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What's New in Brew?

With taps and atmospheres different as night and day, here’s what each new brew hub is doing to carve a name for itself.

By Dana Boone

Charlotte is home to hop heads, brew hounds and craft connoisseurs who, thanks to the homegrown brewery boom of recent years, now have a craft beer playground to explore. And it’s only getting better. In the past year, five new locales, each filled with its own entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity, have joined the dozens of breweries on the Queen City’s map. With taps and atmospheres different as night and day, here’s what each new brew hub is doing to carve a name for itself.

Free Range Brewing
Hours: Sun. 1-7 p.m., Wed.-Sat. 1-11 p.m.
Driving down North Davidson Street toward Uptown, it’s hard to miss the giant tractor sitting in front of Free Range Brewing. And that’s the point. The tractor serves as both a sign for and a symbol of the local brew house.

Founded by brothers Jason and Jeff Alexander, Free Range Brewing is six and a half years in the making and a true product of love and the right timing. The brothers stick to a pledge of sustainability through partnerships with local farmers and even coffee producers. Many of their small-batch beers are born from collaborations with locals and local ingredients.

Try the Cream of the Crop when you stop by for North Carolina Beer Month; it’s what Jason Alexander calls “easy drinking, no thinking.” Free Range is known for its short-run small batches, which can be found on 11 of their draft lines. The other three are for non-alcoholic options, including: cool-brewed java by Pure Intentions Coffee; kombucha by Lenny Boy Brewing Co.; and sparkling sodas in flavors like blackberry ginger, which use local ingredient concentrates created by Cleveland County farmer Jamie Swofford. 

“We’ve kept our production side small on purpose. We want the flexibility to experiment with as much positive trial and error as possible,” said Jason Alexander. “Our beer is free range in both trial and ingredients. We try to be as seasonal as possible and emphasize sustainability through partnerships with folks we’re excited about, like Pure Intentions Coffee.”

Located in a brick machine-fabricating warehouse from the 1960s, the taproom also maintains the spirit of sustainability. The bar is made of 200-year-old reclaimed heart pine lumber from a mill down the road. The seats scattered throughout are from a school bus, making them not only interesting, but also durable and inexpensive.

Keep an eye out for Free Range regulars, who can be spotted in the mural found just inside the taproom entrance. The mother-in-law of one of the brothers can be seen gardening, a farmer who lends his ingredients to brewery staples is found foraging and the owners’ children are depicted climbing on the staple tractor.

High Branch Brewing Co.
Hours: Fri. 4-10 p.m., Sat. 2-10 p.m.
Step back in time at High Branch Brewing Co.’s taproom, which is located in an early 1900s textile mill. Original brick, steel-framed windows and exposed beams support the classic industrial feel of the Concord-based brewery.

The founders, husband and wife duo T.J. and Maureen Creighton, are former homebrewers who spend their weekends pouring their small-batch creations across six to eight of High Branch’s taps.

“We were the first brewery to operate in Cabarrus County,” Creighton said. “We took a little bit of a chance being the first, but we’re so happy we did. Back in the day, it was pretty common for every neighborhood to have a brewery. I think we’re going to see that come back around with small breweries creating an experience for the people nearby. We’re really building a community.”

The High Branch experience includes an afternoon relaxing on furniture built by the Creightons out of pallets found around the mill. While furry friends must stay at home, the owners have two daughters and welcome families. There’s even a small chalkboard, coloring books and Redemption Brew Works non-alcoholic ginger beer to keep your little ones busy as you sample craft creations.

High Branch doesn’t feature a kitchen, but on most weekends, you’ll find a food truck or local restaurant catering to craft lovers. And though the beers change constantly, plan to try one of the brewery’s seasonal saison brews, flavored with local fruit. For a year-round go-to, try the ever-popular Big Sister American Double IPA, which is moderately bitter and incredibly smooth.

Legion Brewing
Plaza Midwood
Hours: Mon.-Wed. 2-10 p.m., Thur. and Fri. 2-11 p.m., Sat. Noon-11 p.m., Sun. Noon-8 p.m.
For more than 20 years, Philip Buchy served homebrews to his loyal friends and fellow craft beer lovers. When he opened Legion Brewing with Newton Craver at the end of 2015, the name stood as a credit to his group of grassroots supporters.

The only brewery in Plaza Midwood, Legion can be found in the old Brodt Music Company building on Commonwealth Avenue. “Reduce, reuse and recycle” was the motto during a farmhouse overhaul of the location. Dumpster diving and some creativity helped transform wood, stone and salvaged materials into a beautiful collage of items that showcase both beauty and function. The creative approach to remodeling fits right in with the eclectic Plaza Midwood atmosphere, making the location even more perfect for Buchy, a longtime neighborhood local.

“In my younger days, you could always find me at Thomas Street Tavern and Penguin Drive-in; I love the vibe here,” Buchy said. “The neighborhood has its own feel – one that’s warm and loving and accepting. That’s what I want to be associated with. There’s no other place we’d want to put our brewery.”

To support the neighborhood, Legion has partnered with local restaurants to offer deliveries to the taproom. It also allows guests to bring food into the brewery and is prepared to provide recommendations for patrons who want to grab a bite nearby.

The brewery’s 20 taps can make it hard to figure out where to start. Buchy recommends trying the Juicy J IPA, a best-seller, or any of their farmhouse-style beers featuring North Carolina flavors. Grab your dog or bring the family for a stop at Legion and check out local hard ciders and craft sodas while you’re there, too.

Three Spirits Brewery
South Charlotte
Hours: Thurs.-Fri. 4-8 p.m., Sat. 2-8 p.m.
The best laid plans often go awry, and in the case of Three Spirits Brewery’s owner, such was true. Founder Mwatabu “Tabu” Terrell’s retirement plans were put on the fast track in the best possible way. After feeling like his job was making him grumpy, or as he called it, turning him into a curmudgeon, Terrell and his wife, Jennifer, decided to move ahead full time with their brewery in November 2015. The name Three Spirits comes from the classic story “A Christmas Carol,” complete with Scrooge-approved curmudgeon’s corners.

What’s a curmudgeon’s corner? Nooks outfitted with lounge chairs and tables for those who want to hang out without being in the heart of the crowd. The rest of the taproom is open and roomy, emulating the feel of an old English or Irish pub. Dogs and kids are welcome, and a free game area complete with a pinball machine will help keep your little ones busy during a tasting.

Three Spirits regularly features seven beers on tap, and Terrell describes the offerings as easy-to-drink comfort beers, lower in alcohol than your average craft brew. When you stop by during NC Beer Month, try the Red Moon Rising amber lager or Southern Bliss, a southern blonde with apricot, which is perfect for warm spring weather. Pair your beer with an offering from one of the food trucks on the weekends or take advantage of the brewery’s partnership with on-demand food delivery service Postmates.

As the Southern-most brewery in Charlotte, Three Spirits will take you to an up-and-coming neighborhood on the edge of the city.

“I chose this location because it’s convenient for both North and South Carolina patrons,” Terrell said. “I think you’ll see more breweries pop up around here. Just like South End, apartments are rising everywhere and new businesses, like a distillery, are moving in nearby.”

Wooden Robot Brewery
South End
Hours: Tues.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m., Fri. 4-11 p.m., Sat. 1-11 p.m., Sun. 1-8 p.m.
With a view of the Charlotte skyline available from Wooden Robot Brewery’s patio, the South End brewery lives up to its urban farmhouse identity.

“We tried to reflect our identity throughout the taproom,” said co-founder Josh Patton. “It’s a juxtaposition of old and new, wood and metal – even our name. Our brewery is in an older brick warehouse, but we have a lot of wood, natural light and glass elements throughout.”

Friends since middle school, Patton and co-founder Dan Wade started homebrewing in college and were finally able to make their brewery dream a reality in July 2015 with the opening of Wooden Robot. The duo has kept the brewing process collaborative and agree that they have to collectively love everything brewed or it won’t be sold.

Wooden Robot features 16 constantly rotating taps. During NC Beer Month, Patton recommends trying Good Morning Vietnam, a light blonde ale and their most popular brew, or Overachiever, their flagship pale ale with the hops of an IPA but the drinkability of a pale ale. If you’re into barrel-aged beer, Wooden Robot recently invested in an oak foeder to continue creating diverse selections. The only brewery in Charlotte with a foeder, try a pint of Wooden Robot’s Universal Automaton to taste the difference. Or, if you’re sensitive to gluten, try the Gluten Tag, a pale ale treated with an enzyme that reduces gluten.

After you’ve chosen a brew, visit the Twisted Eats food truck outside and explore the menu, which is specially crafted, infusing many of the beers on tap. Don’t forget to say goodbye to Willy the brew dog on your way out.

On the Radar: Spring 2016 Suds
Blue Blaze Brewing Co., Charlotte’s first West End craft brewery, will open at the historic Savona Mill. Co-founders and Brewers Craig Nunn and Sven Giersmann will focus on community vibes and environmental friendliness while crafting inventive brews.
Cabarrus Brewing Co. finds its home in Concord. The beer hub is dedicated to creating a space for family and friends to gather and experience a sense of community in Cabarrus County.
The Dreamchaser’s Brewery will soon open its doors in Waxhaw. Creative brews, like the Arsonist Jalapeño Cream Ale and Earl Grey Pale Ale, will round out a tap menu complemented by brewing classes and tasting parties.
Thirsty Nomad Brewing Co. is slated to open soon in South End.  Serving taps that range from pale ales to chocolate stouts, the brewery’s design will imbue a steampunk theme, with welded gears and wood backing on the bar front.

For more information about Charlotte’s craft beer scene, visit cltontap.com

This article ran in the April 2016 issue of Charlotte Happenings.