Asheville gets a lot of attention for its status as a bona fide beer town and home of mammoth satellite breweries. While that attention is well deserved, North Carolina beer tourists shouldn’t forget about what we’ll boldly call the next big beer scene: The Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill). Its farm-centric and community-minded cities welcome and celebrate artisanal, independent breweries. Not to mention The Triangle’s bottle-shop culture is thriving. This region of North Carolina is a worthy, if not requisite, addition to your beercation bucket list.
It’s called “The Triangle” for the geometry that connects the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, but this historical farmland turned cutting-edge center for engineering and research on the edge of North Carolina’s piedmont has proven to be fertile ground for craft breweries. The area benefits from North Carolina’s statewide agriculture with year-round farmer’s markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and booming agritourism, plus a plethora of processed-minded engineers educated by Duke, UNC, and NC State. It’s the recipe for a great beer town, but only when mixed with state beer laws that support the cause. Most of North Carolina’s craft-beer scene didn’t open until after House Bill 392 was passed in 2005, lifting from 6 percent to 15 percent the ABV cap on beer sold in the state.
The “Pop the Cap” movement to modernize North Carolina’s beer laws was spearheaded by Sean Lilly Wilson, the president of its lobbying organization who now owns Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery. “That was my starting point. I didn’t think I would start up a brewery, but I was just a beer geek who was annoyed that we couldn’t get these styles I was learning about in craft beer,” he says. “We thought lifting the ABV cap would have a good impact on the economy, encouraging brewers to brew to style and, maybe, more breweries to open. It was one of our state’s last great remnants of Prohibition, and it had to go away. It was a big honor to have a part in that.”
Wilson would go on to open Fullsteam Brewery (pictured above) on Rigsbee Avenue near Durham Central Park in 2010, five years to the day after Pop the Cap passed. The brewery hit the ground running with what they call “Plow To Pint” beers inspired by Southern food and farm traditions—incorporating local farmed goods, heirloom grains, and seasonal herbs and flowers. Among its popular beers are the Humidity pale ale, made with triticale from Durham’s craft maltster, Epiphany Malt; the Coffee Is For Closers porter, made with Sumatran coffee from nearby Muddy Dog Roasting Company; and the Paw Paw Belgian-style tripel, made with tropical-tasting pawpaws from local Full of Life Farm. “We’re aiming to create opportunities for farmers,” says Wilson.
This support of local business that Wilson describes is why Keil (pronounced Kyle) Jansen, brewmaster at Durham’s Ponysaurus Brewing Co.(pictured at the top of the article), wanted to open a brewery in Durham. “There are a lot of people who have restaurants and bars around here, and they are recognizing where they are from with their products and menu items. We live in a place where businesses are really passionate, beyond just places where one can exchange money for goods and services.”
At Ponysaurus, Jansen and crew are passionate about making true-to-style, straightforward beers, which often comes as a surprise to consumers since they’re named after a mythical creature and their tap handles are made out of severed pony and dinosaur toys. “The idea was that as a business we wanted to make clear that we don’t take anything too seriously . . . except for the beer,” Jansen explains.
On the taplist at Ponysaurus are a traditional German-style altbier and a weiss-bier, a crisp West Coast–style IPA, a malty Belgian pale ale, and the bright, clean Golden Rule Saison, among many others. “I tend to do things brightly,” says Jansen about all of his beers. “Freshness and drinkability are really important to me.”
Ponysaurus ensures freshness with canned beers that are not distributed more than 20 miles from the brewery and that never sit on the shelf for more than a week. Most of its beers are consumed at the brewery’s industrial location on the eastern edge of downtown Durham. It’s expansive outdoor patio and rotating lineup of fresh, local food trucks make it a multi-beer destination.
Durham’s Rockwood neighborhood is home to the homebrew haven that is Beer Study/Starpoint Brewery (pictured above). Starpoint operated out of Owner Tim Harper’s garage for its first five years before combining forces with the Beer Study bottle shop on University Drive. Now guests can enjoy Starpoint beers on tap next to a draft list curated by Beer Study owner JD Schlick. Beer Study is also a bottle shop, where beer geeks can browse rare bottles, and a tavern, where they can hang out and play arcade games.
The Starpoint brewhouse is open for the public to watch Head Brewer Nikko Carlson in action, more than likely wearing a Hawaiian shirt (he’s an avid collector of Hawaiian shirts) brewing one of the brewery’s eccentrically named beers. Some of the staple brews, what Harper calls blue-jean styles, are the Surfin’ Buddha IPA, DUH! DIPA, and the Hipster or Hobo? Pale Ale. “I like to put apostrophes in everything because I worked in Web forever,” Tim says. “We try to make sure there’s at least one punctuation mark in each beer name.”
Also worth a visit when in Durham is Bull City Burger and Brewery, where all of the beef is pasture-raised locally and 99 percent of the food waste gets fed to pigs on a nearby farm. The beer at this family friendly joint is easy-drinking—even the L And M Quality Quad and the Bourbon Barrel Aged Boars Russian imperial stout are surprisingly quaffable.
Locals rave about Sam’s Quik Shop, and for good reason. It’s the “OG of bottle shops in The Triangle” that was once an old gas station. Now it’s North Carolina’s largest and oldest craft-beer store.
Locals also can’t stop talking about a new Durham brewery that has yet to open. Barrel Culture Brewing and Blending is slowly spreading ghost bottles around town before its debut, creating lore around what will be a blending-focused concept comparable to Casey Brewing and Blending (Glenwood Springs, Colorado), with massive fruit additions to boot.
Looking for late-night options in Durham? Look no further than The Federal on West Main Street. This unassuming, dive bar-esque watering hole has unexpectedly epicurean eats (chicken liver pâté, anyone?) and a rare-bottle list sourced from across the country. If you’re still up at closing time, walk over to the 21c Museum Hotel where the art museum is open 24 hours a day. Guests at this hotel can choose the hotel’s brewery package that includes a curated map of the city’s breweries and beers on tap in the hotel’s coveted onsite restaurant, Counting House.
Beercationers in Durham should also ask the exceptionally beer savvy staff at The Durham Hotel for their local recommendations. Don’t miss the curated beer list at the hotel’s acclaimed rooftop bar, The Roof at The Durham, where there is always a line. Tip: The line moves quickly, and the beer list, combined with views of the city, is well worth the wait.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro
Southwest of Durham is the collegiate and quaint Chapel Hill, a town often overlooked when it comes to its beer offerings. Carolina Brewery is the town’s classic downtown brewpub that has been pouring pints since 1995. The best-selling beer at Carolina is the Copperline Amber Ale, a red ale brewed with Kent Golding hops. Another iconic Chapel Hill beer destination is the Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery, also known as TOPO, on East Franklin Street. This Southern-inspired fine-dining menu pairs perfectly with the brewery’s approachable beers such as the Kenan Lager and Ram’s Head IPA. Chapel Hill’s downtown runs right into the neighboring town of Carrboro, where beer tourists should head to the Milltown Gastropub for eighteen international taps and hearty, locally inspired fare (don’t miss the breakfast poutine) and S_teel String Brewing _for the characteristically bitter and citrus-forward beers such as Rubber Room Session Ale and the Big Mon IPA.
Raleigh and Cary
Southeast of Durham, Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital city, boasts another burgeoning beer scene that could easily be another beercation in itself. It’s home to a mix of classic beer establishments and a collection of younger, niche breweries. And then there are the bottle shops and beer bars.
When Kristie and Patrik Nystedt opened Raleigh Brewing Company (pictured above) in 2010, it became the first female-owned brewery in the state of North Carolina. Head to this comfortable and expansive tasting room to taste the brewery’s plethora of seasonal and barrel-aged offerings. Their The Miller’s Toll (now just The Toll) barrel-aged imperial stout took home a GABF bronze medal in 2015. Homebrewers should check out their homebrew store, Atlantic Brew Supply.
Then head over to another classic Raleigh brewery on Morgan Street, Trophy Brewing & Pizza. Trophy has two additional locations—the Trophy Maywood production facility and Trophy Brewing Tap + Table, where guests can enjoy the brewery’s variety of beers alongside tacos and rotisserie chicken.
The Trophy locations surround Raleigh’s Warehouse District, a hotbed for craft breweries and other independent crafters. One of these breweries is the bike-themed Crank Arm Brewing Company that sports a 3-panel interactive sculpture built out of gears, wheels, chains, and neon. This area is also home to the original location of Clouds Brewing (which also has an outpost in Durham now) and the brand new Brewery Bhavana that focuses on oak-aged Belgian beers. This unique business also offers dim sum, a flower shop, and a bookstore.
If you’re a fan of sour beer, Big Boss Brewing (pictured above) has ramped up production of wild beers over the past two years, with foeders and barrels filling floor space in the open warehouse brewery. And if sour isn’t your thing, they offer a diverse lineup with everything from a classic brown to flavorful abbey-inspired takes. Also located in Raleigh is GABF award–winning Lynnwood Brewing Concern that is known for its Once You Go Black IPA and Kiss My Irish Stout. The Lynnwood Grill & Brewery is in the West Raleigh area, and the brewery’s new production facility and tasting room is on East Whitaker Mill Road in Northeast Raleigh.
When in Raleigh, don’t miss Tasty Beverage Company, a craft-bottle shop that kicked off the local bottle-shop craze, or State of Beer, where in addition to a highly curated selection of craft beers, guests can enjoy great sandwiches and vinyl records. Visitors looking to complete bucket lists should check off the Guinness World Record-winning, 300+ tap beer list Raleigh Beer Garden, and visitors looking for an off-the-radar experience should check out J. Betski’s, which features traditional German cuisine and a stunning selection of beers that all hail from Deutschland.
Just outside of Raleigh in the Cary suburbs is the recently opened Bond Brothers Beer Company that locals in Durham, Chapel Hill, and beyond are very enthusiastic about. The comfortable tasting room and beer garden offer multiple styles of IPA and various kettle-soured beers on draft, among many other styles. It’s one of the few breweries in the country with a professional blender on staff who is currently developing the brewery’s mixed-culture fermentation program.
From politically active brewery owners to niche nanobreweries to geeked-out craft bottle shops and inspired beer bars, this beer scene is eclectic and deeply rooted. With three cities, a couple more towns, and countless venues to explore, beer tourists have their work cut out for them in The Triangle.
Beyond The Beer
The Triangle is a hub for other kinds of fermentation, too. If cider is your thing, check out Bull City Ciderworks or the impressive selection at the cider bar Black Twig Cider House, both in Durham. Wine-lovers shouldn’t miss the quaint Chatham Hill Winery in Cary. Kombucha drinkers should try the canned kombucha from The Triangle’s largest kombucha brewery, Tribucha. Spirits seekers can head to a number of distilleries in the area, including The Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Company down the street from Ponysaurus in Durham; Pinetop Distillery in Raleigh; or the TOPO Organic Distillery, sister to the TOPO Brewery & Restaurant in Chapel Hill.
PHOTOS: BEN McKEOWN