Part of Fullsteam Brewery owner Sean Lilly Wilson’s brewing ethos? “Not letting beer be the total be-all, end-all.”
Since opening in 2010, Fullsteam has built a strong reputation based on quirky beer names (Coffee Is for Closers), a family-friendly attitude (check out the wall of board games) and quintessentially North Carolina beers. “Beer has a role within community, with food, and a role in life in general,” he says. He’s more into incorporating it into life in general, which is why Durham is the perfect fit for his beer.That might sound strange coming from a self-declared beer lover, let alone one who owns one of Durham, North Carolina’s most beloved breweries. But it’s exactly that mind-set that’s catapulting Bull City into the limelight as America’s latest, greatest craft beer destination.
The exterior of Fullsteam’s brewery and tavern | Photo: Courtesy of Fullsteam Brewery
A variety of factors contributes to Durham’s growing beer scene—the first of which is ironically thanks to Prohibition. The Pop the Cap movement began in 2003 to lift the state’s mandated 6 percent alcohol content limit, a law that had been around since 1935. “It was a stupid law that needed to go,” Wilson says. The law was the Berlin Wall between Durham and the craft it would become known for, and once the law changed in 2005, it threw the doors open to more innovative and exciting brewing—leading us to where we are in 2016.
Bullish on Bull City
Durham originally gained traction from the tobacco industry, which means there’s simply the space to support new breweries, thanks to an abundance of large, empty warehouses. “Before Fullsteam started, there was nothing in this area,” Matt Pennisi, owner of newcomer Durty Bull Brewing Company, recalls. Now there’s a nonprofit urban garden, a giant coffee roastery and a handful of breweries nearby. “We start making people want to come to the area, and then restaurants pop up.”
And then there’s the midsize-city mentality: “Everyone wants to be local, and buy local, and eat local, drink local,” Pennisi says. “Farm-to-table restaurants,beer dinners that are with farm-to-table.” He likens Durham to Portland and Denver, in that they’re all “a little bit gritty” but full of farmers’ markets and local love. And it doesn’t hurt that the beers happen to be unique and overwhelmingly excellent: Think bold sour beers from Durty Bull, a variety made from local foraged persimmons at Fullsteam and distinctly German options from Bull Durham Beer Co.
Chris Davis, Durty Bull’s head brewer | Photo: Alex Maness
We have German-born Sebastian Wolfrum to thank for those German styles: He’s the treasurer of the NC Craft Brewers Guild and the executive brewmaster of Bull Durham. It was the first craft brewery to open in a minor league baseball stadium, and it’s all just quirky enough and created with respect to the stadium that it works. It uses a fast bottom draft filler, which minimizes foam waste, and fans can tour the brewing area during the game. Brewing happens around the clock during the season, but when the last strike is called in September, the brewers start their own game, using the off-season to play around and make new brews.
Brewing beer at Bull Durham Beer Co. | Photo: Ben Roaman
The Spirit of Co-opetition
Just as Bull Durham reflects its niche habitat, Durham’s breweries reflect the city’s growing landscape. In the case of Durty Bull, literally: The bar is made of reclaimed wood from demolished houses down the road, as Durham clears the way for more housing developments. The state is a hotbed of recent political spotlight, and more than 30 breweries banded together to create a “Golden Rule Saison” as a response to the controversy. The teamwork involved with the one-off beer isn’t uncharacteristic, which Wolfrum refers to as “co-opetition.” Despite the high amount in a concentrated region, and nearly 140 total in the state—compared to 28 at the turn of the century—they’re sticking to safety in numbers.
When Durty Bull had to store a giant cooler during the chaos of construction, nearby Ponysaurus gladly spared the space, and when it needed a forklift to unload material, Fullsteam stepped in. “We only stand to gain if we have a big-tent mentality,” Wilson says as he looks down at picnic table. He points out a faded Bull City Burger logo, showing that these were sent over after thedowntown brewery didn’t need the tables anymore.
“We did something for them,” he says. “I forget what it was. You don’t tally it up.”
Bull Durham Beer Company, the first microbrewery located inside a minor league baseball stadium, introduces easy-drinking craft beers to lovers of the game.
Baseball’s greatest virtue is the time that it takes. Every precise pitch and calculated swing of the bat, unrushed and not ruled by seconds on a scoreboard, are what make baseball beautiful.
The beverage that tastes best with baseball isn’t something to be hurried, either. Beer takes hours to brew, weeks to ferment. But when we gulp it down, we can’t fully appreciate how it’s made and where it came from. We’ve got nine innings, so why not savor it?
Beer and baseball are a natural pairing, so it only seems fitting that every stadium across the country would have its own brewery. You’d think that, anyway, especially as we’ve become better acquainted with what’s in our pint glass over the past decade — but it wasn’t until last year that the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in the heart of downtown Durham became the first minor league baseball stadium in the country to have its own microbrewery. This brewery joined the four others in Durham: Bull City Burger and Brewery, Fullsteam, Ponysaurus, and Triangle Brewing Company, with two more in the pipeline to open in the coming months.
Bull Durham Beer Company is the brainchild of Sebastian Wolfrum. He figured that the beer-friendly city of Durham could use a stadium brewery, especially since the ballpark already featured a variety of North Carolina pours.
“It wasn’t a big leap to say, ‘Why don’t we just make beer on-site?’” he says.
But there were a few logistical matters to consider. The space where the brewery is situated required some finessing to fit the large kettle system required. The resulting brewery has the ability to crank out 15 barrels of beer each week when operating in full force.
The brewery sits on prime real estate in the stadium, just above the main entrance and in full view. While conventional breweries might see a steady trickle of beer drinkers throughout the day, curious game goers often pour into Bull Durham Beer Company all at once — before the first pitch, between innings, during rain delays. They pop their heads in for an impromptu tour of the place and line up to buy a beer at the serving station just outside of the brewery’s doors.
“People walk by, and they’ll see our station out there. They’ll ask, ‘Where are y’all from? Where does your beer come from?’” says Garrett Eder, assistant brewer. “I’ll just knock on the window and say, ‘Right here.’”
A lot of folks can’t believe it. Some have never even stepped foot inside of a brewery before. Wolfrum sees it as an opportunity to sing the praises of locally-made beer.
“There are a lot of first timers who never knew how beer is made or that it takes more than a day,” Wolfrum says. “For the five minutes that people spend in here, we get a snapshot of their attention.”
The easy-drinking brews that Bull Durham creates have the power to make fans out of most beer drinkers.
During its first season in 2015, Bull Durham only produced two beers: the crisp Lollygagger Kolsch and the balanced Water Tower Wheat. This year, the brewery has a stacked lineup as it adds an IPA and an amber lager to the roster. Both are robust, yet brewed with approachability in mind. “They’re not big and bold and overpowering,” Wolfrum says. “You sip along as you watch the game.”
When ball’s being played, Bull Durham keeps it simple with beers that quench summer’s thirst. Come offseason, Wolfrum and his team like to concoct new flavors and work with various bars and restaurants in Durham and beyond. It used to be that you could only drink Bull Durham beer from your ballpark seat, but now the beer is on tap at the likes of nearby tapas bar Mateo, among others reaching beyond Durham’s borders. This summer, Bull Durham will open its own taproom adjacent to the stadium, an opportune place to unwind any night of the week.
In the hopes of becoming more sustainable, the brewery is now experimenting with its own hop yard at Sassafras Fork Farm, just north of the city in Durham County. It’s pretty neat, considering Wolfrum also happens to own a Durham-based malt company.
“Hopefully, we’ll have a beer at some point in time that’ll [include] local hops and grain,” head brewer Tate Little says. “Not many people can say they have a beer that does both of those things.”
Homegrown flavor, like a home-team win, is worth celebrating.