No small beer


Raleigh taprooms and community

by Dean McCord

photographs by Nick Pironio

Yes, we need beer. What was once an afterthought in the U.S. – craft beer – has become a phenomenon. In the early ’80s, there were fewer than 100 craft breweries in the entire country. Today, there are nearly 160 in North Carolina alone. Twenty-two of them are in Wake County; 11 are within Raleigh city limits. And more are on the way. This is remarkable, because until 10 years ago, state law capped beer alcohol content at six percent, severely restricting the type of beer that could be sold or produced in North Carolina. But when House Bill 392 passed in 2005, that cap bumped up to 15 percent, and a brave new world of beer drinking and beer brewing dawned in the Old North State.

Today, breweries are part of the community fabric. Raleigh’s 11 taprooms each have a different personality and a unique sense of place and history. Some have a hominess about them, something akin to a small British pub, with darts, billiards, and small anterooms for peace and quiet. Others are boisterous, cavernous, and industrial. Crowds are varied: Some cater to a younger crowd, others are filled with older working stiffs. Some places are ultra-creative, incorporating peanut butter, chocolate, salted caramel, coffee, and other flavors into their brews. Others are beholden to tradition – not necessarily going so far as to follow Reinheitsgebot, the classic German beer purity law that allows only four ingredients (yeast, hops, malt, and water) – but not too far off that dogma, either.


What these brewpubs all have in common is their diversity, dynamism, and inclusivity – making for a true reflection of our community. Although beer is generally thought of as being less highbrow than wine, that’s often not the case. The complexity of some of today’s brews give wine a run for its money, and there are plenty of beer snobs who will talk about ABV, IBU, and SRM (these are measurements of a beer’s alcohol content, bitterness, and color, respectively). If you walk into one of our local taprooms, some of this technical information might be on the menu of available beers, but you won’t get lectured about it. The bartender might ask you what type of beer you like: hoppy, creamy, light, dark, fruity, rich. But what you’ll get is something special, a beer made on the premises by some folks who likely got into this business as homebrewers; folks who are now riding the wave of beer’s popularity.

This story will not appeal to the beer geeks, because it’s really not about the beer. It’s about the taproom, and how each one in Raleigh has a different approach to creating a community center.


Big Boss

The elder statesman of Raleigh breweries is but 10 years old. Big Boss Brewing opened in 2006 and has developed a strong following for several locally iconic beers, including Bad Penny dark brown ale and Angry Angel Kőlsch-style ale. Its upstairs taproom has a small pub-like atmosphere, where you can play darts, Ping-Pong, or table shuffleboard. You can also sneak away and have private conversations in one of their small anterooms. The newer taproom in the lower level with a view of the brewing tanks has a more industrial vibe, and offers picnic tables, cornhole, and plenty of room to spread out. Big Boss also invites social interaction in a somewhat unexpected way – through running, of all things. The Big Boss Run Club, which just celebrated its 5th anniversary, starts at the brewery every Tuesday evening. Participants can run anywhere from three to six miles along Raleigh’s greenways. It’s a fun run, there’s no pressure to go far or fast, and beer and food trucks make for a nice prize afterwards.


Crank Arm

If running isn’t your thing, how about cycling? Crank Arm Brewing in downtown Raleigh took the love of bikes and combined it with beer. “We always wanted to open a pedestrian-friendly, German-style beer hall and brewery that combines the love of cycling with beer,” says co-owner Adam Eckhardt. The idea quickly caught on – Crank Arm is one of the most crowded taprooms in the area (but not uncomfortably so). Its location near the Red Hat Amphitheater doesn’t hurt, but it’s the long communal tables, bicycle-themed artwork on the walls, and sense of fun that has made Crank Arm the place for millennials to drink great beer (all with cycling-themed names, of course, like Low Gear Irish-style dry stout, White Wall Wheat, and Uphill Climb Belgian-style blonde ale). On a recent late afternoon, the tables were filled with folks playing Jenga, board games, and watching sports. A long, arcing bar has plenty of seats if you want to interact with the bartenders, who are knowledgeable and friendly. But it just might be that emphasis on cycling that truly makes people love Crank Arm. “We have a group ride every Wednesday, where we’ll go for a 10-to-15-mile outing,” Eckhardt says. We typically have 50 or so riders, but we can also get over 100. And it doesn’t matter your cycling experience; no one gets left behind.” And then they return to the brewery, relax, and enjoy a brew.

Gizmo Brew Works

A taproom’s location may not matter that much. Take Gizmo Brew Works, near the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and I-540. Many breweries are in industrial areas, but Gizmo takes it to an extreme. If you are looking for a boat trailer, a metal fabricator, or some replacement glass, you’ve come to the right neighborhood. It’s not the smallest taproom in the area (more on that honor next), but it’s certainly intimate. Gizmo just completed a taproom renovation to celebrate its third anniversary. But the crowd flows outside the confines of the room, sometimes under a tent across the parking lot, or into the lot itself. It’s a free and easy kind of place.

Sub Noir Brewing Company

Another strangely located brewery (in a strip near Tica’s X-Clusive Salon off Whittaker Mill Rd.), is Sub Noir Brewing Company, which is really all about beer – experimental beer, at that. The taproom, if you can call it that, looks like it could be the waiting room of a third-rate tax preparation service. And although the upstairs has a bit of a rustic hideaway charm to it, you don’t come here for the ambiance. You come here for the beer, which often sells out quickly. If you want to try something unique, this is your spot. You can get a Flanders sour brewed with tart cherries or a chocolate stout made with Videri chocolate and, yes, Count Chocula cereal. It might be too offbeat for many, but this beer is some of the most fun stuff in the region.



Lynnwood Brewing Concern

Although William Blake’s quotation about the advantages of a good local pub over a church (“A good local pub has much in common with a church, except that a pub is warmer, and there’s more conversation”) may be controversial, there’s no doubt that taprooms foster conversation. Lynnwood Brewing Concern has grown considerably since it first started making beer in the back of the Lynnwood Grill restaurant. The beer was a huge hit at the grill, and when a local brewery with a lot of production space decided to close, restaurant owner Ted Dwyer jumped at the opportunity. “I wanted a fun place, where beer snobs, beer novices, locals, tourists, and people coming home from work would be comfortable.” Dwyer hit a home run (pun fully intended), as Lynnwood is the “sports bar” of Raleigh taprooms, with a large, open room, lots of televisions, and tons of conversation. This might be the loudest brewpub in Raleigh, and one of the least self-important, as evidenced by Lynnwood’s playful beer names, including Bill and Ted’s Excellent Amber, Blonde Moment Belgian blonde, and Big Papi porter (for Red Sox fans, apparently).


Danny Kidd, John Bailey, Josh Hamilton playing Jenga at Neuse River Brewing

Neuse River Brewing Co.

One brewery that feels like it represents its community particularly well is Neuse River Brewing Co., and that may be because it’s in Five Points. Brewer Ryan Kolarov was having trouble finding the right spot for his planned venture when his parents happened to see a For Lease sign. “We just got lucky,” said Kolarov. “The place was overgrown and beat up,”  he says, but he recognized a gem behind the weeds. Kolarov’s wife, Jen Kolarov, used her design skills to create a space that calls to mind the wine tasting rooms of her home in Northern California. Along with co-owner David Powell, the Neuse River crew built everything inside, from tables and benches to the bar itself. The place is inviting, with a pleasant patio, filled with families, dogs, and beer lovers. “This isn’t a darts pub,” said Kolarov. “Being in a residential neighborhood, we like that many of our customers walk here.” Neuse River has been open less than a year, but it’s already gained a strong following, with its focus on tasty Belgian-style beers. The beer is clean, without a lot of goofiness, but complex nonetheless. It’s also a perfect complement to food. Or just something to sip on a lazy evening.

Nickelpoint Brewing Co.

Right next door to Neuse River is Nickelpoint Brewing Co., which also likes to emphasize its connection with the area’s residents. “The ability to provide community outreach was one of the big things that we were looking for when seeking out a location,” said co-owner Shaluka Perera (see Walter’s Snapchat with Perera or listen to our podcast interview with him at “We like to appeal to each of our three types of customers,” he says, “the beer nerds, the people who just want to hang out, and families.” Nickelpoint has perhaps the most unusual layout of all the breweries, with a bar area, a side area that feels more like a cafe, an industrial brewing area (where musicians often play in front of the tanks), and an outside patio. The beer is fairly traditional, which is getting harder to find in this era of mega-innovation. 

Compass Rose

The people are very friendly at Compass Rose Brewery, another newcomer. The room is cavernous and often hosts live music, which can result in an older crowd. But that crowd loves this brewery, and they love to have a good time. Thursdays are trivia nights; they’ve done beer dinners with local chefs; and their beers are solid. But there’s plenty more to do, with darts, board games, and more.



Trophy Brewing Co.

The newest brewery in town is Trophy Brewing Co.’s Trophy Brewing on Maywood, located on the south side of town. For years, Trophy has been known for its pizza and tiny brewery located on Morgan Street, but just a few months ago, the group opened a larger production facility and taproom on Maywood Avenue, not far from the State Farmers Market. The room is warm and has a view of the brewing space, with lots of wood on the walls and ceiling, and – what else? – trophies for tap handles. Dogs are welcome, as are their two-legged friends. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the brewery was packed, inside and out, with customers enjoying lighter cream ales (“the perfect lawnmower beer,” according to Trophy) on one end of the spectrum, and a Belgian quadruple ale at the other end.

Raleigh Brewing Company

Happiness. A taproom can definitely be your happy place, and Raleigh Brewing Company is one of them. The company, which includes a brewery and attached homebrew store, was started by a husband-and-wife team; the wife, Kristie Nystedt, is the President and CEO, and the couple’s two daughters are also involved in the business. “We understood that Raleighites are very busy, without a lot of time,” Nystedt said. “We wanted a place where people could relax and have good conversation, maybe with their kids.” The walls are filled with colorful murals of Raleigh cityscapes, painted by local artists. And like many other breweries, Raleigh Brewing works to give back to the community, donating 10 percent of its Tuesday revenues to the N.C. Multiple Sclerosis


Perhaps the most successful craft brewery in Raleigh is Lonerider, which now ranks as one of the 150 largest breweries in the nation and is distributed in many states. Lonerider found a marketing angle – the Wild West – and has stuck with it. “Ales for Outlaws,” is the company’s tagline. It’s a masculine theme, and the beers and labels, with rough-cut cowboys and buxom maids, reflect the beers’ names: Shotgun Betty Hefeweizen, Peacemaker pale ale, and Hoppy Ki Yay IPA. The brewery’s small taproom sticks with the concept – it’s called The Hideout, and it features beer in categories such as “Outlawed Seasonal” and “Beers of Ill Repute.” Is it campy? Sure. But it’s fun, with a loyal and large fan base. I guess everyone wants to be an outlaw.


Big Boss

Monday 3 p.m. – 12 midnight, Tuesday – Thursday 3 p.m. – 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday 2 p.m. – 2 a.m., Sunday 1 – 7 p.m.

1249-A Wicker Drive;

Crank Arm

Monday – Thursday 4 p.m. – 12 midnight, Friday 4 p.m. – 2 a.m., Saturday 12 noon – 2 a.m., Sunday 12 noon – 10 p.m.

319 W. Davie St.;

Gizmo Brew Works

Wednesday and Thursday 4 – 10 p.m., Friday 3 – 10 p.m., Saturday 1 – 10 p.m., Sunday 1 – 7 p.m.

5907 Triangle Drive;

Sub Noir Brewing Company

Friday 6 p.m. – 12 midnight, Saturday 12 noon – 8 p.m., Sunday 2 – 8 p.m.

2039 Progress Court;

Lynnwood Brewing Concern

Monday – Thursday 4 – 11 p.m., Friday 3 p.m. – 1 a.m., Saturday 12 noon – 1 a.m., Sunday 12 noon – 10 p.m.

1053 E. Whitaker Mill Road,

Neuse River Brewing Co.

Wednesday and Thursday 5 – 10 p.m., Friday 5 – 11 p.m., Saturday 12 noon – 11 p.m., Sunday 12 noon – 10 p.m.

518 Pershing Road;

Nickelpoint Brewing Co.

Monday – Thursday 4 – 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 12 noon – 12 midnight, Sunday 12 noon – 10 p.m.

506 Pershing Road,

Compass Rose

Monday – Wednesday 3 p.m. – 12 midnight, Thursday – Sunday 12 noon – 12 midnight

3201 Northside Drive, Suite 101;

Trophy Brewing Co.

Monday – Thursday 3 p.m. – 12 midnight, Friday 3 p.m. – 2 a.m., Saturday 12 noon – 2 a.m., Sunday 12 noon – 12 midnight

656 Maywood Ave.;

Raleigh Brewing Company

Monday – Thursday 12 noon – 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 12 noon – 12 midnight, Sunday 12 noon – 6 p.m.

3709 Neil St.;


Monday – Thursday 2 – 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 2 – 11 p.m., Sunday 2 – 7 p.m.

8816 Gulf Court, Suite 100;