By JOY CRIST
The craft beer wave which has been sweeping across the country – especially in North Carolina and Virginia – is coming ashore on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands in a major way.
Most every restaurant, grocery store, and nightlife establishment has taken notice of this national long-term trend and have responded by offering dozens of unique and hard-to-find beers on tap or in bottles for the beer-loving public.
Granted, offering a big range of specialty beers isn’t a “new” local concept, by any means. After all, 20 years ago, one of the biggest claims to fame for Howard’s Pub on Ocracoke Island was having more than 200 beers available, and, as such, many frequent patrons made a valiant effort to try all 200 — in multiple trips, of course.
But just like the recent rise of coffee shops, yoga classes, and other modern amenities that simply make life more fun, craft and specialty brews are taking center stage as the new allure for locals and vacationers who want to unwind, with unique style. And, unlike 20 years ago, when most establishments had a handful of imports and a lot of familiar domestics, veritably any place you go will have an enticing brew to try.
Because these days, business owners seek out the stellar varieties that will keep bar, store, or restaurant patrons coming back for more.
Take The Point in Buxton. This relatively new restaurant — it opened last September — offers roughly 50 different beers, which includes seven brews on tap.
The wide variety was a deliberate move by Herb Clements, the chef and owner of The Point, the former head chef of the now-closed Dolphin Den in Avon and a long-time beer lover.
“We noticed a trend in the restaurant industry where people are going for craft beers and smoked food,” said Herb. “I do a lot of smoked food and wanted a menu and beer selection that go well together.”
The trend wasn’t just something he noticed with his long-time patrons either – it was also evident with his friends, who slowly shifted their tastes as more options became prevalent.
“I have a good friend who now drinks craft beer, when before all he drank was Bud Light. Now he really enjoys the complex flavors of different craft beers and feels like he wasted 10 years of his life,” says Herb. “I think that’s true for a lot of people.
“It’s such a good time to be a beer drinker now,” he continues. “There’s so many different varieties and flavors — bitter, sweet, sour… With the different types of craft beers made in North Carolina and Virginia, there are just so many to sample.”
North Carolina really has become a haven for brew lovers in the past few years. According to the North Carolina Division of Tourism, the state is home to more than 150 breweries and brewpubs – which is well more than any other southern state.
Many of these breweries – such as Highland, Carolina Brewery, Duck-Rabbit and Foothills — are steadily becoming nationally recognized brands despite their small stature, and the Outer Banks is also home to two homegrown breweries, including the Outer Banks Brewing Station and Weeping Radish Brewery, which is the oldest brewery in the state.
Considering this statewide beer prestige, it’s no wonder that visitors and locals alike who are familiar with North Carolina’s growing beer-loving reputation are expecting great things from local establishments.
And the local establishments, like The Point, are responding with gusto.
“I like to buy what my customers ask for,” says Herb. “People ask me for different things, and I purchase them – could be domestic, from South America, or from North Carolina. I’m trying to get people what they want.
“At the same time, flavor and region counts [for selecting beers to serve] because a lot of our customers want local craft beer. Most of my craft beers are from Virginia, and I have other offerings from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and even Michigan. These are beers people want to try, or are already familiar with.”
And when it comes to taste, different beers serve an additional purpose for local restaurants as well.
“I like to cook with them too,” he adds, “and we use different beers for different dishes. Like our Mahi tacos, which are made with Carolina Blonde Cream Ale.”
The Point is just one example of what’s available on the local restaurant and bar scene, and beer lovers will be happy to discover that this trend carries over to grocery stores as well.
Conner’s Supermarket, one of the oldest stores on Hatteras Island, has a decidedly modern selection when it comes to brews – and just about everything else.
“We have a saying that ‘We have everything from caviar to PBR,’” says Travis Salyers, manager. “We want to make sure we take care of [our customers] the best we can.”
And as more and more customers shifted their brew tastes, Conner’s responded by offering up a much bigger and more diverse variety to the delight of visiting and local beer fans.
Travis headed up the craft beer selection at Conner’s three years ago, and borrowed 4 feet of shelf space from the wine section to add more craft and specialty beers.
“It quickly justified the space – not just based on requests, but because of the options that were out there,” he said.
And while Conner’s initially started with 4 feet of space for craft brews, today the store has 12 feet with six shelves that are reserved for good beer – and this is not including the “big” bottles that are sometimes a hallmark of the smaller brewing companies.
The store currently has 120 different varieties of six-packs, roughly 40 22-ounce big bottles, and more than 25 brewers represented on its shelves. This doesn’t even include the twisted teas, “adult” root beers, shandies, and other non-beer beverages that are also available.
And as any patron who has spent a few minutes surveying the vast array will tell you, it’s an impressive selection that will appeal to anyone with a love of great taste.
“The craft beers have more flavor going on, because people are taking more pride in what they’re making,” says Travis. “Big companies want the volume – craft guys aim for taste.”
Varieties from all around the country and world are represented at Conner’s, but North Carolina and Virginia are especially prevalent on the shelves.
“I try to bring in anything from Virginia and North Carolina,” says Travis. “I like IPAs myself, and there are a lot of those, in general, that are available, but I ask the beer reps ‘What do I need? Anything new, just send it.’”
The response to the current selection has been positive, although considering how far away Hatteras Island is from the rest of the world, it always depends on whom you ask.
“Someone coming from Asheville might say ‘It’s a pretty good [variety],’ but Asheville has more breweries than I have beer companies in here,” says Travis. “But a lot of people have said ‘You have an amazing selection,’ and that’s always great to hear.”
And the wide selection means that shoppers can pick up whatever suits the occasion. “We have session IPAs… and Outer Banks Brewing Station Lemongrass Wheat, which are great for beach days, or a ‘cut the grass’ beer,” says Travis. “Devils Backbone is a new one that’s worth trying too. I’m always interested in something new.”
Luckily, having new varieties – at least in North Carolina and therefore Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands – won’t be a problem for the foreseeable future.
“[Starting a brewery] is taking a hobby to a different level,” says Travis, “I like knowing that [these beers] were made with a little more appreciation for the product, and the flavor that goes with it.”