This entry is part of a periodic series about the growing craft beer industry in Wilmington, N.C. The series is shared with our friends at the Port City Brew Bus. Check our blogs to stay updated on the series.  We’ll profile a different brewery in each addition. We begin by looking at the history of Wilmington’s craft beer industry.

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Wilmington, N.C. has been known as a ‘port city’ since it’s incorporation in 1739. There are currently nine breweries operating in the area with more planned to open in the coming months. This amount of growth in the craft beer industry is quickly earning Wilmington the nickname ‘beer city.’

Many of Wilmington’s craft beer enthusiasts may not be aware the city’s post-prohibition craft beer history dates back more than two decades beginning with Wilmington Brewing Company; Front Street Brewery and Azalea Coast Brewing soon followed.

In 1994 Tom Dergay combined his “love of history and appreciation of beer” to open Wilmington Brewing Company (no affiliation to the current Wilmington Brewing Company). The Dergy’s brand was distributed in bottles and kegs as far south as Florida gaining a noticeable market share in Wilmington.

dergysThe location off of River Road became a thriving part of Wilmington, as well as a source of pride for Wilmington residents. “The community as a whole supported the brewery unbelievably,” says Dergay.

Celebrating occasions such as new beers with parties at the brewery is the one major advantage he had over the much larger breweries. “I had more friends when I owned a brewery than I could ever imagine,” jokes Dergay. One year he was invited to 11 Super Bowl parties; unable to attend all 11 he delivered a complimentary keg of beer to each.

Dergay sold the brewery to Williamsville Brewery in 2000 and the operation moved to Farmville, N.C. in what is now the Duck-Rabbit Brewery.

Following closely was Front Street Brewery, which has been serving ‘pub grub’ and craft beer since 1995. They’ve become a landmark on Wilmington’s busiest downtown street and the brewpub’s namesake.

Front Street was part of a downtown revitalization project and briefly distributed bottles until their Front-Street-PINT-101suprenovation in 2006. “We’re focused on selling beer here in the restaurant,” says Operations Manager Kevin Kozak. “It works best for us to keep everything here; it makes for a better product,” Kozak says about their 1,400 barrel production.

Two decades later the brewpub has grown and changed with the palates of Wilmington even hiring North Carolina’s first female Head Brewer in . Kelsie Cole began in production three years ago and has noticed a change in what customers order, “People aren’t just asking for our Kolsch or our Scottish ale, they’re asking for more obscure things like our barrel aged beers.”

Growth in Wilmington’s craft beer community can been seen at the city’s oldest running craft brewery daily according to Cole. “People are recognizing the beers we make here, beers I’ve put my heart and soul into and it’s very rewarding.”

In 2004 Azalea Coast Brewery began brewing with kegs and bottles being distributed the following year. They eventually shared the shelves at local grocery stores with some of the county’s largest brands before closing their doors in 2008. One former owner, Ethan Hall is now the Head Brewer at Ironclad brewery in Wilmington.

Both the economy and craft beer climate have changed considerably notes Dergay, who is jokingly referred to as the ‘O.G.’ of Wilmington Craft Beer by current employees. Dergay feels the industry is now driven by creativity and passion. “They(brewers) are smarter than the previous generations, they don’t want to work in a cubicle. These guys go to work in t-shirt and jeans and brew all day; they’re like artists, god bless em.”