With the popularity of craft beer exploding nationally in the last five years, the Outer Banks is not only holding its own, it can rightfully boast about being a trend-setter.
On July 4, 1986, when Americans preferred their beer light, the first microbrew and brew pub in North Carolina opened on the Outer Banks. The Weeping Radish, originally in Manteo, is the pioneer that paved the state’s path to today’s enormously successful craft beer industry.
But before Radish owner Uli Bennewitz could brew his first German lager, the North Carolina legislature had to pass a law to make it legal. Fortunately for Bennewitz — who had already purchased the brew equipment from his brother in Munich — then-state Sen. Marc Basnight made it happen
“Before that, a brewery was only allowed to sell beer to a distributor,” Bennewitz said during a recent telephone interview. “Marc told legislators ‘Don’t worry about this — it’s only a little tourist fad.’ Now at look at it — we have 250 in the state!”
For a long time, he says, customers at his Bavarian-themed restaurant and brew pub were still asking for commercial American beer.
“The real stupidity was we had only our own beer,” Bennewitz says. “A lot of people didn’t know what microbrews were.”
He started out with two serving tanks, and three beers were made in rotation: Fest, an amber lager; Black Radish, a dark lager; and Corolla Gold, a light lager. There were some days where they almost ran out of beer, and for many years, the Weeping Radish was the only local microbrew.
“It was slow taking off on the Outer Banks,” he recalled.
Then, in the 1990s, interest in craft breweries — typically defined as small, independent and traditional — slowly became apparent in more customer demand. Bennewitz started getting calls from other Outer Banks establishments asking for supplies of his beer. He gladly complied, and Weeping Radish beer soon carved out its own unique niche.
In 2001, the Outer Banks Brewing Station opened in Kill Devil Hills, boasting it was the first wind-powered brew pub in the nation. Younger crowds loved the craft beer/environmentalist concept, and micro-brewing on the barrier islands finally took off full bore.
“Unfortunately, at the time, craft brewing was in its infancy on the East Coast,” says Eric Reece, one of the owners of the Brewing Station. “It was well established in the Pacific northwest and the West Coast. But Uli was well ahead of his time. He was the vanguard.”
Now known as the Weeping Radish Farm Brewery, Bennewitz’s business has since moved to Grandy, in Currituck County, and he’s added more craft beers and a home-grown butchery. In January 2017, the North Carolina Craft Brewer’s Guild honored him by having a special batch of classic wheat beer brewed in recognition of his groundbreaking contribution to the craft beer industry. Named “Yours Truli” — a play on his name — the entire batch sold out in a week.
Back in 1991, Reece had met his future business partners, Aubrey Davis and Tina Mackenzie — now his wife — in Thailand, while all three were in the Peace Corps. Davis, who as a youth had spent summers with his grandparents on the Outer Banks, had taken up home brewing during his job with the National Park Service working at the White House. Reece had worked as a brewer in California.
One day, Davis called Reece about starting a micro-brewery of their own. All three converged in the late ’90s on the Outer Banks and made a business plan for a restaurant/brew pub.
When the Brewing Station opened in May 2001, it offered five different brews. The business, Reece says, has adopted the philosophy that the pub is an extension of the kitchen.
“We’re not built to make the same beer over and over again,” he says. “We’re subject to the availability of the ingredients”
For instance, there’s their version of kolsch — “Olsch” — a popular year-round brew; their unique lemongrass wheat ale soon became so beloved it won awards and to meet the demand, it is bottled and sold in retail outlets; and now sour and/or hoppy beers are in demand.
“We try to change it out all the time, but since our brewery is so small, we’re limited,” Reece said.
Currently, there are seven beers on tap. During the summer demand, the “tank time” is more limited. Although still good, he says, ideally their beer — which is unfiltered — should be aged at least a month so the yeast and suspension can mature.
“If you want a really good beer, come back in the winter,” Reece says. “I tell people when a beer first comes on, try it. Two weeks later, try it again.”
Installed in 2008, the wind turbine, which powers about $200 a month — about 10 percent — of electricity at the pub, was a nod to the environmental stewardship leanings of the owners. The savings have already covered the $55,000 cost.
“The base reason I wanted to do it,” Reece says, “is that it started a conversation.”
It’s been effective — in more ways than one.
“Right when we lifted it up, two guys who happened to see it came in here,” he says, “and drank $100 worth of beer.”
Instead of starting out the gate with a brew pub, the Lost Colony& Brewery on the Manteo waterfront redefined its scope and adopted a new name to fit its new identity. Formerly the Full Moon Café, which opened in 1995, owners Paul Charron and Sharon Enoch saw the light after Charron’s home brewed beer became an immediate hit with their customers.
In Charron’s telling, beer brewing became his obsession around 1999 after Manteo Mayor Jamie Daniels introduced him to a home brewing kit.
“I was just hooked,” Charron says. “After that, I kept buying more and more equipment. I was brewing bigger and bigger batches.”
Before long, Sharon’s small art gallery space at the restaurant was jettisoned to make room for the beer, which was fine with her.
“No one browses at a brewery,” Charron jokes. “They actually buy.”
The tiny batches he initially brewed at the restaurant were brown ales, harkening to his Irish roots. Then he brewed a batch of blonde ale, named Baltimore Blonde after Sharon.
“People loved it,” Charron says. “We couldn’t keep up with it.”
By 2012, they had outgrown their brewing space at the restaurant, and had to rent brewing space from Weeping Radish. Finally, last year, the business built its own brewery in Stumpy Point, where as many as nine different beers are brewed, including Manteo Porter, Nags Head IPA and the latest, Holy Hand Grenade, a high-octane Russian Imperial Stout..
In March, with the brewery adding a surprising new dimension to their 22-year-old eatery, it was time to re-brand.
After determining that no one owned the phase “Lost Colony,” the name so identified with Roanoke Island seemed to be a perfect fit for an established locally-owned Manteo business.
“It was the way to go,” Charron says. “We originally expected an uptick in restaurant sales. The brewery has just taken over. It’s been wonderful.”