Collaboration, community secret ingredients to Wilson's burgeoning beer culture

Wilson boasts a blossoming craft beer culture, which is becoming something the city is recognized for.

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David Larson
, freelance reporter
This article was written for our sponsor, the City of Wilson.

Over the years, Wilson has transformed from a small tobacco town to an evolving city as more people move to the area, infrastructure is built and businesses expand.

Wilson's Whirligig Park, its re-purposed industrial sites and investment in modern amenities like Greenlight, a community broadband network, are all testaments to the ongoing revitalization of its downtown. The city also boasts a blossoming craft beer culture, which is becoming something Wilson is recognized for.

The beginnings of craft beer in Wilson

Tom Curran, owner of the downtown brewery 217 Brew Works, recalls how the scene looked before his business opened.

"The craft beer culture in Wilson overall evolved as a result of the opening of Brewmasters bottle shop and restaurant on the west side of Wilson, and, around that same time, the opening of the Beer Store in Historic Downtown Wilson," Curran said. "Both of these venues offered craft beer on tap and packaged for outside sales."

Curran also credits the advent of craft brewing to groups like the Down East Alers of Greenville and the Home Brew Club in Wilson, both of which he was a member of.

"I joined the Down East Alers because they had a number of truly dedicated home brewers, one of which has become our head brewer at 217 Brew Works. Home brewers are what caused the craft beer brewery movement," Curran said.

Entering Wilson's mainstream

The path from a few pioneering bottle shops and brew clubs to the thriving craft beer scene that Wilson is now developed slowly.

Ethan Bullock, who works at Brewmasters, remembers how the idea of craft beer took some getting used to for locals when they first opened.

"Every day somebody would roll in and say, 'Let me get a Budweiser,' " Bullock recalled. "I'd have to be like, 'We don't do that. But here's a sample of something else you might like.' Then a month later, they'd be drinking stouts and IPAs. We give free samples, so it's less risky to try a few new things."

At the Downtown Public House bar, Jennigrace Cooper gave a nearly identical account.

"A lot of times people come in and ask for a Bud Light, and I'll say, 'We don't have that brand, but we do have other pilsners.' Then I'll get them a pilsner from a micro-brewery," she said. "Next time they'll say, 'What else do you recommend?' and start to really open up to craft beer.”

Local businesses offering Wilson-crafted beers

The beer scene in Wilson is growing in part because of the support it is getting from other sectors of the city's economy. Restaurants, bowling alleys and other area businesses are increasingly stocking locally made beers.

Many people talk about eating local, but in Wilson, people are drinking local too.

"We are currently in about 30 establishments that carry our beers on a pretty regular basis in four surrounding counties," Curran explained. "The Wilson market is growing for us, and we hope to service more of the establishments in Wilson who serve beer on tap."

Brew businesses support other local businesses as well. 217 Brew Works uses sweet potatoes from Vick Family Farms and honey from Deans Farm Market — both local producers — to brew specific beers. At Downtown Public House a couple of blocks away, you'll find a bar top made by custom furniture manufacturer Artisan Leaf, which is owned and operated in Wilson. The business uses tobacco leaves to create tables, bar tops and more.

This kind of collaboration has given a boost to Wilson's brewers and a degree of inter-connectivity among downtown businesses.

Beer is not just good for Wilson's taste buds. It is mostly good because it is a way of bringing people together. (Matt Shaw/City of Wilson)
Bringing people together

Beer is not just good for Wilson's taste buds. It is mostly good because it is a way of bringing people together. Social events, groups and clubs seem to branch out from each of the locations. At the Downtown Public House, they have a weekly bingo night on Wednesdays and motorcycle enthusiasts from nearby Rock City Powersports have made it the destination for their "Rolling Bike Night."

The Wilson Beer Runners Club is another exciting spin-off from the brew culture. This group meets every Wednesday at 5 p.m. at 217 Brew Works and then, after running a route through the historic downtown, they loop back to the brewery to enjoy a drink and some comradery.

And they are always open to increase their members without formal invitation, saying, "New runners are welcome."

Local colleges chip in too

In a more-positive-than-usual story linking college and beer, a productive relationship between local colleges and brewers is developing in the Wilson area.

Barton College has teamed up with 217 Brew Works to train students in brewing through an on-site internship. Interns also help 217 brew their famous Vick's Choice beer by preparing the sweet potatoes in an on-campus kitchen. The partnership is giving prospective craft brewers real-world experience in a career that is gaining in popularity; between 2015 and 2016 the craft beer industry grew by 16.6 percent.

An "anchor" in ongoing downtown revitalization

Craft brewers' initiative to move into Wilson's downtown area has made the move less risky for other businesses. The beer culture downtown has created an opportunity for things like festivals, weekly food trucks and live music gatherings to take place around the Whirligig Park.

Curran said his vision for 217 Brew Works, along with the adjacent park, would be as an "anchor" that the Historic Downtown can rebuild around.

217, along with other Wilson craft beer businesses, are bringing new activity to the center of town and contributing to the pace of downtown revitalization.

Cheers to that.

This article was written for our sponsor, the City of Wilson.