Imagining the Future of NC Beer with Fullsteam Brewery

Imagining the Future of NC Beer with Fullsteam Brewery

In the past 15 years, the North Carolina beer scene has come a long way. Prior to 2005, NC law placed a cap on the alcohol-by-volume content of all beer (imported and others) in the state at 6%. This law, in place since the end of Prohibition, effectively shut out a full third of the world’s beer styles.

So in 2003, a group of 35 beer enthusiasts, calling themselves Pop the Cap, gathered to discuss how to raise that 6% ceiling. Only a handful of other states had restrictions as harsh as North Carolina’s.

According to Sean Lilly Wilson, president of Pop the Cap, North Carolina needed to join the rest of the world. “I just wanted to support my local brewery and be able to buy an Imperial Stout in North Carolina, instead of driv[ing] to Virginia,” says Wilson.

Pop the Cap was ultimately successful in its endeavor. In 2005, the NCGA passed the law, raising the cap on ABV from 6% to 15%. Since then, the floodgates have officially opened.

The Founding of Fullsteam Brewery

Fullsteam Brewery in Durham.
Image courtesy of Fullsteam Brewery on Facebook.

Before starting Pop the Cap, Sean Lilly Wilson was a casual beer enthusiast and foodie. Upon moving to North Carolina, Wilson got a front-of-house job at the legendary Magnolia Grill in Durham.

Started by chefs Ben and Karen Barker in 1986, Magnolia Grill led the farm-to-table movement in North Carolina. Its mission emphasized locally-grown and locally-sourced ingredients in all of their dishes. “That’s where I learned about, like, persimmons and Southern food traditions — all the things that Magnolia Grill spearheaded in our area,” says Wilson.

Magnolia Grill’s hyperfocus on local ingredients, inspired by the Slow Foods movement in Italy the same year, spread across the Triangle. Sourcing ingredients from local farmers and purveyors became the norm for North Carolina chefs. Eventually, the practice led to the state’s more self-sustaining agricultural economy.

After the success of Pop the Cap, Wilson suddenly knew his next step. “I realized I really loved the people and industry and I was kind of ready to break off on my own,” he says. “I wanted to take that passion for local and seasonal and infuse that into beer. And I really saw that that was going to happen — that local ingredients were a natural extension.”

And so, in 2010, Wilson opened Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, leading the nascent farm-to-barrel movement. Or, as Wilson calls it, plow-to-pint.

Fullsteam Brewery’s Mission

Image courtesy of Fullsteam Brewery.

Part of Pop the Cap’s legislative success hinged on the economic boon a higher allowable ABV could bring. “The joy that I had in helping lead Pop the Cap was to see a flourishing of retailers and breweries expand their offerings and seeing them create new jobs,” says Wilson. Pushing to eliminate the Prohibition-era law wasn’t just about availability of beer.

As Wilson puts it, it was “very much about building community across a wide range of socioeconomic issues.”

After the law passed along with the awareness that the state’s brewing industry would flourish, Wilson used Fullsteam Brewery to exemplify a new arm of North Carolina’s agricultural economic infrastructure.

By sourcing ingredients, Fullsteam Brewery has effectively created a new kind of Slow Foods movement for beer. For example, there are now three malt houses in North Carolina, a direct economic response to the explosion of craft beer in the state.

More than just economics, however, Fullsteam’s mission is about celebrating North Carolina agriculture.

As Wilson puts it, “our mission is always to use local ingredients not as a novelty but as a sort of seamless component.”

Their Carver Sweet Potato Lager honors the state’s biggest crop. “North Carolina has been the top producer of sweet potatoes since, like, the early 1970s,” says Wilson. “We’re brewing with hundreds of pounds in North Carolina sweet potatoes…because we want you to explore what a native sweet potato tastes like.”

Image courtesy of Discover Durham.

For their Humidity Pale Ale, Fullsteam uses North Carolina-grown barley with triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid that flourishes in eastern North Carolina. In the same vein, their limited and seasonal beers highlight overlooked agricultural treasures. Their American Promise Double IPA features the pawpaw, a fruit that grows plentiful in western North Carolina’s lush canopied riverbanks.

Looking to the Future of NC Beer

In the 15 years since Pop the Cap, North Carolina’s beer scene has grown by leaps and bounds. With 320 breweries, the state boasts the most breweries in the South. As a result, North Carolina has become a leader in the craft brewing industry. And much like the food scene, the NC beer industry owes its success to its focus on local.

So what comes next? According to Wilson, innovation. “I’m seeing a commitment to a focus on a particular passion,” he says. “Breweries that do 500 to 1,000 barrels can really kind of carve out a special niche, via anything from farm breweries to wood aging.”

And, contrary to a lot of industries, the pandemic has only added fuel to the fire of innovation and competition. “With more and more people drinking at home, the frenetic pace of new beer has not slowed down and has actually sped up,” says Wilson. “Customers are very much wanting the latest and greatest.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the beer industry’s tumultuous 2020 is that Sean Lilly Wilson was right.

After all, 10 years ago, Wilson wanted to build a business around the celebration of North Carolina culture. Fullsteam’s mission has not changed in the last decade, and their business has thrived. Because of the economic uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19, our local economies’ importance has received more awareness.

“I think the big picture in our mission has been to stitch together community, farms and experimentation. And to recognize that beer is a component of a well-lived life,” he says.

Thirsty for more beer news? Check out our Lifestyle section for updates on the NC brew scene.