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I’ll be in my hometown of Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, signing books at the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery on Southside Drive at 5 p.m. When I left Charlotte in 1995, first for school and then for work, there were zero breweries in the city and surrounding Mecklenburg County. There are now seven (at leastI’m basing the number on this November 2012 column by Charlotte Observer restaurant critic Helen Schwab). Needless to say, it’s healthy growth, with a commensurate growth in a craft-beer consumer culture exemplified by blogs like Mark Iafrate‘s Charlotte Beer Blog and Daniel HartisCharlotte Beer (as well as Hartis’ new book, Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City).

Charlotte’s craft-beer industry has grown along with, of course, the larger North Carolina one. The longest state east of the Mississippi (I remember that from fourth-grade history) has 61 craft breweries or brewpubs (again, at leastI’m going by a June 2012 map put together by the North Carolina Brewers Guild). The state also, in quick succession in early 2012, claimed the East Coast outposts of two of the biggest names in American craft beer: Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, which plan to open a brewery each in the Asheville area (which itself has already become one of the biggest beer-tourism destinations in the nation). The state, too, is in the midst of its first-ever Craft Beer Month, and includes, in Durham, the headquarters of All About Beer, the industry’s leading trade magazine (full disclosure: I’m a regular contributor).

Finally, North Carolina’s government, in conjunction with its fantastic public university system, America’s oldest, has actively begun making craft-beer an economic-development engine. Old tobacco fields are growing hops; public officials, including the most recent two governors, are careful to be seen touring brewhouses; and Appalachian State University in 2012 became the first four-year college in the Eastern United States to offer a university-level degree in brewing (officially: a BS in fermentation sciences with a concentration in brewing).

All of this craft beer growth in North Carolina can be traced back more than 17 years to a single shoot on the state’s eastern edge. It was there in a storefront in Manteo, in an area of the Outer Banks most famous as the testing grounds for the Wright brothers, that on July 4, 1986, an agricultural manager named Uli Bennewitz opened the Weeping Radish brewpub.

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Bennewitz (pictured) was from Bavaria, and couldn’t readily find the flavorful helles, bocks and pilsners he had grown up with. His brother happened to call, however, to tell him that a brewery in Munich was looking to expand, and wanted to rid itself of a 5-barrel, electric-powered system that it used for test batches. Might Bennewitz want it to make his own beer in North Carolina? Bennewitz did. He bought the system, had it transported across the Atlantic, and thereby sowed the seeds for what has become one of the largest and most celebrated brewery-restaurant hybrids in the United States.

The Weeping Radish (named for the Bavarian custom of salting white radishes to dehydrate them) now unfolds over 24 acres near Grandy, still on the Outer Banks. For Christmas 2011, it produced the first-ever commercial beer made entirely from North Carolina-grown ingredients. It was quite the accomplishment given the brewery’s auspicious beginnings in the early 1980s.

First of all, Bennewitz had to work to get the state’s laws changed to allow for what we now know as brewpubs: breweries that serve the beer they make on premises. Bennewitz, in fact, thought the “ABC” everyone kept telling him to consult had something to do with schoolsit did not: It was the humorless Alcohol Beverage Control commission and it didn’t quite get what he was getting at. Much lobbying later, however, and the Weeping Radish was able to make that Independence Day opening.

That, in turn, meant confronting a public unfamiliar with both the German beer being brewed and served (Bennewitz realized early on they might have been better off making ales rather than lagers as ales were all the rage in the nascent craft beer movement and took less time to make) and the German food being served alongside it. “If we had had Budweiser and sold chicken wings,” Bennewitz told me, “we would have had a chance with the locals.”

As it was, the Weeping Radish was packed in the summers and dead in the winters; customers on average came from at least 200 miles away, often for their first glimpse of a working brewery. Still, the Weeping Radish has survived and thrived, to become 17 years on the granddaddy of the North Carolina craft beer movement. Cheers.
· The Beer Scene Is Hoppin’ in Charlotte [Observer]

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