Part of Fullsteam Brewery owner Sean Lilly Wilson's brewing ethos? "Not letting beer be the total be-all, end-all."
Since opening in 2010, Fullsteam has built a strong reputation based on quirky beer names (Coffee Is for Closers), a family-friendly attitude (check out the wall of board games) and quintessentially North Carolina beers. "Beer has a role within community, with food, and a role in life in general," he says. He's more into incorporating it into life in general, which is why Durham is the perfect fit for his beer.That might sound strange coming from a self-declared beer lover, let alone one who owns one of Durham, North Carolina's most beloved breweries. But it's exactly that mind-set that's catapulting Bull City into the limelight as America's latest, greatest craft beer destination.
The exterior of Fullsteam's brewery and tavern | Photo: Courtesy of Fullsteam Brewery
A variety of factors contributes to Durham's growing beer scene—the first of which is ironically thanks to Prohibition. The Pop the Cap movement began in 2003 to lift the state's mandated 6 percent alcohol content limit, a law that had been around since 1935. "It was a stupid law that needed to go," Wilson says. The law was the Berlin Wall between Durham and the craft it would become known for, and once the law changed in 2005, it threw the doors open to more innovative and exciting brewing—leading us to where we are in 2016.
Durham originally gained traction from the tobacco industry, which means there's simply the space to support new breweries, thanks to an abundance of large, empty warehouses. "Before Fullsteam started, there was nothing in this area," Matt Pennisi, owner of newcomer Durty Bull Brewing Company, recalls. Now there's a nonprofit urban garden, a giant coffee roastery and a handful of breweries nearby. "We start making people want to come to the area, and then restaurants pop up."
And then there's the midsize-city mentality: "Everyone wants to be local, and buy local, and eat local, drink local," Pennisi says. "Farm-to-table restaurants,beer dinners that are with farm-to-table." He likens Durham to Portland and Denver, in that they're all "a little bit gritty" but full of farmers' markets and local love. And it doesn't hurt that the beers happen to be unique and overwhelmingly excellent: Think bold sour beers from Durty Bull, a variety made from local foraged persimmons at Fullsteam and distinctly German options from Bull Durham Beer Co.
Chris Davis, Durty Bull's head brewer | Photo: Alex Maness
We have German-born Sebastian Wolfrum to thank for those German styles: He's the treasurer of the NC Craft Brewers Guild and the executive brewmaster of Bull Durham. It was the first craft brewery to open in a minor league baseball stadium, and it's all just quirky enough and created with respect to the stadium that it works. It uses a fast bottom draft filler, which minimizes foam waste, and fans can tour the brewing area during the game. Brewing happens around the clock during the season, but when the last strike is called in September, the brewers start their own game, using the off-season to play around and make new brews.
Brewing beer at Bull Durham Beer Co. | Photo: Ben Roaman
Just as Bull Durham reflects its niche habitat, Durham's breweries reflect the city's growing landscape. In the case of Durty Bull, literally: The bar is made of reclaimed wood from demolished houses down the road, as Durham clears the way for more housing developments. The state is a hotbed of recent political spotlight, and more than 30 breweries banded together to create a "Golden Rule Saison" as a response to the controversy. The teamwork involved with the one-off beer isn't uncharacteristic, which Wolfrum refers to as "co-opetition." Despite the high amount in a concentrated region, and nearly 140 total in the state—compared to 28 at the turn of the century—they're sticking to safety in numbers.
When Durty Bull had to store a giant cooler during the chaos of construction, nearby Ponysaurus gladly spared the space, and when it needed a forklift to unload material, Fullsteam stepped in. "We only stand to gain if we have a big-tent mentality," Wilson says as he looks down at picnic table. He points out a faded Bull City Burger logo, showing that these were sent over after thedowntown brewery didn't need the tables anymore.
"We did something for them," he says. "I forget what it was. You don't tally it up."
Our favorite Durham brews:
• Coffee Is for Closers, Fullsteam Brewery
• Fig Saison Ale, Ponysaurus Brewing
• Durhamer Ale, Bull City Burger and Brewery
• Carver, Fullsteam Brewery
• Lollygagger Kolsch, Bull Durham Beer Co.