Daniel Anthony Hartis literally wrote the book on Charlotte beer. He even called it that in case you had any doubts.
When Hartis, author of Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City, began writing about beer for The Blue Banner, the student-run newspaper at his alma mater University of North Carolina Asheville, he wouldn’t have guessed that he’d return to his hometown to watch the local beer scene explode into one of the country’s best. He’s been documenting the growth ever since.
Now, six years after the book’s publication, a lot has changed in Charlotte’s beer scene, not to mention beer publishing. Hartis launched the now-inactive CharlotteBeer.com, then became editor of All About Beer Magazine, which shut down in 2018. In 2014, he published a guide to North Carolina breweries, brewpubs and beer bars. Today, he does freelance beer writing for the Charlotte Observer and Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine.
We caught up with Hartis recently to talk Charlotte beer history — from Pop the Cap to Craft Freedom and everything in between — and more importantly, what comes next.
Queen City Nerve: How did you get interested in craft beer?
Daniel Anthony Hartis: I guess the first time was covering it for the school paper, UNC Asheville’s Blue Banner. That was around 2006. I continued to drink craft beer, then around 2010, that’s when I really started to think about writing about it. I started a blog called PenandPint.com and it never went anywhere. When I started that it was like any other blog, my own thoughts and opinions, and I started realizing nobody cares about my thoughts, so I shifted more to news, events and covering the Charlotte market. The only brewery in town in 2011 was OMB [Olde Mecklenburg Brewery], so I got in at a good time.
Why cover the scene instead of join it? Have you considered working in the industry?
I haven’t really looked into it seriously. I’ve thought about it over the years, especially when I see little niche things pop up in the industry and think, “That might well do in Charlotte,” but I’ve always been more of a writer.
This issue’s cover story goes into the local homebrewing community. How do they play in Charlotte’s beer history?
Homebrewers are largely responsible for the growth of Charlotte’s beer scene — certainly the origin of what you would call the second wave of craft breweries, with the first being in the ’90s. You look at the brewers and often the owners behind NoDa [Brewing Company], Triple C [Brewing Co.], Birdsong [Brewing Company], a lot of them were in the local Carolina BrewMasters homebrew club.
Even before the breweries were here they were responsible for organizing meet-ups at craft bars like Flying Saucer. So they were a part of the culture before the breweries were here. They were involved with festival and events, they were involved with Pop the Cap movement, raising the ABV from 5% to 15% back in 2005. They were those diehard craft beer geeks before we even had breweries to foster that sort of drinker.
When you were working on your first book, could you see the explosion of growth coming on the horizon or did it still look like a phase or a niche community?
I could see it coming a little bit, but not to this degree. I got in at a good time. In early 2011, I had only been doing [CharlotteBeer.com] a couple months before Tom and Suzie Ford from NoDa reached out about opening their brewery. So I got a scoop there, and then Birdsong comes along and I get a scoop there. And because no media was really covering it, or at least not as eagerly as I was, I was able to get those early opening pieces, where now it’s like everybody’s fighting for that and everybody’s following zoning to get everything they can. So that was fun, that was thrilling, and I could see there was sort of that snowball movement in 2011 and 2012. I didn’t think we’d grow this much. I don’t think I would say that.
What are your thoughts on the community losing niche beer publications like All About Beer?
I think it’s unfortunate for a few reasons; one is because these magazines were such a treasure trove of information going back decades in some situations. Another is the magazines cover things a lot differently than an average local site or sometimes even in a local newspaper like I’m currently writing for. They covered it with more of an eye for, this is what the diehard beer drinkers would want to know: deep dives, longform. So I think we’ll continue to have it, I think it will just move online.
If you were to do a follow-up to your book on Charlotte beer history, what would be the angle?
The big storyline is how so many of our breweries attract national attention. Asheville is obviously a big market, and I think Charlotte hangs with Asheville as far as quality of beers and diversity of beers. That would be part of it: the national promise of our scene… and also the fact that, I don’t think I would have foreseen the diversity as far as beer styles — that we would have such a broad range of everything from hazy IPAs to sours to German to Belgian to everything.
Where would you rank us nationally as a beer city?
That is a tough one to say. You’ve always got San Diego and Portland and several in Colorado. I think Top 10 would be safe, without going line by line and trying to figure out who I’d put above us. I’d say somewhere between Top 5 and Top 10.
The opposing sides of the Craft Freedom argument recently came to a compromise, which will increase the yearly self-production cap on North Carolina breweries from 25,000 barrels a year to 50,000. How much will that deal affect local breweries and the local scene in general?
I think it’s a really big deal, I do wonder though. I was recently talking to [OMB founder] John Marrino and he was pretty upfront about sales, not declining, but not growing as quickly as they had in years past, slowing a little bit. So I do wonder if it’s as necessary as it used to be, and that will just depend on OMB and NoDa. The breweries may it see it differently though. I’m sure it’s great for them — 50,000, if they’re right at 25,000 right now, it should take them a while to get to that point.
Where do you see the local beer scene going from here?
It’s so hard to predict. I think you’ll see more niche offerings in general, like you’ll see more all-sour breweries — breweries that focus on just one thing and do it well — because I think that’s what you’re going to have to do to really stand out.
I think you’ll see people putting more effort into the tap room experience, being able to distinguish themselves there, not only that this is a great location. The new one, Traust [Brewing Company], and the headline was “Brewery with Nordic Flare,” and you’re going to have to have a hook like that to set yourself apart.
I see talk on social media about whether there’s a brewery bubble that will burst, especially when one closes like Three Spirits Brewery did recently, but it seems to me that we’re at a point where that’s like asking when the restaurant bubble will burst; they will always be around. Some will close and some will open. Am I wrong in that?
I’m with you on that. I do think we’ll see more breweries closing than we have before, but it’s more a result of a very competitive market. I don’t think there’s a bubble, I don’t think there’s a saturation point. But I think you’ll see new breweries taking greater care to really set themselves apart through tap rooms, beer selections, anything they can to give you a reason to come in. I think breweries will continue to open but I think it will slow.
I think some of the bigger breweries, whereas in the past if they had seen that double-digit growth every year like they were for a while and they were encouraged to expand, I don’t think we’ll see as much expansion. If we do, it will be small, really carefully thought-out expansions like some of the breweries have been doing, where it’s not this massive production brewery, but if a brewery really likes this neighborhood, they want more of a presence there.
Anything else you’re keeping your eye on for the future?
I’m interested to see how these new breweries work out. I think we’re already seeing the new breweries that have opened — and when I say “new,” I mean a year or less, Pilot and Town — their beer is way better than breweries used to open with. It used to be that you could get by opening up anywhere in Charlotte and start serving any kind of beer, and you’d be OK at least for a while, and that time is gone. A lot of Charlotte’s new breweries have done a good job of opening with that knowledge of, “We’ve got to open with top-notch beers, top-notch service and tap room,” and I think we’re seeing it. So I’m eager to see how they develop, and how the old guard of breweries, how they continue to evolve. We’re seeing some of that with NoDa and their Brizo hard seltzer.
Personally, as just a beer drinker, I’m curious to see where things go after the hazy IPA. I don’t want to say it’s a fad, I don’t think they’re going anywhere, but it’s really hard to guess what’s the next thing, because nobody six years ago would have probably foreseen hazy IPAs being as large as they are. So I’m just curious as to what’s coming.