With 69 breweries operating or planned in the Triangle region (according to the local BreweryMap.com), any new one has to differentiate itself—by its beer or branding, its story or team or funding.
Bull Durham Beer Co., opening soon at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, is aiming for all of those things. A good story—it's the first brewery nationally to operate within a minor league ballpark. Good beer—state-of-the-art equipment and experienced craft brewers promise that. Strong branding completed after a national search for an agency. And the financial backing of a family and company committed to supporting, growing and making profitable the craft beer industry in North Carolina.
The brewery helps to fulfill a big wish for the Capitol Broadcasting-owned Durham Bulls—with a mission to both serve beer and give educational tours about brewing, it helps the stadium become a destination for more than just baseball. It also fills a need—the Bulls ended a relationship with a previous caterer late last year and started Bull City Hospitality
to rethink the food and beverage options served at the park. Part of creating a unique experience is, quite naturally, beer.
The hope is that Bull Durham Beer has what it takes to become a large brand, with national distribution, too.
It helps that there’s some experience in the house. A year ago, Capitol Broadcasting (ExitEvent's
parent company) hired former Natti Greene’s master brewer Sebastian “Seabass" Wolfrum to help launch the Rocky Mount Brewmill
, a planned redevelopment of a nearly 200-year-old vacant textile mill on the bank of the Tar River an hour east of Raleigh. Its mission is to keep North Carolina a leader of the growing craft beer movement nationally by providing the space, equipment and resources to incubate new craft breweries from around the state, and production, packaging and distribution help as they grow.
But Wolfrum had some time on his hands as the project awaits the approval of historic tax credits required for construction to begin. And what better way to test the concept of a brewery incubator than to incubate a brewery.
“We have the space, and it was true that there isn’t a baseball stadium in the U.S. with a brewery in it,” says Wolfrum, Bull Durham Beer's executive brewmaster. “We’re really the first, and in a cool way.”
The stars aligned, so to speak, and work began to outfit a 500-square-foot former retail store on the main vendor level of the park. Capitol Vice President of Real Estate Michael Goodmon decided on the name—Bull Durham Beer Co., after the 1980s-era movie with a cult following today.
“Nostalgia meets craft beer is what he envisions,” Wolfrum says. “It’s an old timey thing modernized in a state-of-the-art baseball setting.”
Wolfrum meanwhile worked with a branding agency called Caliber Creative
in Dallas to create logos and brand images that captures Durham’s baseball and tobacco heritage with its growing craft beer culture in a way that could have appeal beyond North Carolina. The company was originally selected last summer after a national search to brand the Rocky Mount Brewmill.
He also hired a head brewer—Tate Little, whose home brews Goodmon first tasted at a wedding last fall. Now called the Lollygagger Kolsch—a craft beer version of an American light lager—it’ll be one of two initial Bull Durham beers to be served at the ballpark. The second is Water Tower Wheat.
“Tate is a lot like one of these typical startups—a long-time accomplished home brewer and DIY person who has also grown his own hops,” Wolfrum says. It's Little's first time brewing outside his home.
Wolfrum traveled to Germany in February to finish the purchase of tanks, kegs, chillers and other equipment required to make great quality beer—the equipment came in just days before the Bulls home opener last night. Once they receive permits to begin brewing, he and Little will make about 250 barrels of beer during the season—even brewing during day games so attendees can watch them in action. They spent about $500,000 to equip the brewery.
To help offset some of future costs, they’ll install and grow a Hop Yard on a roof of the Fowler Building on the American Tobacco campus. About 200 hop plants will grow up to 15 feet in the air over the next several months, with the first fresh hops ready for harvest in August. Up to $18,000 will be invested for the irrigation system, planters and a crane to hoist them into place.
But if you do the math—72 games with adult patrons spending about four hours in the park (with still multiple beer/alcohol choices)—then it's easy to see how beer sales in a ballpark may not be enough to sustain the company. So a much bigger picture of Bull Durham Beer is being crafted now.
To start with, American Tobacco will turn the main lawn of Durham's new Aloft Hotel into a beer garden that operates June through October, allowing beer to be sold daily for several months of the year.
But the big vision is to make Bull Durham Beer into a profitable and recognizable brand with distribution far beyond Durham and production taking place in the Rocky Mount Brewmill, serving as a case study for how to build a craft beer company from scratch into a successful regional or national brand.
When the Brewmill opens, the plan is to house up to 10 startup craft brewers, brewing courses offered through Nash Community College, and other financial, legal, branding, sales and marketing help, so breweries can get started for a fraction of the cost as is typically required. One brewery, called Koi Brewing, is already lined up for a subsidiary property, also owned by Capitol. And several homes once occupied by textile millworkers are under construction now—the hope is that they'll be rented by brewers at the Brewmill.
A portion of the main building will also be used for larger scale production for breweries like Bull Durham, as they grow and distribute cans or bottles both around and outside of the region. Additional space at Rocky Mount could be occupied by very large brewers over time.
But at least for now, Bull Durham Beer has the attention of Wolfrum and team. He believes the combination of top-of-the-line equipment, an experienced brewing team, a unique home in a ballpark and a sound and authentic brand give it a chance "to make it big".
“It’s a little bit like these ball players who made it to a Triple A team—playing for the Bulls sets you up to make it to the majors,” Wolfrum says. “That’s like here too. We’re making sure that if we can, we will succeed.”