Touring the Raleigh Beer Scene
Standing behind the bar at Crank Arm Brewing, one of Raleigh’s much-hyped new destinations, brewer Mike Morris is talking excitedly about his latest creations, an evolving series of saisons and single-hopped pale ales.
It’s a warm late winter afternoon, the garage at the bike-themed brewery is open, and the bright sun is glaring 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 human-sized Jenga block-stacking game are scattered on the floor.
Welcome to North Carolina’s beer boomtown.
In 2013, five new breweries opened in Raleigh, according to state records—more than in any other city in North Carolina, including Asheville. The city now boasts 10 breweries, with at least two more in the works for 2014 and another half dozen planned for surrounding areas.
“You haven’t even seen the start of it around here yet,” says Frank Bloom with the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, a city-booster organization. “We are not worried about our numbers because the population size means there’s plenty for everyone right now, the boomtown kind of mentality.”
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 for the craft.
The growth is amazing to watch. But it’s difficult to keep pace with each new offering and with the ever-changing tap lists at local bars showcasing North Carolina breweries and exports from the strongholds in Colorado and California.
The more the scene grows, the more I get asked this question: Who’s the best? What is the must-visit brewery, beer bar and bottle shop?
It comes with the territory as the craft beer columnist for The News & Observer, the city’s daily newspaper. But it’s an impossible question to answer. Take a tour and you’ll see why.
The Downtown Four
The beer explosion in Raleigh is most visible downtown. It’s now possible to hit four breweries, three bottle shops and five great craft 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 not particularly scenic at many points. I’m probably the first to try it.
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 newest brunch hot spot downtown.
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 an assist from my smartphone. Each stop is roughly a half mile apart.
The tour starts with that bang at Crank Arm (319 W. Davie St.).
Morris pulls tap handles made of 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 each time it’s brewed.
I enjoy the Mosaic, a wonder hop with exotic fruit notes, and the next iteration will showcase 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 on the way to 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. If you can manage, break away to walk through the still-emerging warehouse district on South Harrington Street, where boutiques and art spaces are opening, and 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 nice break from the heavier beers from winter.
The rest of the beer lineup is traditional and in transition 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.
It’s continuing to change, with cranes visible to the left (building a new downtown headquarters for Cisco, a tech company) and in the distance to the right (adding high-rise condos). 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 repurposed name that lives on at a bar downtown.
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 eight 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 to 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 changes, Raleigh sits in the shadow of Asheville in the mountains that incubated the state’s best craft beer culture. Where Asheville is walkable and centric, Raleigh’s breweries are mostly spread out.
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.
A year ago, Raleigh earned a nomination and a few votes in the online poll, which was retired this year.
“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 craft 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 Les Stewart plenty of room to experiment, which he does more than most other Raleigh brewers.
“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 a year 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, as is 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 serving uniquely delicious pizzas. (For example: the Local Celebrity pizza with extra virgin olive oil, kale, roasted fall vegetable medley, country ham and Cultured Cow white cheddar cheese curd.)
It’s impossible to know what’s on tap at any given time, but I hit it at the right moment to get a ripe imperial stout aged in rye whiskey barrels from Albany Distilling in New York, and my tasting partners try the fun choco-vanilla export stout.
With the afternoon dwindling, the last brewery on the foot-tour calls: Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Co. (505 W. Jones St.). It’s a walk back Morgan Street, east toward the city, and a jog north on Glenwood Avenue. A good hike 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 pubs brew their own seasonal and one-offs making the visit worth it. I find the lagers particularly refreshing in a beer scene so dominated by ales. For now, the copper German brewing system at the Raleigh location is idled for repairs, but it could be running again later this year.
If the pizzas at Trophy or the pub food at Natty’s don’t satisfy, the final part of the loop features plenty of good beer bars and bottle shops.
For a detour deeper into the Glenwood area, the venerable Hibernian Irish Pub & Restaurant (311 Glenwood Ave.) reopened in February after a fire. Or better yet, head east on Jones Street toward downtown Raleigh.
At the massive globe that sits on the corner of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, you can detour north to Seaboard Station and hit Tyler’s Restaurant and Taproom (18 Seaboard Ave.), a great craft beer bar that hosts at least a dozen local taps and an adjoining bottle shop.
Or head south toward the capitol and hit a few other great craft beer bars, passing along the way Paddy O’Beers (121 Fayetteville St.), a new bottle shop.
Busy Bee Café (225 S. Wilmington St.), next door to where I had brunch, is one of my favorite beer bars in the city. It caters 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,” Powers says. “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.
The end gives me a good chance to consider the original quest for the best beer stops. I had a few highlights in mind but many more places to go.
The downtown scene is just a glimpse of what Raleigh has to offer. The majority—and biggest players—lie just outside the city’s center.
To visit them requires a car, and there’s no single way to make a tour. I pair it with the walking tour for an epic day of tasting, starting at the two just north of downtown.
Sub Noir Brewing (2039 Progress Court) is a newcomer to the scene, a nanobrewery located in a business strip tucked away among warehouses. It is open limited hours Friday and Saturday, and the brewers are still trying to perfect their experimental recipes (a chocolate stout brewed with Count Chocula cereal, for instance). The beer is sold in half pints, no tasting flights.
The ambience 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.
Not far away, a difficult-to-walk half-mile, 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 it is 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 focus, on full display each year during Casktoberfest, is 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 May.
The beers are named for World War II aircraft, and the taproom paraphernalia continue 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 Big Boss, it’s a drive to the next brewery. A detour through the Five Points neighborhood is possible to visit Crafty Beer Shop (2003 Fairview Road), a cozy neighborhood store with ever-changing taps. Later this year a new brewery, Nickelpoint (506 Pershing Road), will open nearby after changing its name from Union Square.
Ten minutes from Big Boss 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 craft bottle shop with the beer adventurer in mind. Like many craft drinkers these days, owner Ted Gross always is looking for new flavors and new beers to share with his Raleigh fans. He drives to Asheville and elsewhere to pick up kegs of beer from Wicked Weed and other breweries that are hard to find in the area.
From Bottle Rev, take the Interstate 440 beltline to U.S. 70, which heads northwest from town toward Durham—a stretch that houses three more breweries.
By now, in this long day of beer research, it’s dark. At Lynnwood Grill and Brewing Concern (4821 Grove Barton Road), the craft pints are poured to college basketball fans in this sports-bar-turned-brewpub.
The basketball madness draws a standing-room-only crowd, and the brewery’s seven offerings have tough competition from the macro-swilling sports fans. But the 10-barrel outfit makes surprisingly good beers, and the West Coast-style IPA, dubbed Hop on Top, is one of my day’s best.
The crowds watching the game leave Gizmo Brew Works (5907 Triangle Drive) nearly empty. In the now-chilly night, a fire burns in a barrel outside, but no one stands around to enjoy it.
Opened in 2013, Gizmo is the reincarnation of Roth Brewing, which occupied the same northwest Raleigh warehouse a few years ago. The Roth logo is still emblazoned on one of the doors outside.
The expanded tasting room is sparse, but the beer is an improvement. The coffee pale ale proves intriguing, but the Stiletto Stout is probably the brewery’s best offering, with a rich roasted flavor and silky mouthfeel.
With spirits fading and without much to see, I don’t linger and 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 the draft Deadeye Jack Porter, my 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 craft 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 another 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 area is seeing the same growth as downtown, with new breweries dotting Wake and Johnston counties. And they are making beer worth the trip.
A growing concentration 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.
Two newcomers to the scene opened in 2014 with big fanfare, Bombshell Beer Co. in Holly Springs and Fortnight Brewing in Cary.
Even farther out, White Street Brewing in Wake Forest, Deep River in Clayton and Double Barley in Smithfield are attracting good crowds in their early months.
If you can’t reach them, look for White Street and Deep River growlers in local bottle shops or 22-ounce bombers from Double Barley.
John Frank is a political reporter and craft beer columnist for The News & Observer.
This story appears in the Beer Guide for World Beer Festival Raleigh.