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Brewery Boom

For many, it started as a hobby in basements or garages. “Home brewing” craft beer took off in the 1980s in North Carolina, and “brew pubs” popped up in the 1990s, the predecessors to the craft breweries now proliferating throughout Charlotte and the state.

These days, craft brewing is a huge force for tourism and economic development, transforming once-decrepit warehouses and office buildings into thriving gathering spots. The national Brewers Association says the industry pumps more than $2 billion per year into the North Carolina economy.

And if you trace both the history and the current state of breweries, you’ll find a surprising number of connections to Providence Day School. At just about every stage of the industry’s development, a Providence Day alum or current family was there.

Perhaps it’s the solid education in the combination of creativity, scientific, and mathematical skills required to develop brews and open a successful business? Something in the water? Roman Davis ’79, one of the co-owners of GoodRoad Ciderworks, and other PD-connected business owners agreed there may be something about Providence Day that explains the brewery boom among its community.

“A high percentage of our families open their own businesses,” says Davis. “I can see how Providence Day encourages an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Asheville: Where it all began

In 1985, the owner of the Weeping Radish in Asheville won a change to North Carolina law that first allowed brew pubs to sell beer directly to consumers. That same year, the Wong family moved to Charlotte from New Jersey, where Leah Wong ’88 (later Leah Wong Ashburn) enrolled at Providence Day School — and, she recalls, learned to adapt to Southern accents including that of her biology teacher, Bobbie Hinson. Her father Oscar, a successful engineer born in Jamaica in 1940, had traveled all over the country for his career.

By 1994, he retired from engineering, settled in Asheville, and went straight into his next career, opening a beer manufacturing facility in the basement of a downtown Asheville taproom using retrofitted dairy equipment. That grew into Highland Brewing, a statewide pioneer in the industry — now brewing more than 60,000 barrels annually for distribution throughout the Southeast.

“Highland worked because there was opportunity, and because Dad wanted Highland to be a welcome part of the community,” Wong Ashburn said during a recent interview. “He was making a fun product that people could celebrate with, learn about, and feel confident in sharing.”

In 2011, Wong Ashburn took over the company as President & CEO. “Brewing would have landed in Asheville if Highland hadn’t been the first, but it would have been different. Something about the way it unfolded attracted three of the top 25 craft brewers in the country to open locations here,” she said. “We didn’t see that coming! But it’s made beer the No. 5 reason to visit Buncombe County.”

Wong Ashburn isn’t the only member of the PD class of ’88 with a connection to the industry — her classmate Michael Brawley '88 owns Brawley’s Beverage on Park Road, and is a longtime advocate of craft beer. His taproom serves 22 small-scale craft brews, and his retail shelves hold more. For years, he was the biggest seller of Highland’s offerings outside of Asheville.

It’s ironic considering his inauspicious introduction to Oscar Wong. While still a PD student and not yet of legal drinking age, Brawley joined a gathering at Leah’s house and tried to smuggle in some beer. Oscar caught him, and kicked him out of the house. It’s a story they now tell at industry gatherings for laughs.

“A lot of people call me the godfather of Charlotte beer, but I call Oscar the godfather of North Carolina beer,” says Brawley. “He really did pave the way for a lot of what has happened.”

As Highland thrived, Charlotte entrepreneurs were developing more ideas of their own.

South Charlotte Scene Grows

John Marrino ended the first phase of his career in 2006 when he left a German manufacturing company and took a cross-country road trip with his wife Birgit, who he’d met in Germany, and their daughter Jillian. While on the trip, he read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the rebuilding of a brewing company in New England.

“As I was reading the article I had the proverbial ’lightbulb moment,’” Marrino recalled. “I turned to Birgit and said, ’Hey, I don’t think Charlotte has a brewery. That’s what I should do when I go back home.’”

Following the road trip, Marrino started home brewing in his garage and got to work. In 2009, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery opened on Southside Drive in what’s now LoSo — the shortened name for “Lower South End,” home to a thriving brewing hub.

It was Charlotte’s first German-style craft brewery, and now it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary as one of more than 40 breweries in the region and more than 300 across the state. The Marrinos are parents of Jillian '24 and Erin '26 at PD.

“My favorite German beer style was and is a Duesseldorf-Altbier. I decided to make that style our flagship beer, and call it ’Copper,’” says Marrino. ”Turns out many people Charlotteans also like an Altbier, since OMB’s flagship Copper is the largest selling craft beer by volume in the Charlotte region.”

OMB follows the German beer purity law, using only four ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast. “We don’t do this because we have to, but because we want to. We joke that at OMB we make ’Beer flavored beer.’”

That left room in the market for another style: Belgian. Unconstrained by the German law, Belgian beer makers have historically been known for experimenting with aged hops, spices, fruits, and other quirky ingredients. In 2014, Sugar Creek Brewing opened its doors just across the street from Olde Mecklenburg, bringing Belgian style brews. And it brought another PD connection: its investors include the family of PD alumna Shelley Miracle Wilfong ’97, along with her husband Shawn Wilfong and their children Carter, Landen, and Blake.

Miracle Wilfong explored her love of art at PD and has returned with submissions to the annual Alumni & Faculty art shows in McMahon Fine Arts Center. So naturally, she is the creator of the 9-foot-tall logo sculpture in Sugar Creek’s taproom.

That entry to the market left room for yet another niche: Cider and mead. Mead, made from fermented honey, is the world’s oldest human-developed beverage (beer came next). Cider is made from fermented apples. And both are brewed at GoodRoad Ciderworks, which opened its doors on St. Patrick’s Day 2017 just a block down the street from both OMB and Sugar Creek.

Co-owner Roman Davis’ idea for the business pre-dates Charlotte’s current brewery scene. After graduating PD in the class of ’79, he was an avid home brewer in the 1980s, even hatching a plan with some fellow PD alumni to open an early brew pub that didn’t quite come together. So he pursued his interest by becoming a National Beer Judge — one of just 20 individuals in the country to attain the highest rank of certification. He traveled the country judging beer festivals, and remained active in the local Carolina Brewmasters as well as PD’s Board of Alumni, serving six years.

After his children with wife Kim — Hannah ’08, Stephanie ’13, and Hayden ’15 — graduated from Providence Day, Davis was able once again to pursue his dream. “All my friends that had gone pro had opened breweries around town,” he said. “We didn’t want to compete with our friends. We really wanted to complement the beer scene.”

In just the two years they’ve been open, he says, Charlotte’s appreciation of cider has grown (and it is increasingly sought out by those who are intolerant to gluten). Initially customers showed up unfamiliar with the beverage and tried flights with samples of different varieties. Now, more often, customers show up already knowing which cider they want. “By and large, we have been embraced in Charlotte as much as we would hope.”

Newer Faces in South End and FreeMoreWest

Around the time GoodRoad was opening, a group of alumni and alumni parents from the class of 2002 were coming together to create what became The Suffolk Punch along Charlotte’s light-rail line in South End. Collin Ricks '02 and his wife Debbie Hyde Ricks '02, who met at PD, were familiar with home brewing thanks to Debbie’s father Dan. He had been filling his home with wife Marjorie with home brewing equipment for many years. Marjorie Hyde worked for 17 years at Providence Day, in the school store and Extended Day.

Meanwhile, Ricks co-founded local development company Durban Group and was joined by his PD classmates Seth Stidham'02 as COO and Ryland Pond '02 as General Counsel. As commercial developers, they were well aware of the hot property around them in South End, and soon found an ideal home for what became The Suffolk Punch on Griffith Street.

They aimed for a different niche: A morning-through-night gathering spot that begins with coffee early; welcomes remote office workers throughout midday with Wifi and charging stations; serves both lunch and dinner; and transforms into a lively brew pub and beer garden at night. “We wanted the place to be more inviting. Charlotte has embraced us,” says Ricks. “People love the ambience.”

Pond shares Davis’ theory that Providence Day’s preparation may deserve some credit for spawning brewery owners. He recalls that when he joined PD in 9th grade, following a straight-A record in middle school, he was shocked to earn his first-ever “D” on a paper from English teacher Matt Spence. “The Providence Day experience is very challenging,” he says. “It has taught me you can’t get too comfortable.”

Debbie Hyde Ricks, who is now mom to rising TK student Aniston (class of ’33), credits another aspect of PD: “For me it was more the sense of community. PD still feels like home. We just wanted to have a place where everybody felt at home.”

Just a short drive away in FreeMoreWest is the newest PD-connected addition to the scene: Town Brewing, co-owned by George Sistrunk, father of current students Garrett '22, Luke '24, and Eliza '28.

An attorney by day and home-brew hobbyist, Sistrunk was inspired by his childhood in Asheville and a desire to moonlight with his law partners in a business that explores different skills. Open since September 2018, Sistrunk has followed the lessons of the other breweries in town with Providence Day connections. “It’s a very welcoming and sharing community,” he says. “And it’s a lot of fun.”

While the scene is growing ever more crowded, nobody’s worried that it is overstuffed yet. Charlotte still has fewer breweries per capita than Asheville or Portland, which boasts over 100.

“I believe they are popular because they are a part of the community. They are local gathering places, and beer is a social drink. They’ve always been the center of the community in Germany, and once upon a time were as well here in the U.S.,” says Marrino. “We are just going back to that now. It’s a great thing. And it’s great for the local economy because it keeps the money in the community.”

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