An NC Craft Beer Pioneer Celebrates 20 Years


As the craft beer movement only continues to grow, breweries and restaurants are forging closer ties, emphasizing quality dining options and pairings.

Just last month, Sierra Nevada opened a full-service restaurant at its brewery in Asheville, North Carolina. But for Carolina Brewery, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, craft beer and quality local food together have always been an obvious combination.

“We were convinced it was a good idea 20 years ago, but we had no idea the industry would be this popular today,” says Robert Poitras, founder and owner of the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, institution.

The last 20 years have included opening a second outpost, expanding distribution across the Carolinas, and seeing the general public embrace the craft beer movement that initially inspired the Carolina Brewery’s founding. Craft beer has evolved since then, and today’s beer drinker is always looking for better flavor and quality, Poitras says.

The Carolina Brewery is the fifth oldest brewery in North Carolina, which has become a hotbed for craft beer. More than 120 craft breweries exist in the state.

Poitras was inspired to open a brewery while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill during a summer in Europe. “I became enamored with the local beer and food culture in Europe,” he says. “That wasn’t something we had at that level in the U.S.”

Poitras and partner Chris Rice crafted a business plan for the restaurant and brewery during their senior years at UNC and opened the doors Feb. 9, 1995.

Though the craft brew industry has changed since opening, the vision for Carolina Brewery has not, Poitras says— a local establishment with made from scratch food and beer.

At Carolina Brewery today, guests are met with brew tanks visible behind the bar, which serves five original beers year round and more than 20 seasonal Carolina Brewery varieties. Currently the Sky Blue Golden Ale, which features a beach scene from the Carolina coast on the label, is the most popular.

The menu at the two-story restaurant features pub and North Carolina favorites, including burgers and a barbecue plate. The menu changes seasonally and reflects the North Carolina seafood calendar, Poitras says.

The restaurant’s commitment to local sourcing is embodied by the Local Burger. Spent grains from the brewery are sent to Lilly Den Farms, where beef is sourced, and the burger is stuffed with Chapel Hill Creamery Cheese and served on a Pittsboro Bread Shop bun.

In 2007, the Brewery planned to open a second outpost to ramp up production. Poitras says they again faced the decision of opening just a brewery, or a brewery and restaurant, and opted to keep the restaurant component.

“We didn’t just want the four walls; we wanted to get the beer out,” Poitras says.

The neighboring Pittsboro location, about a 20-minute drive from the first location, features the same menu, but also affords increased production for distribution. After Poitras learned to work with distributors and handle branding and pricing, Carolina Brewery expanded its beer presence so that its brews can be found throughout North and South Carolina today, as well as in eastern Tennessee.

“The restaurant by itself is hard, but distribution is an entirely different business,” he says.

Poitras says Carolina Brewery will continue to increase distribution while maintaining the two restaurants. The restaurant will also offer more events, such as pairing dinners, beer and local cheese pairings, and a crawfish boil, keeping with the national narrative of joining craft beer and quality food.

“I don’t see craft beer going away. I don’t think it’s a fad.”

To celebrate the 20th anniversary, the Carolina Brewery will host a 5K run April 11 at 3 p.m. to benefit the Lineberger Cancer Center in Chapel Hill.

By Sarah Niss

Add new comment