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How craft beer enthusiasts changed alcohol legislation and created a booming industry

Starpoint Brewery

Tim Harper (left) and Beth Boylan (right) are the co-founders of the Durham-based Starpoint Brewery, one of many local breweries in the area growing out of the recent explosion of brewery culture.

We all want what we can’t have.

When Starpoint Brewing owner Tim Harper was introduced to craft beer in the West , his first thought was to make it himself. Harper brewed in between his breaks at his job at UNC, which made his customer base close to home. 

“We were truly local, because we could only bring you beer if we could get it to you during our lunch hour," said Beth Boylan, Harper’s startup partner. 

When Starpoint Brewing received its brewery permit in 2011, it was No. 62. Now there are over 300 breweries and brewpubs across North Carolina in what appears to be an explosion of craft beer. 

While brewing remains a part-time venture for Harper, Starpoint’s beers have made it from a small facility in Chapel Hill to a larger production venue in Durham, and now can be found across the state.

“You really have to treat it like a business. You have to find out what people want. You have to find out what you do that people like and what you do well and how do you fit into your niche,” Harper said. 

Harper said he owes his ability to sell craft beer, which can range from 5.2 to 9.5 percent alcohol by volume, to a piece of legislation that fundamentally changed the alcohol industry in North Carolina. The “Pop the Cap” legislation began with another local brewer who wanted what he couldn't have.

Beth Boylan (left) and Tim Harper (right) are the co-founders of the Durham-based Starpoint Brewery, one of many local breweries in the area growing out of the recent explosion of brewery culture.

Sean Wilson, the "chief executive optimist" at Fullsteam Brewery, was at a friend’s party when he discovered a love for craft beer that would eventually turn legislative. He said the party was full of unique bottles with batch numbers written on them, full of flavors he had never experienced.

“I asked my friend, 'These are amazing, you know, where can I get these?' And he said, 'No, you can't get them in North Carolina, because they’re illegal,'” Wilson said.

Prior to 2005, no one could sell beer over 6 percent ABV. This limited the craft beer industry and the creation of diverse beer types such as saisons, India pale ales and sours. Wilson said he banded together with 34 other beer fans and enlisted the help of lobbyist Theresa Kostrzewa to change the law.

“This is unheard of, you know? In one session, you’re changing alcohol legislation in the South,” Wilson said.

After the law was passed on Aug. 13, 2005, people who once had to travel out of the state to get craft beer could now purchase their own up to 15 percent ABV. Fullsteam opened in 2010, even though Wilson said that was never the idea. 

"We did it just for the love of beer, honestly," Wilson said. "Again, we did not have plans, I did not have plans to start up a brewery, I just really wanted to see this thing through."

While competition is growing, Wilson and Harper said that the Triangle has embraced brewery culture and that small, local breweries serve a valuable role in their communities, both economically and socially. Harper said that while competition can be fierce, everyone is ready to help one another. 

“What you see that I really love is that breweries are serving as a community center and as a hub for community involvement and entertainment and the arts and creativity,” Wilson said. 

The existence of a brewery culture goes beyond just the producers of the beer. Restaurants around the Triangle have begun to carry craft beer right next to their mass-produced domestic options. The lifting of the 6 percent cap on ABV created new options for bars and taprooms wanting to expand. 

Tyler Huntington, owner of Tyler’s Taprooms and the Carrboro Bottle Shop, was a brewer in the Pacific Northwest before coming to North Carolina. Opened almost 30 years ago, he said his restaurant was the first all-craft beer bar in North Carolina.

“The easiest thing would have been to open a bar and, you know, sell a bunch of mass-produced domestics,” Huntington said. 

While Huntington said he does not look down upon anyone’s beer selection, he wanted to provide a place for craft beer lovers to congregate. Huntington opened the restaurant out of a love for industry and because he said he saw potential in the market. The self-proclaimed “accidental entrepreneur” said most brewers he knows aren’t in it for the money. 

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“I don’t personally know anybody in the business around here right now that got into it because they thought they were gonna make a gazillion dollars,” Huntington said. “They got into it because they had a passion for it.” 

While not a brewer anymore, Huntington said the community isn't just tight-knit amongst bottle shops and distributors. He said he has enjoyed watching brewers grow closer after the initial trepidation after the initial passing of the Pop the Cap legislation. 

Huntington said one of his favorite parts of the job is watching people he works for grow up and out of Tyler’s to become beer representatives or work for their own breweries. Coming from the established beer culture of Seattle, he was excited to see the North Carolina beer scene grow in the same way. 

“A lot of people are watching this industry and going, you know, it’s tapped out, there's too many, the bubble is gonna burst, and it’s like, well, I don’t know, I think there’s some room,” Huntington said.