Sean Wilson: Pop-the-Cap leader and Fullsteam Brewery founder named Tar Heel of the Week

i-ff9882ba560cf2c57128bb44563446b5-Sean Wilson.jpgI should really save this new item for next week's Friday Fermentable but I was too excited walking back from picking up the NYT and local fishwrapper from the cold, rainy driveway this morning.

Beer enthusiast, brewer, and public policy wiz, Sean Wilson, is staring back at me on the front page of the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer as "Tar Heel of the Week," in a Josh Shaffer article entitled, "Brewer to blend mad science, local flavor."

Each week, the N&O recognizes a citizen making substantial and often unique contributions to the state's economy, community, cultural patina, or all of the above.

In this case "Tar Heel" refers to all North Carolina residents rather than specifically those who attend(ed) the University of North Carolina. Hence, while some discomfort may result for some, even a Duke University graduate can be named a Tar Heel of the Week (Wilson earned an MBA and a master's in public policy from the university-that-tobacco-built).

I can say without hyperbole that Sean Wilson is among those with the greatest impact on my day-to-day life and, most certainly, on my enjoyment of said life. I probably also speak for thousands of North Carolina beer lovers. And with his current push to finish the last round of investor fundraising, he continues to further promote beer as Southern culture with his new Fullsteam Brewery.

i-b6473b839deff62f076348f175642573-PTC.jpgWhen first moving to North Carolina after being entrenched in the craft brewing enthusiaist community of the Rocky Mountain West, I was shocked to learn that some of my favorite domestic and imported beers and ales were not available for sale in my new home state. A relic of Prohibition and the continued "dry" South, laws explicitly forbid sale of beers containing greater than 6% alcohol by volume. Yes, we're if you wanted Kulmbacher Eisbach, Paulaner Salvator, Spaten Optimator, Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout, Rogue Old Crustacean, Tommyknocker Imperial Nut Brown Ale, of any of the Belgian Abbey ales like Chimay, you had to take a drive across the Virginia border.

But in 2003, together with All About Beer magazine editor, Julie Johnson Bradford, Wilson led a group of 35 beer lovers assembled at the magazine's offices and embarked on an effort that was more than likely to fail in a "control state" (i.e., where one can only buy liquor in state stores.).

(Aside, I wrote about meeting the co-founders at their Black Friday beer tasting the day after Thanksgiving 2007).

According to the Pop the Cap history:

For two-and-a-half years, this group of thirty-five no-nothings (yes, yours truly included!) grew into a grassroots movement of thousands of North Carolinians. We hired a lobbyist, the amazing Theresa Kostrzewa. In our first legislative push, the Pop The Cap bill passed two House committees, two Senate committees, the House floor, and the Senate floor.

Such progress is almost unheard of, especially with such a potentially volatile issue as raising an alcohol cap. We overcame intense resistance from old-line distributors and neo-Prohibitionist interest groups. We battled Senator John "drinking straight vodka" Kerr and Senator [Jim] "this law will lead to more unwanted pregnancies and academic suicides" Jacumin.

On August 13, 2005, Governor Mike Easley signed House Bill 392 into law, lifting the 6% ABV cap to a more-reasonable 15%. We called, we wrote, we conquered. We popped the cap...and we're just getting started.

But that wasn't enough. Wilson finally quit his day job and in a Pop The Cap 2.0 effort, became an ambassador for North Carolina craft beers. During these activities locally and nationally, Wilson's vision began to crystallize around establishing a craft brewery of his own, one that celebrated the very community he was promoting.

Wilson struck up relationships with Lee Chase, former head brewer of Stone Brewing Company in Escondido, CA, Chris Davis, day-to-day brewer-in-chief, and Tommy Lee Edwards, "Fullsteam's resident artist and steampunk visionary." (Every great brewery must have a great illustrator - just ask George Stranahan about Ralph Steadman.)

The "brewery-in-planning," Fullsteam Brewery has now raised about 2/3rds of the necessary $400,000 in equity to secure another $400,000 in bank loans to launch the business (a pretty amazing feat in this economy) and they have already begun brewing lab versions of their ultimate beers with leased brewing equipment (details here).

Wilson's vision for Fullsteam is to weave beer into local Southern culture that celebrates and supports local agriculture. In today's N&O article, for example, Wilson speaks of Hogwash, a slightly hickory-smoked beer intended to accompany and accent Southern pick-pickin's and the strong barbecue culture of the South. Another beer, 200 Mile, is being brewed with ingredients grown exclusively within 200 miles of Durham, NC. A third beer contains hints of the scuppernong grape, well-known for making sweet wines and one of the richest sources of the cancer-preventive antioxidant, resveratrol.

His beers are playful: Maison Derriere, which his brewer, Chris Davis, named for a notorious episode of the Simpsons.

"What's in it?" Davis said. "Let's see. Coriander ..."

Wilson stops him, chuckling.

"Not just coriander," he says. "Backyard coriander. Free-range coriander. Organic, free-range coriander. Seize the moment, man."

[ed: in all seriousness, small amounts of coriander are used in many craft beers because it contains compounds with antibiotic and antioxidant activity, preventing beer spoilage.]

Of course, Fullsteam will also brew standard session beers and common ales to serve among their more creative offerings.

Bradford wraps up the discussion:

"If Sean pulls this off, he is going to create an indigenous North Carolina character to the beer, and that's exciting," said Julie Bradford, editor of Durham-based All About Beer magazine. "And having tasted the beers, they're not gimmicky. I like the scuppernong. You recognize the flavors in it as lightly grapey."

I'd love to have the financial wherewithal to invest in Wilson's vision. He's already proven himself as able to overcome long odds - my bet is that he'll do so again.

Photo credit: News & Observer Staff Photo by John Rottet - Sean Wilson likes to surprise people with his Bluetooth enameled telephone.

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