Touring the Raleigh Beer Scene
The 10th Annual World Beer Festival Raleigh
Saturday, April 11, 2015 – Moore Square Park, Downtown Raleigh
Standing behind the bar at Crank Arm Brewing, one of Raleigh’s top beer destinations, brewer Mike Morris talks excitedly about his latest creations, an evolving series of saisons and single-hopped pale ales.
It’s a warm late-winter afternoon, the garage door at the bike-themed brewery is open and the bright sun glares off the downtown towers a couple of blocks away.
A dozen bikes stand in the racks out front, and the tasting room is busy when a huge crash shatters the calm. Behind me, the two-by-fours from a life-sized Jenga stacking game are scattered on the floor.
It’s a sound that defines more than the game—because Raleigh is North Carolina’s beer boomtown.
“You haven’t even seen the start of it around here yet,” Frank Bloom at the Downtown Raleigh Alliance told me in 2014. “We are not worried about our numbers because the population size means there’s plenty for everyone right now, the boomtown kind of mentality.”
His words certainly proved prophetic. A year later, the city now boasts 11 breweries with eight more in the works, according to state records and the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild, more than any other city in North Carolina. Wake County, where Raleigh sits in the middle, now has 17 breweries and a dozen more dot the larger metro area.
A decade in the making, the Raleigh beer scene is not only expanding with the bricks and mortar of new breweries and bottle shops, but also with a growing appreciation among drinkers.
The growth is amazing to watch. But it’s difficult to keep pace with each new offering and the ever-changing tap lists at local bars, showcasing local breweries and the strongholds in Colorado and California.
The more the scene prospers, the more people ask: Who’s the best? What’s the must-visit brewery, beer bar and bottle shop?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Take a tour and you’ll see why.
The Downtown Five
Start downtown, where the beer explosion in Raleigh is most visible. It’s now possible to hit five breweries, five bottle shops and five great beer bars in a walking loop from downtown.
The route, clockwise westward from city center, is not marketed in any major way, and it’s a good walk at many points. When I did it in 2014, I was probably the first.
I drew the tour on a piece of paper while gorging on short rib milk gravy on buttermilk cheese biscuits at Joule Coffee (223 S. Wilmington St.), the city’s hip brunch hot spot.
The diagram looks like a crude L-shaped treasure map with breweries marked as X’s, bottle shops and bars appearing as black dots and distances calculated with a smartphone. Each stop is roughly a half-mile apart.
The tour starts with a bang at Crank Arm (319 W. Davie St.).
Morris pulls tap handles made from a bicycle crank arm and serves his tasting sampler of mostly experimental beer styles on a board shaped like a chain ring. Opened in July 2013, the brewery is an extension of Crank Arm Rickshaw and still delivers kegs to downtown bars and shops by bike.
The taproom is cavernous, with the shiny brewing tanks in the back corner, but the crowd on this sunny day gravitates toward the porch with its big picnic table and view of downtown.
Owner Adam Eckhardt sees his red brick building as a “hub where people come and go—a bond to solidify the cycling and beer culture.”
Morris is a four-time Great American Beer Festival medal-winning brewer who came across town from Big Boss Brewing Co., the stalwart of the Raleigh beer world. Crank Arm features three to six seasonals at a time and is earning a reputation for its hop experimentation.
The Rickshaw Rye India Pale Ale is one of the city’s best in the category and one of my favorites, with American hops Zythos and Nugget providing a balance to the 24 percent dose of rye that imparts a powerful spicy malt flavor.
Hops also are the showcase in single-hopped pale ale called Unicycle. From a base recipe of two-row and Munich malt, Eckhardt and Morris use a different hop variety in each batch.
The Mosaic was a crowd favorite featuring the wonder hop with exotic fruit notes, and another iteration showcased Mandarina Bavaria, a relatively new German variety with citrus aromas and flavor.
Eckhardt says his favorite part is hunting for new hops to add a wow-factor to the beer. “It’s a super-simple base recipe that lets the hop shine through,” he says.
From Crank Arm, it’s hard not to detour before the next brewery. Just down the street is Videri Chocolate Factory (327 W. Davie St.), which provides cocoa nibs for many local brewers’ decadent stouts. In the same building, known as the Raleigh Depot, is Tasty Beverage, a great beer shop that offers taps and bottle sales. And across the street is The Pit (328 W. Davie St.), a landmark on the state’s barbecue map.
It’s arguably the best block in the city, on the edge of the still-emerging warehouse district off South Harrington Street, where boutiques and art spaces are opening. From there, take a left on West Hargett to cross the train tracks and climb the hill past Oak City Coffee Roasters (615 W. Hargett St.).
At the corner is Boylan Bridge Brewpub (201 S. Boylan Ave.), whose outdoor deck offers one of the best views of the downtown Raleigh skyline. It beckons for a warm day and Boylan’s Endless Summer Ale. As the name suggests, the wheat beer is a year-round offering and one of the most popular, with a biscuity yet refreshing taste—a break from the heavier beers from winter.
The rest of the beer lineup is traditional and transitioning with changes at the brewer post.
The view is a good window into why Raleigh’s downtown is still emerging and why the beer scene developed slowly. The city is sprawling, dominated by car traffic, and only relatively recently has the nightlife kept the crowds downtown after 5 p.m.
It’s continuing to change, with cranes often visible and a new headquarters nearby for the tech company Cisco. The development holds promise for Raleigh’s beer scene, with more growth expected.
A good drink, after all, helped put Raleigh on the map hundreds of years ago. According to lore, a liqueur known as the Cherry Bounce helped grease state lawmakers in 1788 to put the capital within 10 miles of the local Isaac Hunter’s Tavern.
A number of now-defunct breweries and pubs operated in Raleigh in the ’90s, but the scene as we know it now didn’t really begin to emerge until roughly nine years ago when Edenton Brewing became Big Boss.
A factor propelling the growth: a change in legislation in 2005 to raise the alcohol-by-volume ceiling on beer to 15% from 6%. The “Pop the Cap” effort allowed North Carolina brewers’ imaginations to run wild and served as a rebirth for the state’s beer scene.
“It’s such an exciting time,” says Wendy Harris, an owner at Crafty Beer Shop in the Five Points neighborhood. “I feel like every time you turn around you’re hearing about a new brewery opening in the Raleigh area.”
Even with the rapid expansion, Raleigh sits in the shadow of Asheville’s reputation. The mountain town is known as the hub of the state’s best craft beer culture.
Asheville won a share of four consecutive Beer City USA titles starting in 2009. It’s an admittedly unscientific survey, but the new operations in the area from national brewers Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Oskar Blues Brewery and New Belgium Brewing Co. are cementing its place on the map.
Before the online poll ended last year, Raleigh earned a nomination and a few votes itself.
“I think there’s going to be a shift with all the new breweries opening in Raleigh and the surrounding area,” says Chris Powers, a leading beer promoter in Raleigh. “I think there’s going to be more and more focus on the area.”
Raleigh’s beer future is visible in the tiny Trophy Brewing Co. (827 W. Morgan St.), the next stop on the tour, a block north on Boylan and three blocks west on Morgan Street.
The three-barrel nanobrewery system gives brewer Les Stewart plenty of room to experiment, which he does more than most in Raleigh.
“We typically don’t have any standards,” says Powers, a co-owner. “We come up with an idea and we tweak it a little bit to make it interesting.”
The brewery opened two years ago, and Powers and Stewart say their approach has evolved into what they call Belgian-American fusion with a strong culinary influence.
“One thing we need to do particularly in the South is use ingredients we have available to us and represent our terroir,” Stewart says.
The Best in Show, a Citra-hopped saison, is a good example of a beer that pairs well with food, and likewise a recent Rose Gose, an unusual sour style with local rosemary that became a surprising hit. The funkiness of both fits the hip taproom and restaurant, which serves uniquely delicious pizzas that now attract as many fans as the beer. (For example: the Local Celebrity pizza with sweet potato puree, smoked gouda, country ham, Swiss chard and a spiced apple reduction.)
It’s impossible to know what’s on tap at any given time, but I keep an eye out for the Double Death Spiral, a double IPA, and always enjoy the Slingshot Coffee Porter.
With the afternoon dwindling, the last two breweries on the foot-tour calls: Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Co. (505 W. Jones St.). It’s a walk back east on Morgan Street toward the city and a jog north on Glenwood Avenue. A good trek to reset the palate.
The brewpub is kin to one in Greensboro, where the company also owns a distribution center that carries the brand across the state. The Raleigh location opened in 2010 in the former Southend Brewery location in the Glenwood South neighborhood. The pub no longer brews at the location, but the Greensboro pub shares its freshest batches to keep the tap list interesting.
Around the corner is one of the newcomers to the scene, Clouds Brewing Restaurant and Bar (126 N. West St.) with 40 taps. It is attracting a good bit of attention for a cyber-themed, self-service tapwall dubbed the “Downpour.” If you want to create your own tasting flight, it’s easy—pour yourself just as much as you want of each of the 10 taps. The bar’s own beers – expected soon—are brewed off-site at another Raleigh area facility.
The Glenwood South area is adding more to his beer resume with a new bottle shop nearby called The Stag’s Head (106 Glenwood Ave.) and the venerable Hibernian Irish Pub & Restaurant (311 Glenwood Ave.) reopened in 2014 after a fire.
Or better yet, head back toward downtown Raleigh. On Hillsborough Street, the much-hyped State of Beer bottle shop (401 Hillsborough St.) opened with a taproom and a filling station for crowlers—an aluminum can growler. The name is the same as an online radio show each week about the North Carolina beer scene.
If you detour north from the capitol, find Seaboard Station and hit Tyler’s Restaurant and Taproom (18 Seaboard Ave.), a great beer bar that hosts at least a dozen local taps and an adjoining bottle shop.
From either, finish the tour by heading south from the capitol to hit a few other great beer bars, passing along the way Paddy O’Beers (121 Fayetteville St.), a small bottle shop with taps.
The destination is Busy Bee Café (225 S. Wilmington St.), next door to the brunch spot. It is one of my favorite beer bars in the city, catering to the uber-fan with a cask and sour on tap at all times.
“Our focus has always been to get better beer in front of people, have them taste it and gain their trust,” says Powers, one of the owners. “And then we start to push those limits.”
Just around the corner is my other go-to: The Raleigh Times Bar (14 E. Hargett St.) Taking the name and the building of the city’s now-defunct afternoon newspaper, the sprawling bar consumes half a block and offers an equally big tap and bottle list. Like Busy Bee, the food is a step above traditional bar fare, and both feature rooftop decks.
At this point, grab a seat at any of them and rest your feet. The tour takes anywhere from three to five hours and covers two to three miles, depending on how long you linger and which places you visit.
But the end is only just the start for the city’s offerings.
The majority—and biggest players—lie just outside the city’s center.
To visit them requires a car and a designated driver, and there’s no single route for a tour. I pair it with the walking tour for an epic day of tasting, starting at the two breweries just north of downtown.
Sub Noir Brewing (2039 Progress Court) describes itself as a “boutique brewery.” It is located in a business strip tucked away among warehouses and open limited hours Friday and Saturday at the newly expanded tasting room. The brewery’s reputation is improving as it matures. The beer is sold in half pints or pints, no tasting flights.
The scenery isn’t much, but if you visit at the right time, you can taste one of their sours, which they hope to make a specialty.
Nearby, Blackjack Brewing Co. (1053 E. Whitaker Mill Road), will open in early 2015 with an outdoor beer garden.
Not far away, is Big Boss Brewing Co. (1249-A Wicker Drive), which features the most unusual taproom in the area.
Opened in 2006, it is the oldest existing brewery in Raleigh and known for a number of great Belgian beers, whether the mainstay Hell’s Belle blonde or the seasonal Big Operator black ale with raspberries.
Brewmaster Brad Wynn had a wealth of experience from Victory, Wild Goose and Native Brewing before coming to Big Boss. And his barrel-aging and sour beer creations, on full display each year during Casktoberfest, are the best in the city.
In addition, the Aces & Ates coffee stout is one of the area’s most respected winter seasonals, and Monkey Bizz-ness attracts a crowd each spring.
The beers are named for World War II aircraft, and the taproom paraphernalia continues the motif. It’s a sprawling complex with different nooks, offering intimate seating or darts, table tennis and shuffleboard.
“I’ve always liked the vibe of the way they operate,” says Jon Odgers, who leads the Big Boss Run Club. Inside, “it’s kind of grungy and comfortable and welcomes all types of people.”
From there, take a drive to Five Points, which is developing its own craft beer resume in one of the city’s more popular places to live. Nickelpoint Brewing (506 Pershing Road) opened in 2014 and envisions itself as a local hangout enmeshed in the neighborhood. The product of homebrewers who enjoy European style ales, the brewery offers a well-liked English IPA.
This spring, Neuse River Brewing (518 Pershing Road) is expected to open a few doors down with a focus on Belgians and IPAs. The two owners are North Carolina natives who went different directions before reconnecting in northern California and later returning east.
Back at the main crossroads where the neighborhood gets its name, find Crafty Beer Shop (2003 Fairview Road) before you head out.
Ten minutes west from Five Points is Raleigh Brewing (3709 Neil St.), located in a warehouse just off Hillsborough Street across from Meredith College.
Paired with a homebrewing shop, Raleigh Brewing keeps true to co-founder John Federal’s roots, offering tap space to local amateur brewers who make good liquids.
The beer names are a nod to its namesake city and run the gamut from a Czech pilsner to a Scottish ale. Along with plenty of seasonal specials, the lineup is one of the more diverse in Raleigh and one that deserves time to enjoy. The dedication to the hometown, from the beer names to the art on the taproom walls, makes the brewery a prime destination on the city’s beer map.
Another must-visit is Bottle Revolution (4025 Lake Boone Trail), a bottle shop with the beer adventurer in mind. Like many drinkers these days, owner Ted Gross always is looking for new flavors and new beers to share with his Raleigh fans. He once drove to Asheville to pick up kegs of beer from Wicked Weed and other breweries that were initially hard to find in the area.
From Bottle Rev, as it’s known, take the Interstate 440 beltline north to U.S. 70, which heads northwest from town toward Durham—a stretch that houses three more breweries and more in planning.
By now, in this long day of beer research, it’s dark. At Lynnwood Grill and Brewing Concern (4821 Grove Barton Road), the pints are poured to college basketball fans in this sports-bar-turned-brewpub.
The basketball madness often draws a standing-room-only crowd, and the brewery’s seven offerings face competition from the macro-swilling sports fans. But the 10-barrel outfit makes surprisingly good beers, especially IPAs. The Hubris Imperial IPA is earning huge buzz and now is sold in 22-ounce bottles, released one per person per day at the brewery.
Next, head to Gizmo Brew Works (5907 Triangle Drive), where the coffee pale ale proves intriguing, but the Stiletto Stout is among the brewery’s best offerings. It has a rich roasted flavor and silky mouthfeel.
Finally, I head toward the final stop on the journey: Lonerider Brewing Co. (8816 Gulf Court).
The tasting room, known as The Hideout, sits on the side of this Wild West-themed production brewery, one of the state’s largest with a reach expanding along the East Coast. But it’s worth a visit to taste a fresh draft of Deadeye Jack Porter, a local favorite in this style, or try the brewers’ latest one-off concoctions not available elsewhere.
Another beer best from the source: Sweet Josie Brown Ale. It is the only Great American Beer Festival gold medal winner available from an existing Raleigh brewery, and one of a handful in the state to earn top honors. It exemplifies the brewery’s reputation as one of the most consistent in Raleigh.
Here, I begin to reflect on the young, evolving Raleigh beer scene from the day’s tour. In most great craft beer destinations, I can name one or two places you must go. In Raleigh, it’s tougher. There’s no one go-to brewery or beer bar or bottle shop.
There’s the experimental approach at newcomers Crank Arm and Trophy. The sophistication from veterans Big Boss and Lonerider. And the adventurous spirit of Busy Bee’s tap list and Bottle Revolution’s selection. But there are plenty of highlights in between, whether the view at Boylan Bridge or the hometown feel at Raleigh Brewing.
The overarching takeaway, though, isn’t what we have—but what’s to come. Raleigh’s beer scene has plenty of room to grow and an opening for a star player. Right now, it’s too early to know who will emerge at the top.
The Raleigh beer story extends well beyond the city’s limits. The sprawling metro area is seeing the same growth as downtown, with new breweries dotting Wake and surrounding counties. And they are making beer worth the detour.
A growing concentration of breweries is located in the bedroom communities about 20 miles south of the city. You can find some of the area’s best beers at Aviator Brewing in Fuquay-Varina and one of the state’s oldest craft brewers, Carolina Brewing Co., established in Holly Springs in 1995.
Even farther out, White Street Brewing in Wake Forest, Deep River in Clayton and Double Barley in Smithfield attract good crowds.
If you can’t reach them, pick them up along the way at one of the many great local shops.
John Frank is a former craft beer columnist for The News & Observer who now writes about beer and politics for The Denver Post.
This story appears in the Beer Guide for World Beer Festival—Raleigh.