Local

Charlotte’s craft beer boom lifts other businesses, too

JACOB STEIMER, jsteimer@charlotteobserver.com

Scott Coggins benefits from the craft beer boom despite the fact that he is not a brewer. Here he leads a tour of Birdsong Brewing Co. in NoDa. His business is Charlotte Brews Cruise.
Scott Coggins benefits from the craft beer boom despite the fact that he is not a brewer. Here he leads a tour of Birdsong Brewing Co. in NoDa. His business is Charlotte Brews Cruise. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Wesley Langenbacher, Greg Forehand and Scott Coggins are each making their livings off of Charlotte’s recent craft beer craze. None of them sell beer.

In the last seven years, the city has gone from having no craft breweries to having 17, which has been a boon for many Charlottte small businessmen. Some have built full business models off of the industry, from brewery tours to brewery software.

“Local breweries are more likely to use other local companies than a large national company is,” said Bart Watson, economist with the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. “The beauty of small manufacturing is its inefficiency. ... (A craft brewery) has a much larger impact on its local economy because of its inefficiency.”

The Charlotte Chamber estimates that Charlotte’s craft breweries generated $808.9 million in economic activity in 2014. Two percent of this was reportedly earned by the roughly 300 employees who work in the breweries.

The rest fell into the hands of people all across the community, like Langenbacher, Forehand and Coggins – Charlotteans riding the craft beer wave.

Beer and sandwiches

Langenbacher is a sandwich man. Since 2013, he’s been selling 10 types of grilled cheese out of his “Big Blue Truck” in Charlotte. But he couldn’t do it without beer.

Langenbacher’s Imperial Sandwich Co. truck parks outside the city’s breweries three to six evenings per week. Those evenings generate 80 percent of his revenue.

When he decided to move his food truck from Pennsylvania to Charlotte, Langenbacher was unaware of the pace at which brew pubs were springing up in the Queen City. They weren’t a major part of his business plan. Now, he doesn’t know if he could survive without them.

“I hope we could make it without (the breweries), but ... they are a pretty key essential to our success,” Langenbacher said. “(The craft beer boom) was really nice because it helped food trucks who were just trying to get their foot in the door.”

Langenbacher and local brewers praised the relationship between breweries and food trucks. The breweries get to decide which food trucks they allow on their street, and Langenbacher believes the compatibility between his cuisine and good beer is the reason he keeps getting asked back to the breweries.

“After people have had a few beers, they usually enjoy a nice sandwich,” Langenbacher said.

Beer and software

In January 2014, Forehand was trying to find a niche for his 12-year-old software company, Ekos. He was tired of developing software for large, mainstream companies, and he was ready to make a change.

He would find that change at Triple C Brewing Co. in South End. Triple C owners Chris Harker and Scott Kimball told him they needed better software to manage their brewery.

Four months later, Forehand and his team were finishing up a redesign of their software, which they named Ekos Brewmaster.

“There was really a big need for management of breweries,” Forehand said. “A batch of beer can take three weeks up to a year to produce. You have to track all of that for management purposes and legal purposes.”

The software helps brewers track inventory and production lines. It’s designed to mirror the layout of a brewery and to “work the way that they (brewers) work.”

Four local breweries now use the software, along with almost 300 other breweries worldwide, according to Forehand. After a little more than a year, Forehand said the Brewmaster product has become about 50 percent of Ekos’s revenue. He expects 400 breweries to be on board by summer’s end and 600-800 by 2016. At that rate, Forehand said the product will easily become the large majority of his company’s revenue.

Forehand said he has done very little advertising, with referrals being the driving factor in his growth.

“(Brewers) willingly help each other even if they’re right down the street from each other,” Forehand said. “They don’t see each other as competitors.”

And while brewers’ generosity with each other has boosted Forehand’s business, he might be more appreciative of their generosity with him. After all, who doesn’t like free beer?

Fridays are now “beer Fridays” at Ekos, and Forehand and his employees get to spend parts of their last day of work drinking craft brews and learning more about beer. They dress casually every day of the week, trading in the business casual clothing they used to wear for shorts and t-shirts.

“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s kind of hard to compare it to what we used to do. You can’t help but have a good time at work now,” Forehand said.

Beer... and more beer

It’s 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon at Unknown Brewing Co. when Coggins leads in his tour group. They’re young, curious and ready to drink good beer. Coggins can tell these guys anything they want to know about beer or the brewery they’re standing in. This is, after all, his job – showing off Charlotte’s local breweries for Charlotte Brews Cruise.

Coggins, 29, grew up in Statesville and has worked in tourism since he graduated from UNC-Charlotte in 2008 with a history degree. He has given tours across the country by foot, bus, van, bicycle, Segway, helicopter and horse-drawn carriage.

After living in cities from Seattle to Charleston, though, he decided to come back to Charlotte in 2011. He was skilled in tourism and passionate about beer, so he saw a great business opportunity in the beer boom he witnessed.

“When I had a chance to combine what I do with what I love, it just made sense,” Coggins said.

He launched Charlotte Brews Cruise in November 2013, one week after his honeymoon.

From the first five months of 2014 to the first five months of 2015, Coggins said he has increased his revenue by 160 percent. However, he would like to get his average of three tours per week up to five tours per week.

The first thing Coggins tells his customers who call is that his tours are not party buses. The history major cares about informing his clients about the breweries they visit and the beer they drink. He chooses the beer they sample, wanting to widen their palates.

“(Scott) brings an educational piece,” Unknown Brewing Co. owner Brad Shell said. “They get a chance to try our beers but, more importantly, check out our culture.”

Tours cost a base price of $49 per person and include 12-15 samples at three different breweries. Through the course of a tour, participants drink a little more than three pints.

“Three is fun. Four is trouble,” Coggins said. “It’s enough to give you that warm happy feeling but not enough to get you wasted.”

The tough part for Coggins is not getting to experience that warm feeling himself.

“The hardest part of my job is hanging out in breweries all day long and not drinking a drop,” Coggins said.

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