Food & DrinkFood Features

Where Does Charlotte’s Craft Beer Scene Go From Here?

From starting small to offering alternative beverages

a photo of people in Charlotte enjoying Olde Mecklenburg Brewery's beers.
Outside at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. (Courtesy of OMB)

“Charlotte has too many breweries.” 

This is a sentiment you’ve no doubt heard if you’ve lived in Charlotte for more than a few years, 20 minutes into a heated deliberation over which brewery to go to on a Friday.

“Breweries in Charlotte, people tend to somehow become a little negative about them now,” said Brandon Stirewalt, director of operations at Town Brewing in Wesley Heights and vice president of the board of directors for the Charlotte Independent Brewers Alliance (CIBA). “It’s a love-hate relationship. I see it on every article published about another brewery opening.”

Breweries are an easy punching bag, especially in a city that’s seen more than 40 of them pop up over the last 15 years. According to the Brewer’s Association, a national organization dedicated to supporting local craft brewers, North Carolina has 392 breweries and ranks as the 10th highest number of breweries across the country.

During the craft beer boom in the 2010s, Charlotte became a craft beer destination comparable to Asheville, with new breweries opening left and right. Since 2011, the number of craft breweries operating in North Carolina has seen steady growth, but is it possible to reach a cap on innovation?

2024 has already been a tough year for the local craft beer scene, seeing multiple closings in the Charlotte area in its first 100 days. Most recently, Weathered Souls Brewing, Weathered Souls Brewing Company announced that it would shut its doors for good on April 6. Based in San Antonio, Weathered Souls was one of the only Black-owned breweries in the area.

News also broke in the first week of April that Cornelius-based D9 Brewing Co. had filed for bankruptcy late in March. Those stories followed announcements from earlier in the year that breweries like Blue Blaze brewing in west Charlotte and Dreamchaser’s Brewery in Waxhaw would shut their doors.

Stirewalt said he’s seen three closures within a few miles of his establishment at Town Brewing this year alone: Blue Blaze, Midnight Mulligan Brewing and The Bevery cidery.

“It’s a tumultuous time right now for craft beer for a lot of reasons,” Stirewalt told Queen City Nerve. “The economy is what it is right now. Beer as a category is doing okay, but it’s not growing as fast as a lot of non-beer and liquor categories for a whole host of reasons.”

In a statement that followed news of Weather Souls’ closing in early April, CIBA executive director Jenny Sassman Waters, asked that Charlotte’s craft beer connoisseurs not hit the panic button just yet.

She pointed out that each brewery’s story is different and not every closure is due to a drop in demand. Blue Blaze and Dreamcahser’s closings, for example, were both tied to landlord disputes, with both businesses planning a return when they are able to find locations that are viable replacements as according to their respective needs.

“We acknowledge the recent closures of several Charlotte-area breweries, which undoubtedly impacts both the local brewing industry and the community that has supported them,” Waters wrote. “Our thoughts are with the employees and stakeholders affected by these closures. However, it’s important to recognize that the closure of a few breweries does not diminish the vibrancy and resilience of the Charlotte beer scene as a whole. Brewery closures sometimes involve more than meets the eye and should not be an indication that our local industry is struggling or oversaturated.

“With a diverse array of breweries continuing to thrive and innovate, Charlotte remains a hub for craft beer enthusiasts and a testament to the spirit of entrepreneurship in our city,” she continued. “We encourage Charlotteans to continue supporting their local breweries, whether they’ve been established for years or are just starting out. Together, we can ensure that the Charlotte beer scene not only endures but continues to flourish, offering unique and exciting experiences for residents and visitors alike.”

Matt McKenzie, a local craft beer writer who has been covering the scene over the 15 years that it has seen rapid expansion, agrees.

“It’s not anywhere close to being over,” McKenzie assured. “You just don’t see the craze, now it’s kind of leveled out.”

With the proliferation of breweries in Charlotte, it’s easy to wonder where craft beer can go from here. Queen City Nerve caught up with three knowledgeable industry professionals to get their insights into what’s next in the Charlotte scene.

The new generation of beer drinkers

“Everything’s on a 10-year swing … in alcohol and food,” said Jason Glunt, owner of Salud Cerveceria and Salud Beer Shop.

Glunt opened Salud during the craft beer boom in 2012. During his 12-year run, he has witnessed firsthand the whirlwind that is consumer demand and interest. 

A photo of a local NoDa brewery in Charlotte called Salud.
Inside Salud Cerveceria in NoDa (Courtesy of Salud)

“A lot of the early years were just about teaching people new styles of beer, and small breweries without trying to be snobby about it,” he said. “Now, sour beer, craft beer [are] ubiquitous.”

“The trends are changing more quickly now than ever before,” added Jim Birch, chief operating officer at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery (OMB).

Three years ago he would have been willing to bet seltzers would continue to grow in the industry. Now, the popularity of those has stabilized and even begun to decline.

This is a similar experience for most beer trends, McKenzie said. In the past two to three years, he’s seen the once sensationalized craft beer movement plateau. 

Glunt also pointed out that the kids growing up during the craft beer boom six or seven years ago are the new generation of consumers he’s serving. 

According to Birch, folks currently between the ages of 21 and 25 consume less alcohol than any generation before them, opting for newer alternatives that weren’t around for previous generations.

Rising competitors making liquor-based drinks like High Noons or alcohol alternatives infused with CBD and Delta-9 are taking the younger crowd’s attention away from craft beer.

“With the new generation, you [almost] gotta get them to drink beer,” he said.

Birch said he saw explosive growth in the brewery’s first eight years. Having just celebrated its 15th anniversary in March, making OMB the longest-running brewery in Charlotte, Birch and his team cultivated the Charlotte craft beer market for its first decade.

The increase in competition and changing consumer preferences over the years created a more competitive landscape, Birch said. When he got into the craft beer scene in 2015, the route the industry was heading in seemed limitless.

“It was really on this trajectory where if you brew it, it will sell,” Birch said.

McKenzie said breweries’ pre-COVID incendiary expansion allowed access to beers from certain areas that were difficult to find before the boom.

After COVID confined and released millions of craft beer innovators determined to create and sell their own concoctions, the demand saw a bit of pushback.

When COVID hit, the distribution model that had previously allowed breweries to grow quickly to meet consumer demands had them tightening their purse strings, McKenzie said. The nearly boundless accessibility of craft beer from around the nation provided a surplus of options to the now-overstimulated consumer.

A photo of an orange-colored sour beer from OMB.
Pouring up at OMB (Courtesy of OMB)

Customers had gone down their experimental routes and were returning to mainstream beers, Birch said. Breweries also had to buckle down and reflect on their core brands and values.

To Glunt, brewing is a bit like wrestling; everyone has to find a character. Some breweries find their character in only playing bluegrass, some only play hip-hop. Salud’s persona can be not only seen but experienced during its Latin nights, hosted by Jason’s wife and business partner, Dairelyn Glunt. 

“I think that if you just … figure out what exactly you want to give your customers and make it true to yourself and what you’re into, I think then, it’ll work,” he said.

Birch said OMB’s niche is its family-friendly atmosphere with approachable lager beers, a drink favored by the 10-year swing and growing in popularity once again.

To insulate themselves from rapidly changing interests, breweries have to adapt to the changing trends and stay ahead of them. 

Whether that be adding food, expanding their portfolio of available drinks or obtaining a liquor license to appease non-beer drinkers, breweries have to be ahead of the curve to insulate themselves from rapidly changing trends.

Breweries and the importance of community

With Charlotte’s increase in jobs and a young, upwardly mobile demographic with disposable income, Birch believes there is plenty of room for breweries to continue to grow.

The breweries that stay, however, might look a little different than what we’ve seen in the past.

The only cap Glunt foresees in the industry is with local breweries hoping to expand their reach regionally. 

Starting small with the intention to grow into a regional-type brewery is an incredibly difficult entry point, he said.

With the number of breweries already established in Charlotte with a loyal following, newcomers have to be either exceptionally innovative or have deep pockets to last here, McKenzie said.

Even then, he has developed a wait-and-see approach over the years toward larger breweries attempting to find a place for themselves in Charlotte. 

Several popular breweries have announced a coming move to Charlotte only to never follow through.

Starting and staying small might be the way to go, according to McKenzie. Neighborhood breweries that have established themselves within a community for the sheer purpose of providing locals with a place to enjoy beer are the ones that will stay instead of big businesses focused on returning capital for their investors.

“I would be hard-pressed to see anything huge like that open in Charlotte that’s not already here,” he said.

Towns outside of the Charlotte area like Waxhaw, Huntersville and Lake Norman have also begun opening their own local breweries, cutting off a customer base that used to drive into Charlotte on the weekends.

a portrait of an employee inside the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery's facility.
A throwback photo of the early days at Olde Meck’s first facility. (Courtesy of OMB)

This new organic growth over capital-driven business model breweries are moving toward is more sustainable, McKenzie said. 

It’s more tied in with its community, makes good beer and is just as enjoyable on a Tuesday night as it is on a Saturday night.

Yes, Charlotte does have a large number of breweries. But, as McKenzie said, what other industry is doing things for the community like they are?

“Breweries serve [a community] purpose,” Glunt said. They house neighborhood meetings, run clubs, figure drawing classes and give family and friends a place to sit down and enjoy each other’s company.

“I think that craft beer is alive and well,” McKenzie said. “But I think we’re just going to see more of a smooth sailing without any more explosions … [like] seven or eight years ago.”

So before you go dancing on the grave of another fallen brewery or lament the birth of a new one, remember that craft beer is mimicking the path of the generation that infamized it. Past its rambunctious early years, McKenzie said craft beer is finally moving on to its middle-age phase, settling in and enjoying life.

And as for public perception, Stirewalt hopes folks will begin to see breweries for what they are: an incubator for Charlotte’s cultural scene.

“What I want people to remember is, in Charlotte, we went through a time where you had venues like Tremont and places closing, we haven’t supported the arts as a city as much as we should, but I think breweries do,” he insisted. “I do want people to remember that brewing is now a culture in Charlotte. And supporting that culture helps grow other scenes, because breweries are the ones investing in your local artists, your sciences, other ways to strengthen the community, visual arts, all that stuff. This is what we’re doing for the community. Let’s step back and thank our breweries.”

Ryan Pitkin contributed reporting to this story.

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