PART ONE
Shore to Pour: Exploring the OBX’s Expanding Craft Beverage Scene – Part 1

By on March 18, 2024

(Photos courtesy Brian Tress)

By Brian Tress  |  Outer Banks Voice

Typically, the word “craft” refers to the skill and artistry involved in creating something by hand. In the context of beverages like beer, wine, and spirits, “craft” implies a focus on traditional methods, small-batch production, and a high level of quality and attention to detail. Craft beverages are often made by independent, artisanal producers who take pride in their work and are committed to creating unique and distinctive products.

(This is the first of a three-part series on the craft-beverage industry on the Outer Banks.)

On the Outer Banks, owners of beverage-forward establishments (i.e., without a full-service kitchen and restaurant) have a sense of purpose that is far more evolved than making money, although making money certainly helps justify the large dollar investments they have made. Regardless of where they are on the learning curve – homebrewer their whole adult life or beginner following the trends – these proprietors are passionate about their craft and dedicated to creating a welcoming environment for locals and tourists, amateurs and aficionados, alike. The carefully conceived craft beverages embody the terroir of the region through locally sourced ingredients. The establishments themselves are designed with a nod to history and local culture.

Ten such establishments were visited for this article, from Corolla to Manteo, with the only criteria being that their primary focus is on producing and/or serving artisanal beverages, with food offerings non-existent or limited, e.g., snacks like pizza and charcuterie.   What follows is a recounting of an epic journey along the OBX’s burgeoning beer, wine, and spirts trail.

 

Beer

Craft brewing has recently seen explosive growth across the country. According to the Brewers Association, the number of craft breweries in the United States has more than doubled over the past decade, reaching over 8,000 in 2021. A combination of factors has led to this growth, including changing consumer preferences, a desire for more authentic and artisanal products, and a growing interest in supporting local businesses.

“To brew, you need to understand microbiology and pack your bags and go somewhere to train” says Michael Cherry, co-owner of the Northern Outer Banks Brewing Company in Corolla. Michael, along with his wife Kathleen McCubbins, open the brewery in 2017, the first in the northern Outer Banks.

Born and raised in Corolla, Cherry took his surfboard on the road to sample both the waves and the beers all over the world, from Chile to Indonesia. He came back and trained at Joymongers Brewing Co. in Greensboro, NC. He and McCubbins have also gained invaluable knowledge over the years from their friendship with Sam von Trapp, owner of the storied von Trapp Brewing Company in Stowe, Vermont and descendent of the von Trapp family portrayed in the Sound of Music.

 

Northern Outer Banks Brewing Co., Corolla (northernobxbrewing.com) The traditional Saison (l), Co-owner Kathleen McCubbins with son Sam (r) Courtesy: Brian Tress)

Michael and Kathleen are part scientist, part traditionalist, part artist. For example, according to Michael, they “do an incredible amount of research into hops. The hardest thing is staying reasonably priced but buying the absolute best hops you can buy. We add the hop pre-boil. Gives it a body. If you brew beer late-hop, it lacks the structure.” He sums it up as, “We follow traditions not trends.” Their dedication to quality is exemplified in their traditional Saison, a must-try.

A bit further up the road in Corolla is the new Whalehead Brewery, which opened in August 2023. Where the Northern OBX Brewing Company is primarily a growlers-to-go destination – the small inside space is an immersive experience, with a removable bar surrounded by brewing tanks – the Whalehead Brewery is designed for staying a while.

The space is a large light-filled room with a polished concrete floor and high ceilings, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall facing into the brewery, a colorful mural above a self-serve tap wall, and an open-kitchen with a blue-tiled Neapolitan pizza oven.

The owner of Whalehead, Christin Crowley, began seeking out breweries in her travels as a Navy supply officer and ultimately became fascinated with how beer is made. In the summer of 2022, after retiring from the Navy, Crowley became a full-time resident of Corolla, where she had vacationed since the 1970s with her family. “I had always wanted to run my own business, and I did a lot of research and training for this,” Crowley says. She took courses with the American Brewers Guild and the Disney Institute on brewing science and customer service, respectively. She also became certified as a beer Cicerone, designating proven experience in selecting, acquiring, and serving a wide range of global beer styles.

 

Whalehead Brewery, Corolla (whaleheadbrewery.com) View of brewery through glass wall (l), Owner Christin Crowley at the tap wall (c), Pizza oven (r) (Courtesy: Brian Tress)

For Crowley, it is “important to connect with the community – to give back by brewing good quality beer and optimizing the experience.” Her attention to detail is evident. “Everything speaks – floors and tables that aren’t sticky, smiles, remembering customers’ names. The freshness of the beer – what’s been brewed is put right on tap, not stored or transported first. Even the clarity and style of your drinking glass, so you can see the beer, smell it, taste it.”

Further south along the Beach Road in Kill Devil Hills is Swells’a Brewing, which opened in the summer of 2021. Swells’a – a play on words with surfing, i.e., “the swell’s a brewing” – is like the perfect wave, with its beachside location, stylish yet cozy tap room with a wood-burning fireplace and southwestern motif, multiple outdoor spaces, and a variety of highly drinkable beers. Brad Fitzgerald, one of the owners, says the quintessential Swells’a experience is a “summer evening with a glass of beer in your hand, live music in the yard, and a little bit of the ocean on the horizon.”

Fitzgerald grew up in Virginia Beach. He recounts, “Once I got my driver’s license, I headed south to the Outer Banks to surf and escape the madness.” He met his girlfriend and eventual business partner, Sam Harriss, who grew up on the Outer Banks, and they began homebrewing. When their neighbor, an investment banker, told them their beer tasted great and they should open a brewery, they initially shrugged it off. Eventually, though, they began a two-year search to find the right parcel for a new brewery.

Fitzgerald says that the number one attribute of an excellent beer is “someone wants a second one, or a third – of the same beer.” He explains, “Hops are still winning, but now people are moving to subtle flavors. There’s a more balanced palate for everything, which is great for us making drinkable beach beer. We’re doing a hazy IPA that is drier and more drinkable, and we’re committing more to lager beer.”

 

Swells’a Brewing, Kill Devil Hills (swellsabrewing.com) Façade and entrance (l), Co-owner Brad Fitzgerald and co-head brewer Mike Swartz (c), Fireplace (r). (Courtesy: Brian Tress)

He is most proud of the relationship they have with the community. “We cater to the locals.  We host events that support the surfing community and local charities. We’re a showcase for local artists – stuff you’re not gonna see in a gift shop. We give them the walls for a month, an opening night with a musician, no commission.” He muses, “If the locals are happy, everyone will come.”

Fitzgerald made news during the discussion by announcing that Swells’a will be opening a tap room in Duck this summer. “It will be an outdoor venue with a small footprint – a bar, outdoor seating, a stage for bands – nestled under Live Oak in the Scarborough Lane Shoppes. We’ll have sixteen taps, beer and wine, some cocktails, and music.”

SEE ALSO: Shore to Pour: Exploring the OBX’s Expanding Craft Beverage Scene: PART TWO Wine

Shore to Pour: Exploring the OBX’s Expanding Craft Beverage Scene: PART THREE Spirits


Brian Tress has been a consultant to the tourism and hospitality industry for the past 25 years, whose work and leisure time is a fusion of advising destinations on strategic issues and enjoying immersive travel experiences across the globe. In his past travel to nearly 100 countries, Brian has made it a point to sidle up to the bar for an artisanal beverage or two, where he has met locals and fellow travelers alike.

Brian is a freelance writer for the Voice covering multi-faceted issues related to tourism and hospitality that intersect with the major themes of local life.  He is a resident of Kill Devil Hills. 

 

 



Comments

  • Skip Saunders

    Good article Brian except one big omission—there should have been mention of the Outer Banks’ and North Carolina’s first brewery, the Weeping Radish, owned and operated by Uli Bennewitz in Manteo for many years, later moving to Grandy in Currituck County. They made some mighty good beer.

    Monday, Mar 18 @ 12:47 pm
  • Greg Finkelstein

    I prefer Miller Lite. They just don’t do it like they used to.

    Monday, Mar 18 @ 2:04 pm
  • Dan

    It ain’t new, but it’s a beer and a show – visit Dirt at the Lost Colony pub on the Causeway!

    Monday, Mar 18 @ 6:37 pm