A few years ago, I got a call out of the blue from a friend saying that a few guys from Florida were heading up north to blow North Carolina out of the water with their unique brewing style and delicious beers.
I get a lot of calls like that, but it’s rare to see someone back it up and actually make it happen.
Fast forward to 2018, and I’m sitting down with Josh Patton, CEO of Wooden Robot Brewery, the brewers who followed through on their promise and are taking the beer market by storm in South End, Charlotte.
They moved into a former nightclub in June 2015, and turned it into one of the most well-respected and fastest growing breweries in the region. They doubled their space with a gastropub expansion this past March, and have a 2nd location opening in the Spring of 2019.
What makes them so unique and their beer so tasty?
“Barrel aging has always been a core component of what we want to do production-wise. Barrel aging is just exposing the beer to different types of wood for extended periods… to impart some of the wood texture and character into the beer itself; the longer it ages, the more it picks up.”
The trend has been growing in popularity for the last decade, but the craft beer market has changed dramatically in Charlotte in just the last several years. Josh admits that it’s gotten more competitive, but he says it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“As long as we’re taking market share away from ‘big beer’, that’s a win for the craft beer community.”
Despite the crowded marketplace, Wooden Robot Brewery feels completely at home differentiating themselves. They don’t believe in simply resting on a handful of beers – even great beers – or cranking out the same product on repeat.
“We release two different beers every week in our tap room. We’re constantly experimenting and innovating. Our entire company gets involved in the brainstorming process, throwing in ingredient ideas, and finding local sources.”
This has been their approach since day one. They launched with seven beers on tap, and haven’t had less than ten varieties since then. Although they originally intended to focus strictly on beer, partnerships evolved organically and even led to their in-house kitchen.
“Everybody has to eat, so there’s a business component to it in that if there’s food available, people will stay longer to drink. We don’t see it as a necessary evil. We see it as an opportunity to partner with like-minded people who were craft pioneers: not in beer, in food. They’re very much of the same mindset in that they want to innovate and do unique, cool, funky, different kind of stuff.”
Of course, it hasn’t always been easy or predictable.
“Everything costs a lot more than you think it will, and it takes a lot longer than you think it will. I’ve heard it’s gotten better, but even 3 years ago, there was a lot of legal, permitting red-tape to go through.”
Just like any brick-and-mortar, you need to raise more money than you think you’re going to need and budget more time than you think it’s going to take.
They knew we wanted to be a relatively small brewery, even compared to other Charlotte breweries who are hitting the self-distribution cap (of 25k barrels annually). While they’re currently operating at 3,500 barrels, they plan to cap out at about 5,000 barrels.
“We want to push the retail sales channel of our beer, it allows us more control over the product to dictate the education and how it’s presented to customers.”
Their Spring 2019 location is in an already established neighborhood. NoDa’s got Bold Missy, Divine Barrel, and NoDa Brewing. But Wooden Robot Brewery isn’t trying to be everything to everybody. They have their core audience and that’s who they serve.
“We’re going to be located right at the 36th street light rail station next to the new, novel NoDa apartment complex. It will be similar size to what we have in South End, but we’ll have a ton more outdoor space.”
That’s right, they’ll have an outdoor patio and rooftop.
“It will be a similar aesthetic to the South End location, but we also want to give it its own unique vibe, so it will be a different atmosphere, but it will definitely be recognizable as Wooden Robot Brewery.”