After a hiatus in which the Queen City had no functioning
breweries, The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery started the Charlotte-area on a path that has seen six new breweries start up since 2008. Owner John Marrino shared his background and mission with Queen City Brewers Festival, mixing in several stories and lessons that come with starting and running a brewery.
OMB has helped usher in a craft beer revitalization here in Charlotte, NC and several new breweries have looked to you for guidance. Which breweries, NC-based or other, have OMB looked to for guidance and advice?
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the benefit of having anyone local that I could call up and drop in to see what they were doing. I did my share of drive-bys of breweries across the southeast, but it wasn’t much more than their standard tour. We were a little bit in the dark, but we figured it out… you know I joke to some of the new brewery guys that I should have charged them a consulting fee (laughing), but that’s OK. The other breweries aren’t going to take business away from me. Collectively, we’re going to change the mentality of the beer-drinker in Charlotte and shift it from the non-local brands to the local breweries.
Just this past summer OMB was invited by Beer Advocate to participate in their American Craft Beer Festival in Boston, MA. What do you like about participating at festivals?
It’s definitely the interaction with the attendees, and having shorter sessions with fewer breweries, like Queen City Brewers Festival, make a festival a really quality experience for the brewery. At some of the mega festivals there are so many breweries and beers it’s potluck if they try your beer, let alone remember it. Now we had a great time in Boston at the Beer Advocate festival and next year we’ll be at the Great American Beer Festival, but often times it’s the second half of a long-session where it can get a little out of hand.
It’s hard to walk into a bar in the Charlotte-area and not see an OMB tap handle. What are plans for OMB’s geographical distribution?
OMB’s focus is on Charlotte. To follow the same business model of the big breweries and have distribution from coast-to-coast is not our philosophy. We have to look at our advantages: local and fresh. You can’t tell me that the bottle of Fat Tire you drink in Charlotte tastes the same as it does coming off the line in Colorado. And I don’t have the money or connections to battle west coast breweries to fill pint glasses out there.
My business model is similar to what I found in Germany. In a town like Düsseldorf, which is one-third the size of Charlotte, you’ve got eight breweries that are each producing about five times the amount of beer as OMB. That’s local. Before OMB, local was considered to be any North Carolina beer like Highland or Red Oak. Those are now regional beers and we’ve redefined what local means in Charlotte. Plus, North Carolina has good laws in place for craft breweries where we’re able to self-distribute. You have to use a distributor in South Carolina which removes that direct relationship; that’s so important to us and our customers. And statistically speaking, there were about one million barrels of beer consumed in Charlotte last year. We produced 4,000 barrels, meaning that we’re what, 0.4% of the beer consumed here? My goal is to grow to maybe 2% or 3% of the beer pie in Charlotte and then I’m at the production level of a Schlüssel (brewery in Düsseldorf) and that’s a pretty good business.
What can we expect next from OMB’s lineup of Reinheitsgebot-style beers?
Well, we want to start by building awareness for our current lineup of beers, but I like the idea of making new beers for our tap room and for some of the bigger beer bars like Mac’s or Taco Mac. Our accounts would like to offer their customers some variety and when we do bring out a new beer it’s already been allocated before it’s even out the door.
The plan is to stay with the German styles for now and we’ll add a different style like a Rauchbier soon. We also did a contest with the Carolina BrewMasters this year for an RPA, which is a Reinheitsgebot-compliant Pale Ale. We’re going to brew it sometime in January so maybe that will be our “Super Brew” for the Queen City Brewers Festival. Another idea we’ll likely do closer to the summer is the one a lot of people are clamoring for and that’s a Hefeweizen. That’s a classic.
What are your predictions for craft beer industry trends and what will that mean to OMB?
Honestly, I try to buck as many trends as possible. But as a whole I think the trend is just the movement toward craft beer. The notion of session craft beers is really working in our favor too. If we’re trying to move the Bud Light drinker over to craft, it’s more likely he’ll enjoy it and continue drinking it through a gradual process. To jump in with an 8% or 9% high-gravity beer, he’s going to drink half of it and go right back to his Bud Light. I’ll bring the American Ales and crazy stuff to my neighborhood barbeques, but I’m just a regular beer guy, and obviously, I love German beer. What got this whole thing started was that I missed fresh, German-style beer. That’s what OMB does and we hope beer drinkers in Charlotte will enjoy it as much as we do.