Craft Beers: A New Wave of Brews in the South

Sean Wilson

After literally popping the cap on the legal limit of alcohol allowed in beer in North Carolina, Sean Wilson (Daytime MBA, MPP ’00) set out to establish his own brewery in Durham, focused on creating brews with local ingredients.

With its opening in August 2010, Wilson’s Fullsteam Brewery joined 11 other breweries in the Triangle area. Eight of the breweries have opened since 2006 and more are expected to open this year. The brewing boom is partly a result of Wilson’s “Pop the Cap” and “Permit Beer” lobbying campaigns, which lead to the 2005 repeal of a state law that put a 6 percent alcohol limit on beer made or sold in North Carolina. With the limit lifted to 15 percent, the craft beer market has taken off, with promise of stoking new agricultural and tourism industries.

“The South doesn’t have a strong beer history because no barley or hops grow here, and beer has been frowned upon for whatever reason. My mission is to get people to see that beer is as worthy of respect as fine wine, and to use local agriculture as the bridge,” explains Wilson. “Farmers are starting to explore growing barley and hops here, and we use local ingredients to make our beer, like sweet potatoes, persimmons, and even parsnips.”

Wilson promotes the state’s budding craft beer industry as part of the North Carolina Brewers Guild—which he helped to found—and the Department of Tourism. He travels to national festivals and beer tastings to introduce Southern beers to other palates.

But Wilson, now 40, wasn’t always so passionate about beer. He grew up in a conservative environment and attended Wheaton College in Illinois, Rev. Billy Graham’s alma mater, where drinking was forbidden. It was one of his Fuqua classmates and a long-time home brewer, J.P. Cardona (Daytime MBA ’00), who first introduced Wilson to craft beer, which is produced in small commercial breweries and is generally sold regionally.

At the time, Cardona was involved with a brewers association that held tasting events, and donated leftover kegs to venues including the Armadillo Grill at Duke’s Bryan Center. One day, Cardona took Wilson to the Armadillo Grill to sample some out-of-state craft beer.

“He showed me the light and made me curious about this world of beer that I didn’t even know existed, and it was then that I found out about the 6 percent cap,” Wilson says. His curiosity quickly grew into a personal cause and professional challenge.

After Wilson graduated from Duke with both an MBA and a Master of Public Policy degree, he put his education to use during his beer lobbying campaigns and then in the establishment of Fullsteam, a $1.2 million project, funded mostly by small investors. And the brewery is still growing.

“He’s a very artistic and creative person, and he knew how to pitch the right story. That’s why he’s been so successful,” says Cardona, who lives in Seattle and plans to visit Fullsteam the next time he’s in Durham.

Although, Fullsteam is still a work in progress, Wilson admits. “Things will continue to come, like a kitchen. It’s all a journey,” he says.

Also along for that ride are Wilson’s collaborators, local brewer Chris Davis and Brooks Hamaker, former head brewer at Abita Brewing Company in Louisiana. Three additional employees help to run the operation, brewing approximately 150 barrels a month—that’s 4,650 gallons of beer. The unique brews, like the El Toro Classic Cream Ale, made with North Carolina corn grits, and First Frost, a winter ale brewed with foraged wild persimmons, are sold in 60 locations, accounting for about 50 percent of Fullsteam’s revenue. Wilson says his goal is to increase that to 90 percent.

“There’s more demand right now than we can fill,” he says. “And the accounts have just been coming to us. We’re just getting to the point where we need to start knocking on doors, which will happen as soon as I get a dedicated sales person.”

Wilson is currently in charge of sales, marketing, and administration. He also hauls 180-pound kegs for deliveries, and he can be found working behind the bar of his taproom, which culminates in an 80-hour work week for him.

“It’s really amazing to me that he’s done this—it’s a lot of work and he has a family. Kudos to him for following his dreams and taking a nontraditional route. He’s an inspiration and a great example,” says Cardona. “The beer industry is a positive thing for the whole region, not just North Carolina.”