By Kristin Zachary
The Daily Reflector
January 29, 2012 – Success is brewing for an industry focused on producing handmade, local craft beer, enthusiasts say.
Nowhere was it more evident than this weekend in Greenville at the Second Annual Jolly Skull Beer Fest on Saturday and the Friday night pre-party at downtown’s Winslow’s Tavern, Market & Deli, the festival’s title sponsor.
In what industry connoisseurs are calling a renaissance, the number of American craft brewers has grown from eight in 1980 to 537 in 1994 to more than 1,700 in 2010. As of November, 1,927 brewers were operating for some or all of 2011, according to the Brewers Association.
For Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in Farmville, growth in 2011 was 42 percent higher than in 2010, and the number of brewing staff employees has grown from three to seven members since 2010.
“The demand is out there,” said Paul Philippon, founder of Duck-Rabbit, which sold its first beer in August 2004. “We are absolutely at capacity. We cannot make another drop than what we’re currently making.”
In fact, the brewery is awaiting the arrival of three new tanks, which will increase the number of batches — each at 620 gallons — brewed each week from 10 to 14, he estimates.
“Obviously the American craft beer industry is growing — we based Winslow’s around it,” said Katherine Wetherington, general manager, noting the business carries 46 craft beers on draft and more than 200 in bottles.
“We’ve been working to expose this industry for two and a half years,” she said. “This festival is a complete validation of what we’ve been doing. Craft beer is so big right now.”
Philippon said momentum has continued to build steadily for small, independent craft brewers with a passion and vision for serving friends and neighbors a taste of full-flavored beer.
“You’re seeing more people enjoying handmade bread, more people wanting coffee made by locals who care for the beans,” Philippon said. “People care more than they once did about having products made by friends and neighbors who are enthusiastic about what they’re doing, not products based purely off an accountant’s advice.
“I absolutely anticipate the industry continuing to grow,” he said. “This isn’t a revelation — this is a renaissance.”
Industry experts say America’s brewing landscape saw changes in the 1970s, when varieties of beer brought by immigrants from across the globe began disappearing.
The industry consolidated to only 44 breweries by the late 1970s, leading experts to predict only five brewing companies would remain.
A grass roots home-brewing culture then emerged, providing opportunity to experience a greater variety of beer and thus sparking the creation of the craft brewing industry.
“It’s completely affordable to learn to do on your own,” Wetherington said. “It’s not possible to be wrong, and you tap into your creativity. That’s why it’s just exploded.”
“The renaissance of craft beer is here,” said Heath Perkins, operations officer for Beer Army.
The organization, host of Greenville’s Jolly Skull Beer Fest and the Brew Bern Beer Fest in New Bern, is dedicated to establishing a robust craft beer scene and community in Eastern North Carolina, said Perkins.
“The American palate has been changing — it’s evolved,” he said. “That’s one of the major reasons craft beer is growing.”
“Now, there’s lots of flavors around, and people can choose what they like,” Philippon said. “The industry is doing very well.”
Four months ago, Duck-Rabbit’s building at 4519 W. Pine St. expanded to include a tasting room, open Friday afternoons and evenings.
“We don’t have our own restaurant so, before our tasting room opened, we didn’t get the chance to interact with the people who enjoy our beer,” said Philippon.
Duck-Rabbit doesn’t rely on traditional marketing methods, he said, but instead focuses on a method called “hand-selling,” which involves the brewers “being right there and helping people appreciate the beer and see what goes into it.”
The combination of hand-selling and attending beer festivals has provided the opportunity to interact with fans and introduce newcomers to full-flavored beer, contributing to the success brewing at Duck-Rabbit, Philippon said.
Duck-Rabbit was one of roughly 70 breweries at Saturday’s second-year Jolly Skull Beer Fest, held at the Greenville Convention Center.
Through continued festival attendance and other innovative techniques, Philippon anticipates the demand for Duck-Rabbit brews will propel the business forward.
“Little by little, I think we’ll add new buildings,” he said, noting he owns the 4.5 acres the brewery sits upon.
Despite the increasing demand and thoughts of future expansion, Philippon said he continues to focus most on producing a quality product, only shipping during the first part of the week to avoid the Duck-Rabbit brews sitting out over the weekend during shipment. The beer is refrigerated at the brewery to keep it at its best until it ships.
He said Duck-Rabbit makes every attempt to not only take good care of the beer but also the environment.
“The people that start breweries try to be good stewards of the environment and good citizens of their communities,” he said.
The grain left behind after the brewing process is donated to a local farmer.
“I’m told the cows come chasing after the truck,” he said. The cows see close to 50,000 pounds of grain each month from Duck-Rabbit.
Also not going to waste is water left over from the brewing process used for clean-up purposes at the end of each workday, allowing Duck-Rabbit to be environmentally friendly and cut costs.
“We feel very lucky to be in an industry that’s doing OK in a tough economy,” said Philippon. “The work here is hard. Although beer is fun and beer is romantic, I take it pretty darn seriously. It’s a business, and I care about the business, but I got involved because I love it.”
Contact Kristin Zachary at email@example.com and 252-329-9566