The Vegetable Roots of the North Carolina Beer Boom
The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. plans this month to start unveiling its East Coast operation in Mills River, NC, south of Asheville, to the general public. A gift shop is scheduled to open at the end of September and tours could begin in October. The potentially 850,000-barrel brewery emerges into perhaps the most robust beer state in the South, with more than 100 breweries and brewpubs (not to mention the Durham headquarters of All About Beer Magazine).
But it wasn’t always so hearty. In 1985, there were exactly two breweries in the entire state, the longest east of the Mississippi and, then as now, one of the fastest-growing in the union: the Stroh’s brewery in Winston-Salem and the Miller brewery in Eden, near the central Virginia border.
The Stroh’s brewery, which that company had acquired from a failing Jos. Schlitz in 1982, dated from late 1969. It was then the first new brewery in North Carolina since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. It would close in August 1999, as Stroh’s itself went under, selling its brands, including Old Milwaukee and Schlitz, to the Pabst and Miller brewing companies.
Some of those brands would be brewed at the Miller operation in Eden, which launched in 1978 and which continues to this day under MillerCoors. It has capacity for 9 million barrels annually and the distinction of being the birthplace of Miller Genuine Draft, first brewed in 1986.
It was in 1986, in fact, that things began to really pick up beer-wise in North Carolina. On the Fourth of July that year, the Weeping Radish brewpub opened in Manteo, a town on the Outer Banks, the islands that line much of North Carolina’s coast.
The brewpub was the brainchild of Uli Bennewitz, a Bavarian who came to the United States in the late 1970s to manage vast farmlands for European and American clients. He soon missed the beers, and beer styles, of his homeland, which simply could not be found in much of the United States. Then his brother called and told him about a Munich-area brewery that was looking to unload a five-barrel, electric-powered system it used for test batches. Why not buy it, Bennewitz’s brother suggested, and have it shipped Stateside?
That system formed the infrastructural seed of the Weeping Radish, so named for the Bavarian practice of salting the vegetable to dehydrate it. As for the technical and stylistic seeds, Bennewitz and his partners turned to brewers from what was then West Germany, bringing them to tiny Manteo to craft German styles such as helles and schwarzbier as well as pilsner.
The beers proved a tough sell with North Carolinians, as did the German cuisine. “If we had had Budweiser and sold chicken wings,” Bennewitz once told me, “we would have had a chance with the locals.” The business was initially much more popular with tourists from as far away as Canada.
The Weeping Radish had also proved a tough sell with the authorities. When he conceived the idea, Bennewitz was not aware the Tar Heel State did not allow brewers to serve the beer they made on-site. (The state most certainly does now; it had no reason to in 1986: The Weeping Radish was not only North Carolina’s first brewpub since Prohibition, but the first in the entire South.) Bennewitz furthermore thought the “ABC” people suggested he check with was some sort of school-related entity; it was the state’s formidable Alcohol Beverage Control commission.
As it turned out, the ABC and state legislators were amenable to the brewpub idea. The Weeping Radish, now greatly expanded but still on the Outer Banks, remains a fixture of North Carolina’s expanding beer scene.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.