In this post I'll be covering Charlotte's burgeoning craft beer scene. Having been to several Summits, I realize that this is a primary area of interest for many of you ;-) I'm confident that beer-lovers from around the world will be pleasantly surprised by what they find here.
First, a little history. In 2003, the Pop the Cap bill became law in North Carolina, increasing the 70-year-old ABV cap from 6% to 15%. For the first time it became possible "to brew or sell one-third of the world’s beer styles, including gourmet Belgian ales, hoppy IPAs, and intensely malty dopplebocks." Several other laws have been passed since, rapidly making North Carolina into one of the friendliest states for craft brewing. This why Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues have all chosen to build their second ever breweries here!
There are currently seven craft breweries in Charlotte, with more on the way. Six are close enough to uptown to visit without having to drive, easily accessible via the SQL Sentry Shuttle or the Lynx light rail Blue Line. Four are listed on our Summit 2013 Map & Area Guide. I'll spin through them now in no particular order, along with the best places to enjoy craft beer, and a couple of beer destinations just outside of the area.
The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery (South End)
A little more history... Charlotte is located in Mecklenburg county, and both were named for Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Germany) to commemorate her marriage to King George III. So I guess it's no surprise that Charlotte is home to the top German brewhaus in the USA. OMB is Charlotte's oldest craft brewery, which isn't saying much considering it opened in 2009, however, it is quite distinctive for another reason...
If you've ever attended the European PASS Summit in Dusseldorf, you are probably familiar with altbier. It's ingrained in the culture there – there is nothing quite like enjoying a fresh altbier on the banks of the Rhine. Altbier is effectively lagered ale, and is served fresh from the cask in small glasses at Uerige and a handful of other breweries in Dusseldorf. Since unpasteurized beer doesn't transport well, Dusseldorf is one of the only places in the world where you can drink fresh altbier... one of the others is right here in Charlotte. That's right, OMB brews altbier served in traditional glassware that rivals the altbier at Uerige – it's called "OMB Copper". It's not identical, for sure, but IMO it's equally as good, if not better. BeerAdvocate reviewers seem to agree, as it's ranked 3rd in the world in traditional altbiers!
Don't believe me? Head on over to the brewery and give it a try. It's not on the banks of the Rhine, but they do have a great biergarten and festhalle in which to sample their fine beers. From the convention center area, it's 8 minutes by light rail, plus a 5-10 minute walk.
NoDa Brewing (NoDa: area D, stop 10, marker 36)
Second on the scene was Noda Brewing, which opened it's doors in 2011. They make a fantastic IPA, "Hop, Drop 'n Roll", and their "Coco Loco" porter won silver at last years Great American Beer Festival. They've recently introduced a sessionable pale called "Jam Session" which comes in at a modest 5.1% ABV. This has been my standby lately, as sometimes I do like to enjoy more than one beer at a sitting.
The brewery and taproom is located just south of the NoDa area (short for North Davidson, the street which is its namesake). They don't serve food, but there is frequently a food truck outside.
Birdsong Brewing (NoDa: area D, stop 10, marker 35)
Another fantastic local brewer, Birdsong is a stone's throw across the parking lot from NoDa Brewing... so you can easily kill two birds with one stone at this stop. Sorry ;-) They have some great standbys like their "Free Will Pale" and "Lazy Bird Brown", along with some more creative brews like their "Jalapeno Pale", which is quite tasty and not at all hot.
Heist Brewing (NoDa: area D, stop 9, marker 30)
A longer stone's throw from NoDa Brewing and Birdsong is Heist. This place is unique in that, aside from some great, mostly traditional American-style beers, they have some terrific food. Ever had "cotton candy shrimp" or "chicken and waffle sushi"? I hadn't either. Chef Rob Masone is renowned for his unique creations, and I encourage you eat at least one of your dinners here during the week of the Summit.
Here is a shot of the SQL Sentry crew with head brewer, Zach Hart, at a Heist tasting last year, before the brewery opened up. There's a funny beer story that goes along with this photo... buy me a pint and I'll share.
Yep, you guessed it – the SQL Sentry Shuttle will stop only a block or two away, in the heart of NoDa. Follow the directional arrows on the sidewalk south down to Heist.
On the way down the light rail to OMB you'll find one of the newest breweries in town, Triple C. They too have a nice taproom, and some fine American-style beers. That's me and the wild SQL Sentry crew above – I can only assume we were waiting for our beers. If you feel up to it (I haven't in some time), try their "Baby Maker DIPA". Enough said.
Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery (Uptown: stop 3, marker 63)
When I mentioned that OMB was the oldest brewery in town, I wasn't including Rock Bottom, which has actually been here for much longer... at least 10 years I'd say. You see, although they have some nice locally brewed beers, they are a chain, so I don't consider them a local craft brewery in the same sense as the others. Rock Bottom is, however, distinguished as being the only brewery uptown, and therefore the only brewery within walking distance of the PASS Summit. They also have a cool patio with fountains out back. Definitely worth a visit.
Best Places to Enjoy Craft Beer
You can't go far in any direction in Charlotte without running into places that serve a mix of local, national, and international craft beers. That said, I'm only going to cover one of the best in each of the 3 major areas along the SQL Sentry Shuttle route:
Queen City Q (Uptown: stop 3, marker 61)
Nothing beats a cold beer and BBQ, and if you haven't tried North Carolina BBQ, this is the place to do it uptown. They also happen to have an extensive draft and bottled beer selection, and two bars. As a bonus, Brixx Pizza is right next door, and they also have a great selection.
VBGB (The NC Music Factory: area B, stop 5, marker 17)
VBGB is short for "Very Big German Beer", and this is one of the top places in Charlotte to enjoy a craft beer. Excellent draft selection, beer hall, patio, and beer food. They also have one of the most interesting and functional beer features you will ever see: a frost rail which runs the entire length of the bar, keeping your beer as icy cold as you want it to be.
Growlers Pourhouse (NoDa: area D, stop 9, marker 29)
Voted one of "America's 100 best beer bars" the past two years running, Growlers has 14 rotating taps, including a refurbished 1936 beer engine for serving hand pulled cask ales. You will also not find a more beer-friendly menu in Charlotte. The SQL Sentry Shuttle will stop right here, and only a couple of minutes walk south is Heist Brewing (see above).
Outside of Charlotte
If you are a craft beer fan, you are probably already familiar with Asheville, as it was voted "Beer City USA" for four consecutive years from 2009-2012 (#3 in 2013). I'm not going to go through all of the fantastic breweries in Asheville, but if you like craft beer and have a day or two pre/post Summit, it's definitely worth the easy 2 hour drive. Plus, there are many other things to see and do in the area – check out our own Scott Fallen's post on visiting Asheville during the Summit for lots of great ideas.
Oskar Blues (Brevard, NC)
On your way to Asheville you'll be tempted to stop at Oskar Blues. This is the first national brewer to open their doors in NC, as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are still under construction. Oskar Blues beers don't need any introduction – they started the whole craft-beer-in-a-can movement a few years back, and have won tons of awards. I haven't been yet, but I know a few people who have, and the reports have been glowing.
I hope you find this guide helpful during your visit. Remember, the SQL Sentry Shuttle, the Lynx light rail Blue Line, and your feet will get you to all of the local establishments covered here, so no driving required!