A few minutes to 3 o’clock on a blazing Tuesday, a cluster of friends wait at the taproom door at Birdsong Brewing Company. It’s quiet this afternoon along a stretch of North Davidson Street that’s usually filled with racket from the emerging bones of a new apartment complex rising across the street.
Within the hour, the taproom also has welcomed one of its regulars, a solo blonde absorbed in her MacBook, her hand cupped around a pint glass as she thinks, and a few guys hanging at the bar. The trio is already laughing over board games.
Birdsong Brewing Company was one of the early bloomers in Charlotte’s craft beer invasion. Like other brewery backstories, co-owner Chris Goulet had grown tired of the corporate grind and was in search of something a little more meaningful, something that would bring him more joy. His wife Tara was in on it, too. At the time, she managed a bread franchise and was also ready for a change.
Goulet, a transplant from Rhode Island, had begun to notice that cities comparable to Charlotte—places like Portland and Denver—already had dozens of breweries, and much smaller, nearby Asheville, even claimed at least 15. “Charlotte was ridiculously underserved,” he says.
Enter Conor Robinson. Tara’s breadmaking colleague had just begun dabbling in homebrewing. Around 2010, Chris, Tara and Conor started dreaming of a new adventure, and just a year later, Birdsong was born.
When Birdsong opened, other breweries existed—Charlotte’s original, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, was serving up classic German-style brews, and NoDa Brewing Company had recently entered the scene—but the industry wasn’t exactly bubbling over. Not yet.
Along North Davidson Street today, it’s a different story. Heist Brewery, Free Range Brewing, Protagonist and Divine Barrel Brewing all have popped up along this historically industrial area, giving air to this stagnant part of the city filled with remnants from the past.
From Textile Mills to Taprooms
Charlotte’s historic textile mills are a big part of the craft-brewery scene, with taprooms emerging in old warehouses all over the city—and beyond, to neighboring counties. “That’s because of the zoning,” says Goulet. “When we were getting started, it was really hard to find a location, because everything was zoned for residential or business.” The empty warehouses filled their need for a space big enough for production.
For the same reasons, many are also kitchenless, so popular food trucks—Cousins Maine Lobster (of “Shark Tank” fame) and Hiya—say hello to bulgogi and dumplings—among dozens of others, add another helpful alliance to Charlotte’s brewery business.
Independent American craft brewers contributed just over $79 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to Brewers Association, and provided over a half a million jobs. In North Carolina, the 300 breweries and brewpubs rank the state seventh in the nation (and first in the South), according to the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild. The Charlotte area alone now claims around 50 breweries—all opened in the last 10 years.
Tapping Into Events
Due to the rapid growth, the term “craft” has gotten convoluted, Goulet says. “What it means is that people are using their own recipes or putting a new spin on a traditional beer, and introducing it in a face-to-face way.” And when people come fact-to-face, they build community.
Active weekly running clubs, free yoga nights, live music featuring local and regional bands—many area breweries offer events that not only bring people together, but highlight other local businesses. NoDa Brewing—now located in a larger space off North Tryon Street—even pairs a beer with the Charlotte Symphony for its annual “Symphony On Tap” events.
Birdsong organizes creek clean-ups and works with local farmers on many of their brews. A limited release in winter, the Honey Pie Double IPA is infused with local Cloister Honey. They also recently installed 220 rooftop solar panels so they can rely less on nonrenewable fossil fuels and reduce their carbon emissions—that move won them an award from a local sustainability nonprofit.
Like Birdsong, most area breweries just want to bring the community together over great beer. The concept is simple, says Goulet. “We want to make delicious beer in a space that’s as welcoming and laid-back as possible. We’re not hype-oriented, putting glitter in the beer or anything.”
And he’s right. There’s no flashy pretense about the taproom at Birdsong, which now employs 32 and, Goulet estimates, serves about 3,000 to 4,000 guests a month. There’s now a thriving community inside these old walls.
But these days, it’s not steady business or even the creative beer-making that brings Goulet the most joy—it’s all about connecting with and uplifting people. “I love watching someone I work with do something really kickass,” Goulet says. “That’s what gets me smiling.”