The owner and staff at Carolina Brewery on Franklin Street have a good excuse to throw a party this month.
The establishment just turned 20, as it continues to thrive in a craft beer business that never seems to stop growing.
“You can got to Whole Foods or Weaver Street Market right now, or Weaver Street, and choose from over 150 beers,” says Robert Poitras, owner and co- founder of Carolina Brewery. “When we opened, there might have been 10 imports, and maybe a Pete’s Wicked Ale or Sam Adams. So, your opportunity to sample these world beers and these local beers is so much better now than it’s been.”
Only four other breweries existed in North Carolina when Carolina Brewery opened its doors to thirsty customers on Franklin Street on Feb. 9, 1995.
Today, there are more than 120 active breweries in North Carolina, with more on the way. A new Carrboro brewery, YesterYears, is set to open at 300 East Main St. in March.
But this month, customers are flocking to one of the local trailblazers, if the early Friday afternoon crowd recently at the Franklin Street restaurant, brewery and bar proves to be typical.
Throughout February, Carolina Brewery is celebrating its 20th anniversary, with tastings, classes, giveaways, and a birthday party on Tuesday – with cake, of course.
Catering to the sophisticated beer palates of its customers, the brewery is once again featuring its anniversary witbier, a perennial favorite served with an orange wedge on the rim of the glass, for extra zest.
It’s light, refreshing, and low-alcohol, with hints of cumin and coriander, and a cloudy appearance, thanks to the traditional Belgian brewing style of not filtering it all the way, so that some yeast is left behind.
“We only do one batch of this every year,” said Poitras. “We only put it on for our anniversary, so people really crave that beer. So they come out for our anniversary week every year.”
Carolina Brewery offers more than one way to educate customers about different styles of beer. Free afternoon tours are offered every Saturday at 2 p.m., at the main production brewery in Pittsboro.
That larger facility opened seven-and-a-half years ago. It looks very much the same as the Chapel Hill location, and the food menu is the same. There’s one difference.
“Chapel Hill has more specialty beers on tap than Pittsboro,” says Poitras. “Pittsboro has eight beers on tap, and Chapel Hill, right now, has 14 beers on tap.”
The business, of course, is not restricted to serving Chapel Hill and Pittsboro bar patrons.
Two of the brewery’s beers are distributed to area grocery stores throughout the Carolinas and eastern Tennessee in six-packs of cans. Those are longtime customer favorites Sky Blue Golden Ale, a light Kolsch-style beer; and Flagship IPA, for all the hopheads out there.
Carolina Brewery also provides around 800 drinking establishments with draft beer.
Poitras says he has has a policy of keeping clients within a couple of hundred miles. He said he wants to be able to drive in less than a day to put his hands on his company’s product, wherever and however it’s being sold.
He grew up in eastern North Carolina, where he split his time between Tarboro and the Outer Banks.
“I’m a third-generation Tarheel,” said Poitras, “so I knew I wanted to come to Chapel Hill. My parents met here in Chapel Hill, and my grandfather went here as well – he was a football manager back in the ‘30s.”
He said his decision to go into the craft beer business in Chapel Hill was made around the time he was also considering selling real estate back home.
A trip to Switzerland on UNC’s study-abroad program helped him choose.
“That enabled me to experience the wonderful beers of Europe,” says Poitras, “but also, a lot of the local food, and the local wines there.”
A subsequent trip to Germany introduced him to that country’s beer culture (he calls Germany “the mecca of beer”), and Poitras was hooked.
He brought in master brewer Jon Connolly, who was working in Virginia when Carolina Brewery was still under construction. Connolly remains to this day.
Carolina Brewery opened with 40 employees. Now, between the Chapel Hill and Pittsboro locations, there are around 150.
According to Poitras, craft beer is in the second crest of industry growth he’s experienced since he got into the business.
“In the late `90s, we had a big bell curve, a big growth of craft beer,” says Poitras. “But what happened then, in the `90s, is that the beer wasn’t good. So there was a fallout of microbreweries.”
Today’s boom is happening, he said, because the beers are much better. Brewers no longer cut corners on ingredients, and remain truer to beer styles.
Poitras said that relationships between local brewers tend to be collegial, and friendly. It’s not uncommon, he says, for them to share ideas – and even, equipment and supplies.
“Our friends at Top of the Hill, or even Steel String, sometimes, they’ll need to borrow something, or I’ll need a bag of malt.”
Still, he said he can imagine the craft brewing business becoming more “cutthroat” over time, if the industry continues to boom.
“The craft beer market right now is very competitive,” he says. “We have a lot of, not only local players, but we have a lot of regional players and national players coming into the markets. And there’s a finite amount of tap space, a finite amount of grocery store shelf space.”
Still, he said, with recent renovations to the Chapel Hill space, Carolina Brewery plans to be around for at least another 20 years.
On Tuesday, Carolina Brewery is offering 95-cent beer all day as part of its birthday celebration. Birthday cake will be served at 5:30 p.m.
You can find more information here on the brewery’s birthday events throughout February.