stuff in Wilmington, people will say, ‘Hey we have to check out the craft brew scene.”

Harper admits he is not a craft beer connoisseur himself, but says the system in which craft brewing exists has secondary effects.

As the beer is made and sold, it brings other services to the table. Tomlinson identifies those he’s seen just in the last few years.

“One of the areas I think Wilmington is growing in, is the ancillary businesses. We now have electricians, plumbers, pipe-fitters getting experience working with the breweries,” he says.

“Now when people come to the city, there are experienced workers here. We’re also starting to get some specialized businesses. I’ve noticed new draft line-cleaning businesses here.”

One of the difficulties facing the industry now is that it’s still relatively new, at least in Wilmington. Front Street Brewery has been in business more than 20 years, but the field of other craft brewers has only taken shape in the last couple of years, according to Tomlinson.

That creates strange legal areas for breweries, explains Harper.

“One of the issues that used to be the case is, you can brew there, serve there, but can you bottle it? That’s being addressed,” he says.

“The whole idea of to-go is being addressed.”

Still, the growing pains may linger somewhat. At the time of his interview, Tomlinson said the Alliance was planning an economic impact study for the craft brewers in the region.

Despite the renovation of millions of dollars’ worth of buildings (not just in Wilmington but throughout the eastern part of the state), it’s still unclear how much money the breweries have brought into the area.

But studies cost money, so the Alliance is working with researchers at UNC-Wilmington and planning events to raise money for the study. Students may also be used to help perform the study, Tomlinson said.

Why no guess on the impact already? It’s actually simple, Tomlinson explains.

“The breweries haven’t been taking much time to think ‘Hey, what’s our impact?’ They’ve just been focusing on making good beer,” he says.

“I think it’s been pretty big, several breweries have taken abandoned buildings, reworked them, increased the tax value, some have even expanded out.”

And even though each brewery might employ only a handful of people, that handful are employed in making their own product, not just reselling it for someone else.

It’s not as though the industry is in the dunkel, erm, dark. Some numbers are available for the overall craft beer economy, statewide.

The N.C. Craft Brewers Guild notes that in 2015, North Carolina’s craft beer industry created 10,000 jobs and $1.2 billion in revenue, making it “the leading producer of craft beer in the South.”

The Guild also states that $300 million in wages have been generated statewide. This includes craft brew powerhouses like Asheville, which alone houses 20 breweries. Larger craft brew companies like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues have expanded into the state as well, they note.

Still, not every side of an industry can be expressed in numbers and dollar signs.

Dr. Harper’s description of the brewing scene in downtown Wilmington (and the rest of the region) as part of an “ecosystem” is farther-reaching than plumbers and line-cleaners.

It’s a cultural boom, too. Neighborhood breweries are a part of the landscape all over Europe; brewing hotspots in the U.S. are late to that party.

And it is a party — a trip downtown on a Friday night reveals a poignant cross-section of the imbibing public. College kids mob the town’s oldest bar, the Barbary Coast, while others crawl into a dark corner of Lula’s Pub, perhaps its most secretive drinking spot.

But everywhere, people are interacting, enjoying themselves, spending money.

“It becomes a place to go ... to interact with people,” says Harper.

“It’s not just beer, it’s like a restaurant, they go for other things also. But are people going downtown for the craft beers? The answer is obviously yes.”

Asked whether the influx of breweries in the greater Wilmington area could lead to a Peak Beer problem, Harper says that so far, the growth has likely had a positive impact on the businesses themselves.

“I think they’re helping each other, the rising tide raises all ships. You see cooperation among the businesses ... they’d rather have people down there than not at all.”