By Bobby Bush
Wilmington, NC is an old port town with an interesting past. Bulky brick and mortar
structures line downtown streets, revealing stories, in faded signs and engraved remarks,
of a bustling riverfront town abuzz with mercantile and financial transactions. General
Lee’s major supply line during the Civil War was centered in Wilmington. When the city
surrender, the Confederacy’s campaign was severly crippled. The W.W.II ship USS
North Carolina, launched in 1940 as the Navy’s first modern battleship, is permanently
moored in Wilmington’s harbor. So, there’s lots to do when the bars are closed.
As with most city centers, the latter half of the 20th century has not been kind to
Wilmington. Businesses came and went as the economic climate deteriorated. Yet urban
renewal seems to have taken root anew. Waterfront streets are alive once again. Nightlife
bustles with tourists and locals in restaurants and bars. Daytime, offices and retail shops
thrive. Leaving exterior architecture untouched, the downtown Wilmington revival found
shelter in ancient structures.
One such building, a multi-story dry goods store constructed in 1883, welcomed
its current tenant in June 1995. With original hardwood floors and tin ceilings intact,
Front Street Brewery chose to honor rather than desecrate the past. Photo
reproductions of the building and the city, taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s, adorn
many walls. Even the bar has its own singular history. Galvanized tin and wood,
including heart of pine paneling from the razed Henry Hotel in Greensboro, was used by
local craftsmen to construct the distinctive bar and back bar.
The brewery itself takes full advantage of the building’s three floor layout. From
the upper level, brewers Don Lynch and Chris Bauer feed crushed malted barley into a
hopper. Gravity transfers the grain, as needed, into the copper-clad mash tun located on
the main floor below, just inside the entrance of this long, narrow room. Brew kettle and
fermenters are nearby. Additional fermenters and serving tanks reside in the basement.
From the long L-shaped bar, we learned from our helpful bartender that Front
Street keeps eight beers on tap, all pushed from those downstairs grundy tanks with CO2.
While perusing the menu, which featured some scrumptious sandwiches and entrees, we
ordered a sampler tray to get a feel for the beer terrain. Uncle Don’s Lager utilizes
American rather than German hops. Taste and mouthfeel are one step less bitter and
thinner than Plantation Pilsner, a traditional Czech pils with a more rounded profile and
medium mouthfeel. American Wheat was a great rendition of this indigenous style-
golden color and a good balance of malty meets bitter. River City Raspberry Wheat was
just too koolaid-like for my bitter palate, while India Pale Ale wasn’t nearly bitter enough
for this UK style, in spite of dry hopping with English-grown Fuggles. Steamboat,
California Common, an admitted attempt to replicate the West Coast-originating Steam
Beer, was a nice American Brown Lager. A lager fermented at higher ale yeast
temperature, it fell far short of its target, but was very quaffable nonetheless. Caramel
malt was obvious in Dram Tree Scottish Ale, which parted leaving a sweet syrupy finish.
Opaque black in hue, Irish Dry Stout was coated by thick, long-lasting brown foam. With
all the creaminess of a dark chocolate milkshake, this stout made a better Cream Stout
than Dry. The bartender advised that the brewpub alternates between Irish Dry and
Creme Stouts. Wish I had both for comparison purposes.
Front Street sells 22 ounce bottles and growlers to go. Their kegged beers can be
found at many of the Southeast NC’s bars and restaurants, including TGIFriday’s, South
Beach Grill, Brown Dog Grill and Annabelle’s. Several coastal retailers offer bottled
Front Street beers for sell as well. So if you can’t drop in for lunch, dinner or late night
appetizer, be on the lookout for Front Street beer wherever you travel in the Wilmington
area. There’s plenty of beer and history for everyone.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush