Where to Drink in Charlotte, North Carolina

Destinations by | Jul 2015 | Issue #102

Illustration by Sam Brewster

Asheville it is not. Though it is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, Charlotte can’t rival its urban neighbor to the west when it comes to breweries per capita.

But what the Queen City lacks in numbers, it makes up for with perhaps the most diverse group of breweries in the state. The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery has brewed German styles since 2009, when it became the first of Charlotte’s current independent breweries to open. Their flagship Copper is in the Altbier style, fashioned after beers founder John Marrino enjoyed while working in Germany. While it’s nearly everywhere in Charlotte, Copper is best enjoyed at the brewery’s new location, a sprawling, 8.5-acre brewery and biergarten that feels as authentic as the beers themselves.

A few miles away at The Unknown Brewing Co. the German purity law Reinheitsgebot is just another rule meant to be broken. And they break rules in spectacular fashion here, brewing with anything from bacon and cream cheese to scorpions. (Don’t worry, not all of the beers are made with arachnids: the tea- and honey-infused Southern Hospitalitea is an ideal sipper for the patio’s porch swing.)

How does one city come to host such a variety of far-flung styles and approaches? Charlotte’s growth now and in the past can largely be attributed to the transplants that move to the city for the promise of four seasons and new jobs (often in the banking industry). There was a time when this meant leaving cities with established beer scenes for one that had no local breweries of its own. And while most of these transplants were content to drink beer produced regionally, others took it upon themselves to brew.

The city’s beer scene was equally diverse back in the 1990s, when its first wave of breweries opened. Renowned beer critic Michael Jackson visited Dilworth Brewing in 1994 and praised its British styles like Dilworth Porter. With muffins, breads, cookies and cakes, plus medal-winning beers like Hornet Tail Ale, the Mill Bakery, Eatery and Brewery was a carb lover’s paradise. Charlotte was even home to The Brewing Experience, North Carolina’s first brew-on-premise location.

That brewery was only in business a year or so. Others, like Johnson Beer Co. and Southend Brewery, had some measure of success in the 1990s, but all but two from that first wave of breweries—the chain brewpubs Rock Bottom and Hops—closed their doors around the turn of the century.

Despite this, a beer culture was developing in the city’s bars and bottle shops. In 2003, Michael Brawley opened Brawley’s Beverage in the same building that once housed his father’s business, Mike’s Discount Beverage. The small shop has been packed to the walls with cases of beer ever since. Brawley recently renovated the building to look as it did in his father’s day, and then added more modern touches like a bocce court and a bar with 11 well-curated taps.

102Destinations2The bar-meets-bottle shop is a familiar combination in Charlotte, as some of the city’s best beer stores also offer excellent draft options. Push past the shelves of bottles and cans at Good Bottle Co. to find a dozen taps filled with beers from breweries like Wicked Weed Brewing, Fonta Flora Brewery and Haw River Farmhouse Ales.

Down the road from Good Bottle Co. is Triple C Brewing, which has distinguished itself through core beers like its 3C IPA as much as it has through barrel-aged offerings such as its Chocolate Covered Pretzel Stout and The Dude Imbibes, an Imperial Milk Stout with coffee beans aged in rum barrels for six months.

When The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery relocated to its new facility, Sugar Creek Brewing moved into its original home. Sugar Creek transformed the space with a nautical steampunk look, and focuses on Belgian styles that include a Witbier, a Saison, a Pale Ale and a Dubbel.

At Salud Beer Shop, you can enjoy bottles, cans or drafts on premise or to go (the latter made possible by a new Crowler machine capable of packaging any of the 12 drafts in 32-ounce cans). Salud has proven popular in the North Davidson or NoDa neighborhood since opening in 2012, but especially so to those with a penchant for waffle-wiches, sour beer, old-school hip-hop and vintage Nintendo.

One of Charlotte’s most coveted beers is NoDa Brewing’s Hop Drop ‘n Roll, which won a gold medal in the American IPA category at the 2014 World Beer Cup. Far from a one-trick pony, NoDa’s portfolio features everything from light Blonde Ales to viscous Imperial Stouts. Founders Todd and Suzie Ford are currently building a production brewery set to open later this year, after which the current taproom will focus on sour styles and barrel-aged beers.

NoDa Brewing’s former neighbors, Birdsong Brewing, recently flew the coop and moved into a larger facility of its own, too. Each week, the team cuts by hand the 60 pounds of peppers that go into Jalapeño Pale Ale, which is now available in tallboy cans. It’s as popular at the taproom as the complimentary peanuts.

You can’t live off peanuts alone, and fortunately North Carolina is revered for its barbecue (and don’t dare use that word in lieu of “cookout”). With a variety of slow-smoked meats, sandwiches and North Carolina beers, like Rye Hopper from Asheville’s French Broad Brewing, Mac’s Speed Shop pulls in everyone from black-clad bikers to buttoned-down bankers.

At The Liberty, beer can be found in more than just the 20 taps and large bottle collection. The South End gastropub’s décor features columns of stacked kegs, framed posters of beer-inspired poetry and a chandelier constructed out of Pilsner glasses. In the kitchen, chef Tom Condron prepares elevated pub grub like the “Crunch” Burger, adorned with pimento cheese, smoked bacon and housemade potato chips.

One of the Charlotte beer scene’s earliest ambassadors was Duckworth’s Grill and Taphouse, which pairs cheesesteaks and large, respectable tap lists at all five of its locations. The new uptown spot features 150 taps, with 16 self-serve lines on the second floor, and 20 more down in the brick-lined rare beer cellar.

Last November, Sycamore Brewing opened with a goal of brewing 100 different beers in their first year. It’s well on track to blow past that number, thanks to 28 taps (20 inside, eight out) pouring an ever-changing selection that includes beers like The Salty Coconut Red Ale and Serendipity Vanilla Ale. On warm, sunny days the beer garden teems with conversation and table tennis.

Food trucks are a familiar sight at many of Charlotte’s breweries, but don’t expect to find one at Heist Brewery, where the kitchen staff creates inventive takes on typical bar food. Start by grabbing some “Tot-chos” (housemade tater tots topped with pimento cheese, pickled giardiniera, jalapeño bacon jam and liquid cilantro) and pair them with the brewery’s farmhouse ales or one-off, “Not So Small Batch” creations.