Where Did Raleigh's Beer Movement Come From?

Do you love beer? Do you live in Raleigh? You’re doing it right.

Let me explain why.

Raleigh is a one-of-a-kind city for beer drinkers. This is actually a bit surprising given that we’re in the Southeast--a part of the country that’s notoriously conservative. We’re one of only 18 “Alcoholic Beverage Control” states where the sale of alcohol (especially liquor) is monopolized by the state itself. The ABC domination means a number of restrictions in these states, like the inability to buy liquor on Sundays or the presence of completely dry counties where alcohol cannot be purchased at all.

One particularly restrictive law in North Carolina that was around for a while was one that restricted sale of beer to those under 6.0% ABV. According to popthecap.org:

“This relic of Prohibition made it illegal to brew or sell one-third of the world’s beer styles, including gourmet Belgian ales, hoppy IPAs, and intensely malty dopplebocks. Beers meant for sipping and savoring…nothing like the American light lagers that dominate North Carolina’s storeshelves.”

As the website will tell you, beer lovers wanted the law repealed. In February 2003, thirty-five advocates gathered at the All About Beer office (All About Beer is a national beer magazine) and devised a plan. They created a grassroots movement, hired a lobbyist, and got a bill pushed through the state legislature, all in under 3 years. The “Pop The Cap” bill increased the ABV limit to 15%, which allows sale of all but the most boozy of craft brews.

Interesting side note: the original draft of the bill removed all limits whatsoever! How nice would that have been? Personally, I'd love it if it were a hell of a lot easier for me to get my hands on one of my favorite beers of all time, Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA. This IPA stands at a you-better-stay-seated-while-you-drink-this 18-20% ABV. To get it, I had to get a friend to bring some back from Chicago. North Carolina is still missing out on their chance at the additional revenue from these higher alcohol content beers that people have to carry in from other states. Maybe they’ll remove the cap some day.

Anyways. After the bill went through a few ratifications, they settled upon the 15% cap.

The bill’s history can be found here and the final version is listed here if you’re curious about the legislative details.

The lifting of the restriction was one of the first of it’s kind in the Southern states, and it caused a flood of breweries to the area. According to a money.cnn.com article and the North Carolina Craft Breweries Guild, the number of breweries increased from ~30 to the current 125. The NCBG estimates that these breweries create 10,000 jobs and bring in $7M a year.  This doesn't include the indirect work needed to support the industry, like the agricultural jobs necessary to grow the malt, barley, and spices often used in the brewing process.

North Carolina quickly grew its reputation for making a good brew. CNBC’s article describing the “craft beer boom” in NC shows how Asheville was named “Beer City USA” from 2009-2012 by the Brewers Association at Examiner.com. In 2012, it tied with Grand Rapids, a strong competitor if for no other reason than the fact that it is home to the famous Founders Brewing Co.. So why did Asheville and North Carolina win? Craftbeer.com agrees with Oscar Wong, president of Highland Brewing Company, when he says that:

“Part of it is this community is relatively new to the craft beer world. We’re like teenagers. We’re enthused, and we have lots of energy.”

All that to say, North Carolina is a great place to live if you like beer, and it’s been an exciting decade in the industry. For those of you that like some context, there you have it. If you’ve enjoyed a beer over 6% lately, raise a toast to the people at All About Beer magazine who made it possible.

So what about present day? What about Raleigh specifically?

A Tour of Raleigh: Breweries and Bottle Shops

Check out this map (from beermapping.com)!

Red=Brewery, Green=Bottle Shop, Blue=Brewpub, Yellow=Beer Bar, Brown=Homebrew Store.

There are SO many breweries, bottle shops, and pubs in the area! In downtown Raleigh alone, there’s Crank Arm/Trophy/Boylan, Tasty Beverage/PaddyOBeers/State of Beer, and dozens of bars that serve craft brews (one that comes to mind with a particularly large selection is Tyler's Tap Room). You could walk to all of these in one day.

If you’re up for a multi-day experience, visitRaleigh.com has a print-ready “Greater Raleigh Beer Trail” map that lists 18 breweries between Wake Forest and Holly Springs. RaleighBeerGuide.com will keep you updated on the latest events and has their own map of breweries and bottle shops. You’ll never run out of places to go or beer to try.

If you’re looking for more detail, this All About Beer article (yes, those who pushed Pop The Cap through in the first place) is incredible. It starts at Crank Arm, located on “arguably the best block in the city”, with Tasty Beverage, Videri, The Pit, and BoxCar barcade just next door. Then, they run through every Raleigh beer spot you’d ever want to visit, as well as a few restaurants and the amazing coffee at Joule.

And that’s just on a normal day. We also have events year-round that include beer tastings and pairings. Restaurant Week is a great way to sample the local food and beer, but if you want the full experience, there’s no better way than the World Beer Festival (part of Beer Month in Raleigh). For $50 general admission, you get unlimited 4oz samples and access to a huge number of breweries at the event, including more than 30 from North Carolina. They’ll often have special events, too. In 2015, there was a Belgian beer event as well as a “Beers Made by Walking” program that focused on beers made with ingredients found in nature.

On top of all that, in March 2014, NerdWallet.com named Raleigh in the top 10 list of “Least Expensive Cities for Beer Drinkers”. This was no simple calculation. They pulled the cost of a six-pack of Heineken from a Cost of Living Index, factored in median income, beer tax, and beer consumption. Raleigh’s six-pack was one of the least expensive they measured, which helped us clinch the 10th spot in the rankings! So obviously there’s plenty to do in Raleigh if you like craft beer. Why does this matter?

NerdWallet's Top 10 Least Expensive Cities for Beer Drinkers

Rank City Cost of 6-pack of Heineken Median Income per Worker State Beer Tax per gallon State Per Capita Consumption in gallons Final Score
1 Washington, D.C. $8.89 $44,980 $0.56 28.3 76.98
2 San Francisco, CA $9.90 $45,439 $0.20 25.5 72.24
3 Kansas City, MO $8.22 $30,273 $0.06 41.0 71.82
4 Denver, CO $7.98 $32,416 $0.08 30.0 70.51
5 Omaha, NE $7.54 $27,270 $0.31 35.2 66.92
6 Virginia Beach, VA $8.32 $33,485 $0.26 26.7 66.26
7 Columbus, OH $7.99 $29,450 $0.18 30.1 65.31
8 Las Vegas, NV $8.32 $28,588 $0.16 35.8 64.98
9 Colorado Springs, CO $8.06 $28,863 $0.08 30.0 64.82
10 Raleigh, NC $7.98 $32,013 $0.62 27.1 63.51

The craft beer culture encourages a collaborative environment like those in coffee shops. It’s a social lubricant. But it’s different. Coffee shops are built with single or double tables, private nooks, extra wall plugs and free wifi. You go there to get work done, brainstorm on a project, write your dissertation. The loudest noise in the shop is typically the milk steamer.

Breweries and bottle shops are built around the bar at the taps, open spaces with communal tables, trivia nights, darts, and food trucks. At peak hours, they’re loud! People drink a beer or two and their inhibitions lower, conversations flow from topic to topic without restriction. Because you’re not there on business, you can think and talk freely with your friends or other patrons about whatever comes up.

It’s an incredible catalyst for creativity. Whether with a co-worker, significant other, or group of friends, you’re always going to have a good time, learn more about each other, and grow closer.

Raleigh has gained a lot of attention in the past 10 years for becoming a “Collaborative Urban Environment” (a term coined in an article by the US DOD’s Office of Economic Adjustment), where students, entrepreneurs, and enterprise businesses can come together and build their products in a forward thinking environment. The educated talent coming from the three top-tier colleges in the area (Duke, UNC, NC State) create an overflowing pool of skilled work. Companies like SAS, Red Hat, Citrix, and even Google Fiber have chosen to build here because of it. Downtown is exploding with new restaurants and condos. Our chefs win national awards, our libraries deliver books by robotic arm. Okay it’s just one chef and one library, but still!

Overall, Raleigh is seen as a growing, tech-forward city that values partnerships between every facet of our public and private sectors. How much of Raleigh’s changes have been helped by the craft beer movement and the creativity it encourages? Who knows...but Pop the Cap did pass exactly 10 years ago, right as this trend began. Coincidence?

Something to think about over your next pint. Cheers.


Lee Kennedy has been sampling local beers and breweries in Raleigh, NC for over 10 years. He writes (occasionally) at leelkennedy.com.