A Pint With: Sean Wilson, Founder of the Fullsteam Brewery in North Carolina

A Pint With

Chatting about beer with the folks who make it.

"The West Coast has hoppy IPAs, the Midwest has a strong tradition of pilsners and lagers, but the South has no real (craft) beer tradition."

Sean Wilson has a vision for the beer scene in the American South. Using heirloom grains and other ingredients from North Carolina farms, he and his collaborator, Chris Davis, hope to create a distinctly Southern style of beer.

They will open Fullsteam Brewery in Durham late this winter or early next spring. I chatted with Sean about the challenges he's faced and his plans for the brewery.

Name: Sean Wilson
Location: Durham, North Carolina
Occupation: President of Fullsteam Brewery

Tell us a little about Fullsteam and what you envision for your beers and your brewery. Fullsteam's mission is to be known as a distinctly Southern brewery. We accomplish this by brewing delicious beer using locally farmed ingredients, heirloom grains, and seasonal botanicals.

I'll admit it: upon first glance, we seem sort of out there—particularly for the American South. But our early test batches are producing some truly unique, well-balanced beers that go well with Southern food: Scuppernong Sparkling Ale, Sweet Potato, and a smoked brown porter called Hogwash! that's perfect with barbecue. We don't consider our beers "extreme." Quite the opposite. I often say that we make "beer for people who think they don't like beer."

As for why we went this "Southern Ag" route: when I first decided to start up a brewery, I quickly realized that I didn't want to mimic any existing trends. The West Coast has hoppy IPAs, the Midwest has a strong tradition of pilsners and lagers, but the South has no real (craft) beer tradition. That doesn't mean there's a shortage of great breweries. In fact, there are so many breweries making traditional styles that it'd be foolish to be yet another pale ale-IPA-porter-stout brewery. We'll offer those styles for sure, but I think we'll be known for our more experimental, "plow-to-pint" offerings.


Sean Wilson and Chris Davis in the kudzu fields. [Photograph: Sean Living H2O]

Where are your ingredients from? What sorts of special ingredients and botanicals are you looking to include in your beer? We haven't committed to any particular farms yet, but we've worked with Four Leaf Farm (rhubarb in Liborius Gollhardt), Kudzu Kow Farm, the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, Full of Life nursery for local paw paws, and the Durham Farmers' Market for a bunch of ingredients.

We've used some things from our own gardening efforts: figs from two trees on our property and home-grown basil. Just today I asked Chris if he had any ideas for the bushels of lemon verbena and pineapple sage I have in our garden—the first frost is imminent. I'm currently reading Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons, a sort of bible for foragers written in the early 1960s. Acorns, wild ginger, daylilies, dandelion—it was (almost) all fair game to Gibbons. It may seem far out there, but we humans have a rich history of fermenting what we forage.

How does Fullsteam fit into the American craft brewing movement? You've mentioned elsewhere that in the battle between East and West coast beer styles, the South gets lost in the mix. Right now we're just two guys with a dream and a lot of funds tied up in build-out. Eventually we hope to grow into a thriving brewery that serves the entire South.

Interestingly, we've had a fair amount of interest from restaurants in Seattle, Chicago, and New York. That's a huge honor and a curious development. But I'm even more excited to connect with locals who haven't yet discovered craft beer. Brewing with Southern farmed ingredients allows us to speak a common language: a love for local food.


[The brewery now. Photograph: Chris Davis]

What is your day-to-day looking like right now? Your to-do list? I spend about half of my time at the warehouse and half at home. It's one of those typical "no day is ever the same." I could be scheming up seasonal recipe concepts with Chris, working with our architect or general contractor, updating our fans on our progress, securing funding, or planning an event. One thing remains constant: I'm always excited to start the day and get to work. I love what I'm gearing up to do.

What challenges have you been facing? I'm a typical entrepreneur that wants to do everything all at once. Focusing is key, especially when working with limited resources. I'm getting better at that, but I still battle "shiny object syndrome." Right now my working mantra is "if it doesn't help us brew beer, put it on hold."

That's actually a lot easier said than done. For example, just today I signed off on a survey for a sidewalk easement. Does this survey help us brew beer? No, but it's required in order for us to have any on-premises business—a must-have for our fledgling business.

You also co-founded and led the Pop the Cap campaign in 2002, which aimed to eliminate North Carolina's six-percent alcohol-by-volume limit on beer. I got into it as a craft beer lover. I had no preconceived notions that I'd be starting up a brewery. This Prohibition-era restriction meant that around a third of the world's beer styles were illegal to brew or sell [in North Carolina]. At the time, North Carolina was one of five states with this restriction. After some amazing battles and bizarre arguments, we successfully lifted the cap to 15% on August 13, 2005. The world did not go to hell in a handbasket the next day.

More recently, I helped lead another lobbying effort to allow beer the same promotional and sales rights as wine. Now brewers can sell directly to consumers at farmer's markets and special events, as well as provide samples at retail stores. Previously, only wineries had this right.

We're fighting for change and equality here in North Carolina, and the results speak for themselves. I love the beer scene here, and I'm really proud of the new businesses are rising as we've opened up markets and overturned blue laws.

Maybe this is wacky, but would you consider using a CSA model to get locals involved/contributing/tasting your beers? It's not wacky at all. I have thought about it, even modeled out the costs of such a project. However, the capitalist in me came to the conclusion that it was a lot of work for not much reward—particularly if the beers sell on their own (without needing a program).

It's tempting to get caught up on the novel and innovative business models out there, mimicking the success of the local farm movement. But every initiative needs to be carefully managed, or you set yourself up for disappointed customers and unintended consequences.

So I'm hesitant to set up clubs, other than an on-premises tavern club that has some fun benefits. But reserving beer for a certain group who can afford it week in and week out? I don't know.

The egalitarian in me shirks at that. Just a little. It's way cool for food and pies and fish, but there's something about beer that should be accessible to all. Maybe it's because that 6% alcohol limit had its origin from mill workers who decided it was too risky to allow their workers access to strong ale, for fear that they would show up to work drunk on Mondays. Those clubby bourbon-drinking mill executives who set the rules for the masses.

Maybe it's more simple: right now, I couldn't afford to be in such a club. Fullsteam will most certainly produce some high-end expensive beers, but I want it to be available to anyone, whether it's a one-time indulgence or a pittance to the weekly budget.

We plan to check in with Sean again when Fullsteam opens its doors.