In Search of a Home Brew

Sean Lilly Wilson '00 is on a mission to capture the flavor of the South
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On a September afternoon, the sprawling warehouse of Durham’s Fullsteam tavern and brewery is warm with a rich, smoky aroma. Presently, Fullsteam’s Chief Executive Optimist Sean Lilly Wilson M.B.A., M.P.P. ’00 emerges from a back room with a charming smile and a strong handshake. He reveals the source of the mysterious autumnal scent: hickory-smoked North Carolina-grown barley for Fullsteam’s Hogwash porter. The beer offers a taste of Wilson’s mission to capture the flavor of the South.

You may have heard of food that is farm-to-table, but what about beer that is plow-to-pint? For the last four years, Fullsteam has been pioneering plow-to-pint by using ingredients culled from local foragers and farmers.

Beer made with persimmons or pawpaws might sound strange, but Wilson says that experimenting with homebrews began long ago. “The working thesis is that civilization began with fermentation,” he says. “Society formed because of farming, but also because of the Sumerian discovery of fermenting grains. It brought people together socially, culturally, and economically.

“We hark back to an era when, out of necessity and desire and economy, people fermented what they foraged,” he adds. “Now we can do it as a celebration.”

Beer contains four key ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and grains (usually malted barley). Sometimes brewers add fruits or spices, called adjuncts, for a certain flavor or foaminess. Using adjuncts, Fullsteam brewers have created Carver Sweet Potato, a lager made from North Carolina sweet potatoes; Working Man’s Lunch, a chocolatey brown ale that evokes the classic MoonPie and RC Cola meal; and Cack-alacky, a zingy ginger pale ale made with local ginger whenever possible.

The brewery even has experimented with local yeast instead of the typical commercial brewer’s yeast. Last summer, one of Fullsteam’s yeast wranglers got permission to capture yeast from a Chinese purple lilac in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. The yeast was then isolated and stored so Fullsteam can use it in the future.

“We don’t do local because it’s trendy,” says Wilson, “but because we want the South to retain a unique sense of place.” Brewing purely local can be tricky, he says, when one out of five people come into Fullsteam thirsty for an India Pale Ale (IPA). IPAs are made from hops that tend to grow best on the West Coast, where there’s more summer daylight and less humidity. Wilson tries to strike a balance between the unknown and the familiar. “You have to be mindful of what the community’s interests are.”

Wilson’s love for craft beer grew organically over many years. In 1992, he moved to the Durham area with his wife, Carolyn. Back then, beer was just a casual hobby, a pleasant but ordinary beverage he picked up by the six-pack from Harris Teeter. That changed the night his friend J.P. Cardona M.B.A. ’00 invited him to taste rare beers at the Armadillo Grill in the Bryan Center. Wilson’s wonder at the new flavors was diluted only when Cardona told him that the beers were illegal in North Carolina, owing to a Prohibition-era law that capped malt beverages at 6 percent alcohol.

Wilson thought the restriction was senseless and unjust. “When you can get Everclear at the state-run Alcoholic Beverage Control at 90 percent alcohol or you can get Mad Dog 20/20, but you couldn’t get a 7 percent IPA or Belgian ale, it just made no sense,” he recalls. “The culture was here, the people were here, the smarts were here, the passion was here, but we had the leftover law that was handcuffing the brewers’ creativity.”

Wilson helped lead a campaign called Pop the Cap, which succeeded in lifting the alcohol cap in 2005. North Carolina brewers now had the freedom to brew a third of the world’s beer styles that were previously illegal.

After Pop the Cap, Wilson began to think seriously about fashioning a career out of craft beer. Not only did he love the taste and the community, but he also loved the possibility. “Beer is an ever-changing concept,” he says. “It’s not just a fizzy yellow substance.” He adds that unlike wine, beer is relatively affordable. “It’s delicious, it’s great with food, and it’s a builder of community.”

At the time, craft beer was a fairly unexplored market in the South, so it was a field ripe for new interpretation. “There’s something here,” he thought, “but I don’t know what.” He started attending beer dinners and tastings across the state, but was not being assertive enough. “I realized to make this work, I need to not be the entrepreneur-in-waiting,” he recalls. “I needed to actually make this happen.”

He spent the next three years finessing his business plan, securing funding from a variety of sources, and finding a location—a 1930sera defunct 7-Up bottling plant north of downtown. Fullsteam opened its doors in 2010. Since then, the neighborhood has blossomed with independently owned bars, eateries, and a coffee shop.

As both a tavern and a community center, Fullsteam provides a place for all kinds of moments, “from having a blind date, to singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ to coming here after a funeral,” Wilson says. “Anybody should be able to come through those doors and feel like they have a home here.”

Wilson pours a dram of Fullsteam’s Saint Basil. The beer tastes refreshing, floral, bright, like Durham in the springtime. Is this what he means by Southern beer? “We don’t know,” he says. “We don’t have the answer. We’re exploring this process, and it’s a gradual thing.” Capturing the taste of place may remain elusive, but Wilson feels that may be the point: “If I never realize that goal, I’ve had what I hope to be a lifetime of exploring what it means. And I’m perfectly fine with that.”

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.