UNC Clean Tech Summit: Craft Beer Value Chain, Plow to Pint

When Uli Bennewitz moved to North Carolina from Germany in the early 1980s, he planned to open a brewery that sold beer made according to the 500-year-old Bavarian Reinheitsgebot Purity Law, which mandates that beer be brewed with only hops, malt, yeast and water. No additives, no preservatives, no chemicals. The problem was the state government, which prohibited North Carolinians from selling beer directly to one another.

But Bennewitz persevered, fighting the state legislature over beer rights, and opening his brewery in the Outer Banks in 1986. The Weeping Radish remains the oldest operating brewery in North Carolina.

Thirty years after the Weeping Radish poured its first draft, North Carolina would be considered one of the great beer states in the country, and the conversation about beer would turn from whether it could be sold to how to sell more of it, and how to make sure the brewery process is as friendly to the environment as possible.

That was the topic of conversation during one session at the fourth annual UNC Clean Tech Summit. About 30 percent of the summit’s 1,000 participants were University of North Carolina students. Others included leaders from the private, public and nonprofit sectors.

Summit organizers broke the conference into four thematic tracks: Innovation, Clean Energy, Food, and Water and Energy. Individual sessions ranged from “A Look at Solar Farms and Agricultural Lands” to “Can Biologicals Meaningfully Increase Food Production While Protecting the Environment?” to “Innovative Financing for Water Projects.”

Restoring the Gulf and Global Food Security

George Howard, co-founder and CEO of Restoration Systems, led a session called “Restoring the Gulf.” Howard explained the economics of “mitigation banking”—the restoration or creation of wetlands to compensate for future habitat loss due to development—and walked through a project case study outside of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

In another session, plant scientists, gene editors and marine biotechnologists discussed the revolution in genomics and how it could help improve food security as the global population reaches 9 billion by the middle of this century.

That’s a future that Camryn Blawas and Caroline Patterson will be grappling with. The two high school seniors will both be freshman at UNC Chapel Hill in the fall, and they attended the summit to soak in as much as they could about their intended majors. Patterson said she would major in environmental science and was particularly excited to talk to some of the faculty who work in the UNC Institute for the Environment, which organizes the annual Clean Tech Summit.

Both women were impressed with some of the keynote speakers, notably Pierre-Pascal Urbon, CEO of SMA Solar Technology AG, and that they’d been offered summer internships by some of the summit’s exhibitors.

The State of Beer in a Big Beer State

One of the panels during the final thematic session of the summit might as well have been an homage to Bennewitz and the door he helped open for future North Carolina brewers. After Bennewitz fought to change the state law prohibiting direct-sales breweries, The Weeping Radish remained the only brewery in North Carolina for five years. A generation later, things have changed.

The number of craft breweries in North Carolina has more than tripled since 2010, standing now near 200, according to the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild (NCCBG). There are more than 40 more in planning stages. The state’s craft breweries pumped out 675,000 barrels in 2015 (that’s three gallons of beer per adult of drinking age), making North Carolina 11th in country, according to the Brewer’s Association. (North Carolina was the ninth most populous state in the nation in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

The NCCBG says all of that beer results in a $1.2 billion economic boost for the state, including $300 million in annual wages and 10,000 jobs, putting North Carolina 16th in the country in terms of craft beer’s economic impact, according to the Brewer’s Association.

Big Beer is taking notice. Large craft breweries from other beer states—for example, Sierra Nevada (California) and New Belgium (Colorado)—have opened east coast facilities in Asheville, a city of 89,000 people and 20 breweries. SmartAsset’s annual Best Cities for Beer Drinkers list, included two North Carolina cities—Asheville and Wilmington—in its 2016 list. Asheville beat out Portland, Maine, for the top spot.

Beer’s Value Chain

In a session called “The Entire Value Chain for Craft Beers,” Sebastian Wolfrum, executive brewmaster at Bull Durham Beer Co., noted the difference between European and American brewing cultures. In a German brewery, where Wolfrum learned the craft, “the beer had been made the same way for 150 years,” he said.

“If something goes wrong with the taste, the mayor of town shows up and says, ‘What’s wrong?’ The whole social fabric of the town is upended,” he continued. In the U.S. “it’s totally the opposite.” American brewers, Wolfrum said, celebrate diversity in their brews.

Getting from farming the hops and barley to tasting the beer, and making sure concerns about sustainability are met all along that route, was the topic of the panel. Wolfrum moderated the discussion among four panelists, each of whom represented a step in that value chain.

Tim Kuhls, the head barley grower at Perry Farms in Wake County is a seventh-generation farmer who decided to grow barley “to participate in craft beer movement.” Perry Farms had been a tobacco farm for decades “and now we’re transitioning to something that’s sustainable,” Kuhls said. “It’s an opportunity for us to be a part of the beer community.”

Amanda Richardson, the lead brewer and sustainability coordinator at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, said sustainability was becoming more important to larger brewers, with some of them employing entire sustainability teams. The Brewer’s Association, which promotes craft brewers, had recently hired a “sustainability mentor”—a former director of corporate environmental affairs for Anheuser‐Busch Companies—for its member breweries.

The “holy grail” for brewers in the state is to brew a beer made entirely from North Carolina ingredients, said Glenn Cutler, a founder of NCBeerGuys (motto: “Drink local and keep your beer dollars in North Carolina!”) Cutler’s site represents the end of the beer value chain: the imbiber. He said there’s a deep desire on the part of both brewers and consumers to land on the ultimate sustainable goal of an “all-NC beer.” While it’s not possible yet (hops that grow in the state aren’t reliable in large enough quantities to count on), brewers keep getting closer.

Uli’s Brew

And as they continue to push forward and open brewery after brewery, the state’s beer makers are very aware of the debt they owe to North Carolina’s beer history. In February, they honored Uli Bennewitz, who “laid the groundwork for the incredible industry we now share,” according to Erik Lars Myers, president of the NCCBG.

The brewers researched the first beer Bennewitz brewed at Weeping Radish (a Bavarian wheat ale) and added a local twist by using malt from Durham. They released it on Valentine’s Day, and called it “Yours Truli.”