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FullstreamFullsteam ahead: Durham’s local brewery

by DeLana Nicole

It’s 7 p.m. and warm outside, a typical North Carolina early fall evening. People are starting to gather everywhere, sitting outside and ordering snacks from the food truck parked along the curb. Children are playing on the pinball machines inside, and dogs sit calmly while their owners enjoy the various types of beer Fullsteam has to offer.

“It’s a beer garden,” explains Sean Lilly Wilson, founder and owner of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. “Beer to me is about facilitating conversation and creating community.”

He taps one of the orange tables that are scattered throughout the brewery.

“These tables are meant for community,” he says. “They are 22 inches, so they are smaller; they’re meant for a beer and conversation. [Fullsteam] is a constantly evolving space, and the goal is to delight people with the unexpected when they get here – another pinball table, new art or a bad-movie night. We are constantly reinventing ourselves.”

Wilson’s love for Durham’s local community runs parallel to his love for beer.

“Even though it’s just beer, to me it’s more than that,” he says. It’s about community, about the sense of what could be and instilling a bit of hope in people about what tomorrow could bring.”

Pop the cap
Wilson didn’t start out with the idea of creating a brewery. He was in graduate school at Duke University, completing his dual degree in business and public policy, when a friend invited him to a party hosted by the Southern Microbrewers Association, a now-defunct organization that promoted craft beer in North Carolina.

“There were beers and bottles I’d never seen before, corked like champagne bottles with labels like ‘Batch #001’ written on it,” Wilson says. “It surprised me, drinking these incredibly complex beers. A friend explained that the beers were illegal; since Prohibition, you cannot have beers with more than 6 percent alcohol.”

It was in that moment when Wilson fell in love with craft beer, an entire world that had never been available to him before. He decided that the laws needed to change, so he became president of Pop the Cap, a grassroots community effort to change North Carolina’s law.

“It meant that one-third of the world’s beers were illegal to brew and sell,” he explains.

On Aug. 13, 2005, Pop the Cap finally proved victorious, raising the maximum alcohol content to 15 percent.

“I was promoting North Carolina craft beer, doing beer dinners and letting people know there were some great beers available,” Wilson says. “One of the most exciting accomplishments with Pop the Cap legislation – yeah, it was about having a choice [in beer] but it was also about seeing new businesses start up. It was seeing existing businesses expand and do well.”

The idea of a brewery began to grow and in August 2010, Fullsteam Brewery was born. Wilson describes Fullsteam as part production brewery and part onsite tavern, a fusion that creates a unique space for every type of beer lover. He recently celebrated Fullsteam’s one-year anniversary, pouring more than 2,400 servings of beer.

Fullsteam is doing well; more than half of its beer is sold off site, and Wilson has around 100 accounts in the Triangle. Still, he understands that for most consumers, their idea of beer is commercial, not local. Although Fullsteam is one of three breweries in the area, Wilson sense of community extends to the other brewery owners, viewing them as his partners in the industry rather than competitors.

“It’s competitive, for sure,” he admits. “But one in 100 people who drink beer are drinking local beer. The other 99 are drinking beer but not North Carolina beer. And that’s fine. But it’s not about fighting over that 1 percent; it’s about the other 99 and growing that audience. Those of us in the industry, we all know that and that’s why we all get along so well. The challenge is that somehow we have to break through the paradox of choice and not make it more complicated by offering a local alternative. And the way we do it is by using Southern food traditions and agricultural ingredients as a bridge. The best way for us to showcase that beer is agriculture is by incorporating these local ingredients in the beer-making process; people think beer is made in industrial vats. They don’t know that it comes from the earth. The more we can bring those two traditions together – local food traditions and brewing – the more we can start developing what I call the Southern beer economy.”

Keeping it local
Wilson is helping to build the Southern beer economy with his Forager series, a collection of beers that are created by ingredients salvaged from local vendors and landowners. One of Fullsteam’s most popular beers, Carver Sweet Potato Lager, is brewed with 250 pounds of North Carolina sweet potatoes that normally would be tossed out due to bruising or irregular shapes because they don’t meet market specifications. Most of the ingredients – including persimmons, figs, paw paws and pears – normally would be thrown away, so many people offer them to Wilson for free. But his belief in the local Southern economy holds strong; he insists on paying fair market value for any foraged ingredients that Fullsteam receives. If someone refuses the payment, then Wilson donates the money to SEEDS, a nonprofit urban garden in east Durham.

“I really believe that keeping money as local as possible is really good for local community and good for the region,” he says. “We want to show that there’s an economic transaction because I believe firmly that building a Southern beer economy starts with the word ‘economy.’ You have to buy and then sell and create value in that process. Without it, we’d just become freeloaders, and that breaks the chain. People are proud to give, but we are equally proud to give back.”

Indeed, he’s doing just that. Fullsteam ahead, Mr. Wilson.

Fullsteam Brewery will be participating in the World Beer Festival Oct. 8 at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. For more information on the company, visit To learn more about the World Beer Festival, visit