Friday, February 25, 2011

Week #8 - Sean Lily Wilson

My first introduction to Sean Lily Wilson and Fullsteam Brewery was much like many, many other peoples': I heard about it on the internet. Fullsteam has a lot of buzz to be buzzing about, but one of the great stories leading up to the brewery's opening was how cool this brewery and these dudes...seemed. You already knew them because they were hitting social media with a full court press. Fast forward to CBC 2010 and the Storytelling panel that has popped up numerous times in this interview series: Sean's assessment of how social media made Fullsteam a regular name before an ounce of beer hit the market was majorly impressive. Fast forward yet again to the current: Fullsteam's approach to brewing for their community, including their local producers, and lifting many ships with their mighty tide is the feel good story that you may not have heard yet and the story is, in many ways, textbook for how to get your beer on the radar in this digital age. Ok, now rewind. North Carolina pops its 6% abv cap and Sean Lily Wilson was right there in the trenches.

See this man, shake his hand, cheers his beer and get to know Sean Lily Wilson...

With Fullsteam you celebrate and highlight many of the wonderful crops and traditions of the South. Is the brewery the culmination of two ideas coming together: Wanting to open a brewery and wanting to find a way to support your local producers on a large scale or was the idea always to open a brewery that utilizes locally grown ingredients?

Southern ingredients and Southern traditions were always central to Fullsteam’s concept, ever since brewer Chris Davis and I first envisioned starting a brewery four years ago. We changed our mind plenty along the way: our first idea was more farmhouse brewery and restaurant. Over time, we realized that Durhamites wanted a hometown brewery more than a brewpub/restaurant. But the common thread was always incorporating local ingredients in the brewing process.

I love Fullsteam's ultimate goal of a brewery sustained fully by what's within local means. Agriculturally, what would have to change to make that happen? Is malted barley the biggest obstacle?

Yes, our biggest challenge will be obtaining locally-malted barley and local hops, which account for the overwhelming majority of beer’s farmed inputs. It’s one thing to brew with local adjuncts – the most local we go is Carver, which is brewed with 500 pounds of local sweet potatoes per batch (one-third of the beer’s base fermentables). But our goal is to make Fullsteam Southern Lager -- heck, all of our beers – as local as possible. This includes local barley and hops. Yes, it’s ambitious – but with new strains and advances in farm sciences, I see every reason to believe that local hops and local barley is possible in my lifetime.

We want to encourage farmers that if they can grow it, keep it consistent, and price it fairly, we will buy it…and we believe customers will buy local. The biggest challenge I see isn’t in the growing of these items, it’s in the post-harvest infrastructure: the malting and kilning of grain; the threshing, drying, and pelletizing of hops. And, of course, pricing the ingredients competitively.

Our vision is to make distinctly Southern beer. If that means our beer has a slightly different character because we use regional ingredients, then that’s a success in my book. Of course, all this presumes that quality and taste are never sacrificed.

How did you hookup with Brooks Hamaker and Chris Davis? What do each of you bring to the table to make Fullsteam a reality?

Chris and I met at a Pop The Cap dinner I hosted at the Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill in 2006. We kept talking and scheming, and I have an incredible amount of respect and appreciation for Chris’ patience as we worked to make the brewery a reality.

As we got closer to finding equipment and nailing down a space, it became clear we needed a “been there, done that” professional. A mutual friend of Brooks’ and mine, Dean McCord, introduced us at the 2009 Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. Brooks, Chris and I had actually met at the ’08 SFA symposium, but Dean suggested we start talking specifics. Brooks was the founding brewer at Abita and was looking to get back into brewing.

It’s one thing to know how to brew beer, but it’s another skill entirely to know how to set up a brewery. Brooks brings both skills to the table. He also tends to favor more traditional beers, whereas Chris, with his homebrewing background, is more about experimentation and pushing the envelope.

I focus on front-of-the-house tasks like sales, delivery (for now), tavern management, marketing, and social media. Beer-wise, I bring some ideas to the table, and Chris and Brooks generally take them to the next level. For example, while I had the idea for Working Man’s Lunch (a beer inspired by MoonPies and RC Cola), it was Brooks and Chris who schemed up the idea of using a Weihenstephan yeast to throw off some vanilla and banana-like notes to the beer, to mimic the sweet biscuityness of a MoonPie. I wouldn’t have thought of that.

With two product lines representing two different roads you're going down on the brewing side, have you seen more reaction towards the Workers' Compensation line of true-to-style beers or more on the side of Plow to Pint beers utilizing ingredients like sweet potatoes, persimmon, and house-smoked malt?

The Fullsteam business plan states that we “expect to be known for our Plow-to-Pint offerings, but we’ll likely sell a lot more of the Workers’ Compensation beers.” I think we got that just about right. Many people know we brew a beer that smells and tastes like bacon (Hogwash, a hickory-smoked porter), but it’s our only bona fide slow-moving beer. We sell a lot more Fullsteam Southern Lager and Rocket Science IPA. That said, Carver sweet potato lager is a huge hit, and that’s in the Plow-to-Pint series.

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to categorize our beers – like Working Man’s Lunch. It’s not really “Plow-to-Pint,” because the ingredients aren’t really local. We do use local chocolate from a great artisan purveyor out of Raleigh, Escazu. But it’s not a “true-to-style” beer, either…because of that whole hefe yeast thing, which makes the beer more of a dark ale than a traditional stout. And people reading this might think, “whatever, it’s not a big deal,” but it has all these implications, from the eventual look of the label to the type of package it goes in. I guess I just don’t ever want our “series” approach to constrain us. If I want to brew a Black IPA, we should be able to do that. Is a black IPA “true-to-style?” If not, must we make it “Plow-to-Pint?” Our own labels can be a challenge.

I'm assuming there will be some seasonality necessary in the Plow to Pint lineup? How does availability and any inconsistency of raw materials (size, yield, difference in what flavors/sugars you're extracting) each time they're harvested affect the final product and your approach to production?

I liken our Plow-to-Pint approach to that of wine: agricultural products vary from year-to-year. We should celebrate this variance.

At times, it bugs me that most brewers make pumpkin beers from canned pumpkin (or spices that suggest pumpkin) in freakin’ July – when pumpkins are still green – just so the beer can match the season. Now I’m not naïve enough to think that a pumpkin beer should come out in December (after the pumpkin harvest and when the beer is finally ready), because people have been trained to get pumpkin beers in October.

But I really struggle with this.

Our industry marries beer to its social, cultural, and emotional contexts. Not its agricultural roots. It’s part of the reason most people don’t know what beer is made from – they know little to nothing of the harvesting methods.

We’re finishing up a beer called First Frost – it’s a winter ale brewed with 75 pounds of local persimmons. Southern tradition has it that persimmons are best after the first frost: the fruit is nice and sugary by then, and the unpleasant tannins are mostly eliminated. We started picking persimmons after our first frost, which ultimately means the beer won’t be ready until late January – well after the first frost.

Soon enough we’re going to see a warm-up in temperatures, and the last thing we’re going to be thinking about is the autumn frost date. So how does Fullsteam handle this? I don’t want to freeze persimmons to launch the beer the following October. That feels so inauthentic to me. I want to celebrate the harvest. People in the South should know what a persimmon is: when it’s harvested, what it tastes like, where you can find them. Is this a winning proposition for our customer base? Do we risk having a winter beer sitting on store shelves in April because we’re committed to working within the seasons? I don’t yet know. We don’t have a year’s worth of experience to know. But I love the challenge. Sorry for the long answer.

The first thing that sparked my interest about Fullsteam was hearing about the brewery during your panel at CBC and learning how much interest and buzz you'd created online before you were even open. How important was that initial period of raising awareness to your brewery as you built up your site and prepared to open up?

Oh man, that means a lot to me. We are very fortunate that Fullsteam’s build-out coincided nicely with the mainstream acceptance of social media. Not only did blogging, Facebook, and Twitter help us generate interest and excitement, but I know I secured some investors as they followed our story online. It wasn’t as direct as my friend and fellow CBC panelist Erik Lars Myers’ efforts (using Kickstarter to raise money for Mystery Brewing Company), but our online presence helped us raise money more quickly. No doubt about it.

To ramble on this a bit more: I am surprised by how “ordinary” a lot of brewery communication is online. Some of the best ongoing communication with our fans and friends is only tangentially related to beer: discussions on the best music of the year, crazy inventions from 100 years ago, odes to The Room and unintentionally bad movies. My goal is to talk with, not at. I like it, and I can’t think of doing it any other way. Though I admit it is a little jarring for some, particularly those who believe a business’ online tone and timbre should sound like traditional PR.

How many years in the making was Pop The Cap and what prompted you to head the campaign of bringing more sane beer laws to North Carolina?

The short answer: it took three years from wanting to change the law to actually having the law changed. That’s a pretty short timeframe, especially considering the push was to relax an alcohol law in a Southern state.

The long answer:
In 2002, a good friend of mine from business school, JP Cardona, invited me to an after-party. “You’ve never had beers like this before,” he told me. And boy, was he was right: beers I had never heard of…barleywines, corked-and-caged rarities, double IPAs. I thought I knew about craft beer – after all, I shopped at the local grocery store to buy Sam Adams and local beer – but I had no idea this world of specialty beer existed. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

That was my craft beer epiphany moment. JP told me that night about North Carolina’s 6 percent alcohol limit. I thought about all the incredible flavors I had just enjoyed and thought, wow, that’s a really stupid law. Especially because our state-run liquor stores sold Everclear. So I thought I’d try to figure out what it took to change the law.

Anyways, I was unemployed at the time. This was after the tech bubble, and I was a technology startup guy. So I was networking a lot, looking for work…and getting increasingly interested in craft beer. As I started networking in the beer world, I quickly discovered All About Beer Magazine and the World Beer Festival, located here in Durham. At that time, the head of both, Daniel Bradford, was also leading the Brewers Association of America (BAA), which has since merged with the Brewers Association.

I called Daniel, introduced myself, and in typical Daniel fashion, he had me working the next day, stuffing envelopes. Here I was talking beer and politics with Daniel, Julie Johnson, and Pete Johnson (now of the BA). It was incredible.

Within a few weeks, Julie and I had gathered a group together of about 40 people disgruntled with the 6% alcohol cap. Many of these folks were homebrewers, though the group also included some retailers and at least one beer writer (Tony Kiss of Asheville). We had enough of a spark from that group to get started, though we were incredibly naïve in knowing what to do. We thought a petition would help. A petition! It’s almost laughable now. We quickly realized we needed a lobbyist to represent our cause, and the inestimable Theresa Kostrzewa took us on as a client.

There’s a lot more to the story, but this is already crazy-long. It’s largely still online at

I am enamored with beer culture in North Carolina. I love travelling there for work and have a lot of friends from up North that have traveled to NC for reasons strictly pertaining to beer. Since I've only visited post-Cap Popping, could you explain a little bit about what the beer landscape was like before the limit on ABV went from 6 to 15 percent?

North Carolina didn’t have the variety and scope, but it had the passion and skill. Breweries like Carolina Brewery, Highland, and many others were in-place and making great beer. The biggest impact was on the store shelves, where you just wouldn’t see the range of beer you do now. Of course, many more N.C. breweries have opened since 2005, but I think that’s generally a function of the craft beer explosion. More breweries are opening up everywhere.

Where would you say beer in North Carolina is headed? With a ton of great brewers, festivals, and a lots of awesome retail options, what should people peeking in from afar be most clued into about the future of beer in NC?

I suspect North Carolina beer is going to get more adventuresome. Our focus is using local ingredients and local traditions to try and define Southern beer. That’s our niche. As new breweries come on the scene, they’ll work to establish their own niche: farmhouse ales, canned beer, session ales, sours, and new approaches and angles. I believe it’s going to bring a friendly competitiveness that will push our state along in terms of beer innovation and creativity. Perhaps soon we won’t be looking westward for trends and ideas, but we’ll be developing our own in-state.

I do hope that, in spite of this inevitable competition, we remain collaborative and upbeat and relatively free of snark. It’s beer. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s the beverage of celebration and community. One of the GREAT things about North Carolina is just how upbeat its citizens and brewers are on craft beer. I’ll be disappointed if North Carolinians become jaded, seeking the unicorn instead of enjoying the moment.

How about Fullsteam specifically? What's on the horizon for the early part of 2011?

We just released our first sour beer, Sour Mashed Sweet Potato, and soon we’ll be releasing First Frost, the winter persimmon beer. Soon it’ll be time for Pastinaak, a farmhouse ale made with parsnips and Liborius Gollhardt, a sour rhubarb ale. Spring and summer can’t come soon enough.

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