Not quite a year and a half into business, North Carolina microbrewery Fullsteam Brewing has established itself as a decidedly Southern pioneering force. Under the guidance of owner Sean Lilly Wilson, the Durham-based micro operates with a "plow-to-pint" philosophy that celebrates the agricultural heritage of its state.
Wilson calls himself the "chief executive optimist" at Fullsteam, steering the operation and working as creative consultant to head brewer Chris Davis. "I'm not officially a brewer," Wilson says. "But I help Chris come up with ideas and shape concepts. Chris either takes them or tosses them aside — and he has great ideas on his own. I'm the leader and the service industry/people-person guy, and Chris is the one who gets up at 5:30 every morning to make it all happen."
Fullsteam's current roster includes an impressive range of ales and steam-beer style lager made with unusual ingredients like kudzu, whole-leaf basil, fresh persimmons, sweet potatoes, scuppernong grapes, hickory-smoked barley malt, and grits. All of the extra botanicals, vegetables, and fruits are native to the Durham area. It may sound odd, but Wilson considers using such ingredients to be a revitalization of old practices.
"I have a scholarly journal from 1946 on the history of brewing persimmon beer in the Southeast, and some of it dates back to 1750," he says. "So it's not as simple as finding some local ingredients and throwing them in the fermentation tanks. It is a local historic tradition. It's new, but it's not new, you know?"
Many of their specialties are part of the Forager Series — "crowd-sourced" beers brewed with ingredients harvested by members of the Durham community. Fullsteam hires local "foragers" who respond to the brewery's call for a harvest, and the brewers use what they collect in the next batch.
One of their latest Forager beers is the First Frost winter ale (8.8 percent a.b.v.). It's a strong brown ale flavored with wild persimmons from Chatham County. Medium-bodied and fruity, it starts with a tart, berry-like flavor and finishes dry and tangy with hints of sweet carrot, nectarine, and caramel.
"We collected about 500 pounds of locally harvested persimmons and paid out about $1,500 back into the local community, which felt really good," Wilson says.
Perhaps the most over-the-top Southern-themed offering is Working Man's Lunch (6 percent a.b.v.), a black ale inspired by "the Southern tradition of an RC Cola and a MoonPie." It's made with vanilla and locally produced chocolate nibs.
"We haven't had any major misses yet," Wilson says. "We've made a million tweaks, adjustments, and recipe refinements along the way, but the main ideas that are put into practice have worked well. The biggest surprise beer was actually the first test batch the we made in the summer of 2010. It was a farmhouse-style ale that was so tasty it became our regular summer seasonal."
Wilson didn't always plan to oversee strange experiments with recipes at a full-scale brewing operation for a living, but he fell into it naturally. As a high schooler, he moved to the Raleigh-Durham area from the Philadelphia suburbs. He earned an MBA and master's of public policy from Duke University before working in several fine-dining restaurants in the Triangle area (including the prestigious Magnolia Grill) as a waiter and manager. Wilson also did stints as a director of special projects for a Japanese weather service company and as consultant for business research company Hoover's/Dunn & Bradstreet, but he missed the F&B scene.
"It was during that stint of freelancing that I realized I didn't need to work for someone else," Wilson says. "I was basically working independently for myself, which gave me the confidence to start my own business. My experience at Magnolia Grill exposed me to some of the great local food in the area and some of the best local beers of the region."
Wilson has always been a beer fan, but his fondness for the craft brewing scene accelerated in the 2000s. In 2003, he founded the beer lobbying organization Pop the Cap to support the growing movement to change outdated state laws that restricted the availability of high-gravity ales and lagers in the Tar Heel state. Pop the Cap's efforts succeeded in 2005, opening economic markets to North Carolina's craft beer industry.
"I didn't start up Pop the Cap with a plan of launching my own brewery," Wilson says. "I just did it as a craft beer enthusiast. I had no idea I'd soon be owning a brewery. As I got into the industry, I realized I loved the people and the product, and it felt like it was what I was meant to do."
Wilson developed a unique relationship with Charleston through his lobbying efforts with Pop the Cap. COAST Brewing's Jaime Tenny and David Merritt were Wilson's South Carolina counterparts.
Wilson visited Charleston last week to present six Fullsteam beers to locals at a dinner at Closed for Business. It was a sneak preview of more to come. While not yet distributed in the Charleston market, Fullsteam will be available in town by summer. The brewery's current output supply is very limited, but they plan to expand capacity and have ordered more fermentation tanks.
"We're starting with Charleston before we branch out into the rest of the state," Wilson says. "I think there's a lot of excitement in the food and beer scenes in Charleston, so we're looking forward to getting in there."
For Brewvival, taking place in North Charleston on Feb. 25, he will be offering samples from two beers: the 2011 Summer Barrel, a summer ale made with basil and aged in oak with brettanomyces yeast, and a bourbon barrel-aged version of their flagship lager.
"The Carolina brewing scene is so strong nowadays, and there are some great breweries making great beers, so I think it's more fun and interesting to go into it with a slightly different take," Wilson says. "I don't think making traditional pale ales, brown ales, and porters is quite as daring. We have a different approach, but we don't depart from the main rule that the beers have to be delicious. They're novel and curious at times. The rule No. 1 is great flavor."
For more information on Fullsteam Brewing visit fullsteam.ag.