By Erica Batten. With a growing population and a business climate that is increasingly favorable to beer, wine and distilled spirits production, North Carolina, once known worldwide as a center for tobacco production, may have found a new economic drug of choice.
And like the large, leafy plant that once dominated the state’s economy, the alcohol industry has found growth when the conditions are right: a favorable climate, scientific know-how, and the proper equipment.
Interestingly, North Carolina is among states with relatively low rates of ethanol consumption. According to the latest report by the National Institutes of Health, North Carolinians consume between 1.89 and 2.10 gallons of alcohol per year, ranking among the 12 lowest states.
Does this mean that North Carolina is, pardon the pun, an untapped market? Quite possibly.
According to the Beverage Information and Insights Group, consumers’ attitudes toward beverage alcohol have changed nationwide, with Millenials driving expansion and preference for authenticity, quality and heritage.
Currently the ninth-most populous state, North Carolina’s population is projected to top 12 million by 2035, according to the Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. More than two-thirds of that growth will be in Charlotte and the Triangle. Nearly a million new people will move to Charlotte over the next 20 years.
Chances are, those people will be thirsty.
Pollination Fosters Growth
Even as regulation seeks to curb growth in some branches of the alcohol industry, other branches grow organically out of a mother vine of North Carolina’s economy: tourism.
Agritourism has brought visitors to Yadkin Valley, Duplin, Asheville and other native wineries for years.
In 2013, event planning and tour company the Charlotte Special Events Group began offering brewery tours to private groups. By December of the next year, 43 guests had signed up for the company’s first public brewery tour, said president Peter Cuocolo. The company currently offers 31 different tours to breweries, vineyards and other attractions.
As brewing and distilling have expanded along the I-85 corridor, Cuocolo likewise has branched into Cabarrus County.
His company’s Lake Norman/Concord Brew Ha-Ha tour starts at Primal Brewery in Huntersville, then travels via luxury coach to Twenty Six Acres, Red Hill and Cabarrus Breweries in Concord. Guests are served lunch courtesy of Brooklyn South Pizza and sample three beers at each brewery. Behind-the-scenes tours focus on unique aspects of each facility.
At Primal, the tour focuses on microbrewing methods, Cuocolo said. Red Hill’s owners focus on local history. “They pride themselves on what Concord is all about,” said Cuocolo. “Everything stays local.”
Likewise, Southern Distilling is relying on tourism to drive local interest. Its gift shop, at the distillery and online, offers everything from cocktail glasses and stirrers to rustic décor items like wagon-wheel coffee tables and factory carts. They’re currently hiring a gift shop attendant and tour guides to conduct hourly tours and to lead tastings.
“We just set up the first-of-its-kind distillery tour for June 10,” Cuocolo said. The tour will include Southern Distillery Company and Charlotte distilleries Doc Porter’s, Muddy River and Great Wagon Road.
“You have to stay on top of it,” Cuocolo said of the hospitality industry. “You can’t stay stagnant.”
Cuocolo had been considering distillery tours for a couple of years and only recently felt the time was right. His next move: the “Brew-llery” tour combining visits to local breweries and distilleries