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Growing a beer culture

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Cam Medina of Pitt Street Brewing Company cleans a nozzle on a beer vat on October 12. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Brian Wudkwych
bwudkwych@reflector.com

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

When Pitt Street Brewing Company joined Greenville’s craft beer scene in late August, it solidified what its contemporaries long thought was true — somewhere under the allure of $1 mugs and 16 oz. PBR cans, there was an untapped market with a thirst for something a little more refined.

Now, Pitt Street, Trollingwood Taproom & Brewery and Uptown Brewing Company are doing their part to shed the city’s longstanding college town perception, hoping to usher in a wave of young professionals to break the light-beer mold.

“When we were looking for a city, Greenville didn’t have a brewery,” said Nate McLaughlin, head brewer at Pitt Street Brewing Company. “We saw a city of 90 to a couple hundred thousand people with a major university and no craft brewery.”

The craft beer boom is no secret. Fortune Magazine reported that the number of breweries in the United States has increased 50 percent in the last two years.

Greenville is no exception. Trollingwood led the charge, opening in December 2015, while both Pitt Street and Uptown opened their doors this year. While the three breweries are building the city’s beer culture, the market’s roots were already in place.

“There’s always been beer people here,” said Trollingwood owner and brewer Grayson Williams. “We’re just glad to be legitimized with it, with the other guys opening. It’s fallen into place.”

Jennifer Spengeman — owner of Tapped, a bottle shop in Greenville — has watched the wave wash over the country, starting west and moving east. Even in North Carolina, she said there was a dead zone dividing craft beer hotbeds like Raleigh and Asheville from the coastal market in the Outer Banks.

“You’d go to Raleigh, and when we opened there were 44 bottle shops in the area,” Spengeman said. “We had none. No breweries. We were just really behind the times.”

Tapped, joined only by Jarvis Street Bottle Shop in Greenville, opened in October 2015, two months before Trollingwood made its mark as the city’s first brewery. Spengeman also owns Basil’s, a restaurant that prides itself on its locally-sourced food. But she said it wasn’t just local easts that Basil’s customers were after.

“We saw a decline in our sales of Budweiser and Bud Light,” Spengeman said. “People started asking if we had Mother Earth (from nearby Kinston) or the Weeping Willow Wit, things like that, which people were familiar with in the area. A lot of our distributors started grabbing up more and more of these micro-breweries so it sparked our interest.”

Another bottle shop and three breweries later, eastern North Carolina has made a swift, if not significant, blip on the craft beer radar.

The challenge now facing every brewer in the city is how to leave a mark on the untested palettes of Greenville residents.

For some, like McLaughlin, the approach is grounded in finding a regional style. He has done stints in the Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington craft brew scenes and said areas that have already “matured,” as brewers like to say, have unique styles that are acquired over time.

For now, McLaughlin, like the other three brewers in the city, has opted to simplify in order to satiate. With a distinct taste not yet developed, the key is finding a balance between flavor and drink-ability.

“The craft beer community is very young,” said Ben Self, Uptown’s brewmaster. “We view that as an opportunity to get people in the door. So everything we make is a gateway. I view that as our selling point.”

Self’s brewing philosophy is grounded in simplicity. Uptown’s top seller is its IPA, which has a lighter body than most; but it’s the Billy Beer, a 3 percent light lager, that best illustrates the current state of the movement. Named after one of the owners, the Billy Beer has been a mainstay on the brewery’s tap line, sitting as the second-best seller and finding a niche with the crowd slowly dipping its toes in the craft pool. 

The same goes for McLaughlin and Pitt Street — at least for now. 

“The town I came from was hungry for all these weird beers, like the hoppiest of the hoppy,” McLaughlin said. “Then I come to Greenville and it’s a young drinking crowd in terms of the maturity level of what they’re used to. I try to keep everything approachable at first.”

Where the beer culture will go, no one can be quite sure. But it’s not hard to see where it came from: practically nothing. A quick stroll down Dickinson Avenue will confirm this phenomena. The previously dilapidated brick warehouses and factories that now stand as hubs for restaurants, art galleries and more are as much a part of the new wave as the beer itself.

Once an afterthought, the downtown avenue is now home to what local business owners hope will be a major draw for young professionals and East Carolina University graduates. 

“You kind of are taken aback sometimes when you think about it all,” said Williams, who graduated from ECU. “Each step is a huge milestone and then you just move on. Seeing the whole process here, sometimes you can’t believe it’s all happening. It’s pretty amazing.”

Whether there is a craft beer bubble waiting pop remains to be seen. The seemingly instantaneous rise of breweries not just in the state, but in the country, begs the question: do breweries have the staying power that light beers have had?

In Greenville, that question might be answered by how the three local breweries navigate a now-tapped market.

“That’s what’s cool about getting in here early in the game,” McLaughlin said. “Me, Ben and Gray, we get to build it brick by brick. We get to build this town from the ground up. That’s really cool.”

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