Originally Told: Sept 10 2017
My family has been traveling to Topsail, North Carolina since my Father remarried in 2007. My family sees each other often, Boston to Baltimore is not a long trip. But it’s a less frequent occurrence to be afforded 6-7 uninterrupted days together to enjoy the beach, play golf, and relax. One of my favorite traditions about these weeks has been the evenings. Sitting on the deck, listening to the waves, a little sunburned, drinking beers and talking.
I bring a lot of my own beer on these trips. My golf bag clocks in just under the 50 lb limit, and I usually send a beer box to one of my brothers to drive down. Most families are unloading necessities like sponges, toilet paper and cereal. I unpack and quickly start to chill growlers and bombers.
But you have to. The beer selection in these beach towns sucks. I typically fly into Wilmington, rent a car, and then drive 45 min to Topsail Island. In the past I’ve tried various grocery stores, poked around to see what I could find. Outside of Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas and some other larger craft beers, you’re generally staring into a full cooler of macro beers. It’s available everywhere. Gas stations, grocery stores, convenience stores. It’s hard to escape. Now, I admittedly like Miller Lite for the beach. It’s refreshing, light (or lite), and it does the trick. But for those evenings of sipping and chatting, I really want something more flavorful and that doesn't need to be kept at an arctic temperature to maintain anything resembling the intended flavor. Although in some ways it made sense (most want something light and refreshing on a 95 degree day), I could never understand why no one had recognized that there was a craft beer movement occurring. With so many visitors from Maryland, New England, Ohio, and Virginia, it seemed odd that those traveling to the beach wouldn't still want some options.
Starting last year, that began to change. Slightly. I always try to see if any new bottle shops have opened, and have been largely disappointed to learn the answer is “no.” But last year (2016) I found a bottle shop next to Wings (you know, the Kmart of beach attire, shell necklaces, and cozies) that sold craft beer, as well as wine. The beer selection was ok, good even. But the shop made the classic mistake of having outdated beer. I would grab a can of a local beer, curiosity peeked. Then turn it upside down and see that the liquid inside was canned 8 months before. Fail. And the beer wasn't protected, but rather left to sit out in the sun, unprotected. Second fail. It felt as though the owners had recognized the need for having craft beer available, but were doing a disservice to the product and potentially alienating people willing to try something new.
My faith was renewed the Saturday I arrived this year on a pit stop to HeyBeer!
My flight came in from Philly around 1pm. After grabbing the rental car, it was my job to hit the food store on my way to Topsail. With 3 kids under the age of 6 in our house and nearly every grocery store from the airport to the beach packed with people just arriving, I had volunteered to stop in Wilmington on my way. As with most of my travels, I looked through recommendations for the area. HeyBeer! came up on most of the lists. Not knowing whether it was just the best of a limited selection or a legitimate beer destination, I decided to try it.
As I drove from the airport to HeyBeer! I passed the Wilmington Brewing Company, a brewery I had never noticed before. Promising.
HeyBeer! is tucked in a small shopping area, barely noticeable from the road. But when you enter, it’s like Christmas except that instead of presents, beer cans and cases pour out to your feet. The selection is amazing with beers from local North Carolina breweries I have been dying to try such as Burial (Asheville NC) and Brewery Bhuvana (Raleigh NC). There are also classic staples such as Allagash and Prairie, and a large section devoted to Wicked Weed. In addition to the 4 and 6 packs available, the cooler is stocked with singles you can purchase to mix and match. And the dates are recent. There are also 8 draft lines with frequently rotating beers (the beers listed on the Saturday of my arrival were different than the beers the Saturday of my departure). You can purchase a growler, or grab a pint and sit in the seating area next door. The crowd is a mix of visitors like me, stocking up for a week’s vacation, and then locals in to fill their HeyBeer! growler with whatever is on tap.
I grab a mix of new and favorites (including a growler of Brewery Bhuvana’s Pilsner, Brisk, and approach the counter. Mike, the owner, could not be nicer. We chat about where I am from, where my family is vacationing, and what sort of beers he gets to try as locals trade and share with him. I ask him about Wicked Weed and if he thinks their sale to AB has affected sales. He replies with a quick “definitely,” explaining that North Carolina residents have felt especially betrayed by the sale and have moved on to purchasing from other breweries. With the independent seal on my mind, it’s a single (albeit powerful) anecdote demonstrating that locals care in their local market about who makes their local beer.
I set off for the sand and surf with a few more pounds of weight in my rental car.
A week goes by and it’s time to head back to Boston after a great week with my family. With time to kill before my 3:30pm flight, I figured I should stop at HeyBeer! to return the growler. As I walk in, Mike is at the counter again. I check the draft board and a brand new set of beers are available. A good sign that their beer is selling, and that it’s fresh. Mike greets me and asks how my trip was. We talk through some of my favorites purchased the week before. I tell him I have a few hours to kill and get his recommendations for breweries to visit in the area. He shares his thoughts on his local favorites, the beers available, venue, food availability. Based on the conversation I decide to try New Anthem, a newer brewery in the downtown area.
I show him the growler I came to return and he seems surprised and grateful I made the effort to return it. He reaches under the counter and tells me as a thank you, he wants to give me a beer that just came into his store, Avery’s Uncle Jacob’s Stout. I am blown away by his generosity, but upon reflection not in the least bit surprised. The culture and community has always been what drew me in to craft beer. I smile and thank him, making a mental note to bring some Boston/New England beers the next time I return to the area.
New Anthem Beer Project is a brewery located in downtown Wilmington. A former horse stable turned car dealership turned brewery, the only indication beer is available inside is a simple wooden sign hanging over the door. Inside a huge oval shaped bar encases condensating steel fermenters. Seating around the bar is plentiful, while a picnic table and living room style seating area offer additional space for lounging. The decor is simple, the coolest addition is a “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” pinball machine. The brick walls are decorated with record albums: Heart, Weezer, Joan Jett. The music selection epic. One of the first songs to come on is “Gypsy” by Fleetwood Mac. One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. Beer aside, New Anthem Beer Project and I are going to get along just fine.
As the only person there, I pick a spot at the bar and begin chatting with the bartender about the beer scene in Wilmington. He tells me that New Anthem has been open for 10 months and craft beer continues to gain more and more momentum in Wilmington, with 5 more breweries opening soon. I check the draft board. Oddly, no IPAs or DIPAs. Odd in that most “new breweries” are IPA focused, trying to capitalize on craft’s most popular style. An IPA called “Name Dropper” sits on the “Coming Soon” list, but one isn't available for consumption today. That’s ok. I order a “This Sick Beat” (almost as much because it’s a saison as for the name) and then quickly follow with their Hoppy Wheat Ale, “Bend and Snap.” Slowly others start to trickle in, choosing seats at the bar or on the couches. It’s a chill atmosphere on a chill Saturday afternoon.
“The best teacher is experience and not through someone's distorted point of view.”
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Eventually it’s time for me to make my way to the Wilmington Airport. But, I’m happy I chose this spot, and that I chose to venture into Wilmington at all to check out their beer scene. Coming from Boston and the New England area, I feel lucky. I have the chance to try some of the best beer out there on a regular basis. With all of the hype out there around releases and the shift in beer culture around bragging about what you've scored and how long you waited for it, it's easy to forget that there are so many great people doing great things in beer in almost every corner of the United States now. And it's also easy to forget that at the end of the day, the beer is important, but it's always about more than the beer. Exploring is always worth the effort.
On this year’s vacation, I went into that bottle shop near Wings again, driven more by curiosity than excitement. The bottle shop is being sold. The selection is a fifth of what it was, and the beers even more outdated than before. A grocery store wouldn't put produce on sale and keep it out for purchase until it sold. It felt like that. It’s sad. And hard to tell if it was poor management or a sign that there isn't a need in the area. The shop’s poor inventory strategy and what I experienced in Wilmington gives me hope it’s the former. HeyBeer! has thrived in Wilmington and although the launch of new breweries isn't the only sign (or even sometimes a good sign) of the market need for more craft beer options, it certainly is promising. Perhaps next year when I return, it will be under new ownership and thriving. Either way, there’s evidence that this beach area is an active part of the craft beer movement.
Avery Brewing Co., Uncle Jacob's Stout (Thank you Mike!)