“If you’re not having fun doing this, you’re in the wrong profession,” quips Donnie Stone, one part of the family-owned and -operated Bill’s Front Porch Pub and Brewery. While the same could be said for pursuing any career path, there’s a general air to the beer business that exudes a carefree, lighthearted passion. After all, one merely is selling a good time at a bar, right?
Well, yes and no.
As consumers become more enchanted with breweries—likewise, breweries are developing more guest-friendly taprooms—folks are learning there’s a lot more to the business than just throwing back suds. Brewing is a physical labor and chemical science as much as it is a creative art. Managing all of the moving parts of a successful brewpub can be strenuous.
Still, it wasn’t anything owners John and Erin Musser would shy away from. If their names sound familiar, well, they should. Since 1992 the Mussers have owned Capt’n Bill’s Backyard Grill—the spot on Market Street known for its 10 sand volleyball courts and refreshment-laden tiki bar. Some Wilmingtonians may even remember the Mussers’ earliest ventures in the space that is now Bill’s Front Porch, the building in front of Capt’n Bill’s. In 1983 John’s father, Bill, and Neal Musser opened The Original 220 Seafood at 4238 Market Street. Over the next decade, it faced a few different adaptations—The Rusty Pelican and Musser’s Seafood and BBQ—before being leased to El Vaquero through 2009. When the Mexican restaurant closed, the Mussers renovated the space into a banquet hall to host wedding receptions and high-school reunions alike. Through the catering menu, locals got a taste of John’s homemade fried chicken recipe—and the demand was high. Yet, the space remained a seasonal event room.
Donnie is the Mussers’ son-in-law, married to their daughter, Brookes. His interest in craft beer grew from his years bartending at Fat Tony’s.
“My passion came about as I tried new beers,” Donnie tells. “When the beer scene in North Carolina started growing, it took a grip on me. This is something we can be proud about: North Carolina is turning into the craft beer state.”
After a trip brewery-hopping in Asheville, Donnie and Brookes seriously began to discuss their dream of opening a North Carolina-focused bottle shop and taproom. “We sent Erin and John to Asheville because they were just starting to notice these breweries were becoming a big deal,” Donnie adds. “They were really taken aback by not only how many breweries were up there, but how successful they were, and the range of ages and demographics of people who are attending these places.”
Upon their return, they were off to Atlantic Brew Supply—a sister company of Raleigh Brewing. They were looking for fermenters. “John’s one of those guys who jumps in with two feet and doesn’t look back,” Donnie continues.
Landing on a seven-barrel system, the Musser family moved forward, and over the next year gutted the space down from its 1980s drop-tile ceiling and turned it into the warm, wooden landscape it is today. “The only thing that’s still intact is the kitchen,” Donnie explains. “Everything else we stripped down to concrete slab floor and cinderblock walls. Everyone’s first question is, ‘Who did the wood in here?’ And it’s our buddy, Daniel Butler.”
Daniel’s work is seen everywhere from a carved bear statue to a roughly 125-year-old farm door behind the taps. Everything is made from repurposed wood. “The walls were hand done, piece by piece, nail by nail,” Donnie reminds.
Donnie and Brookes were inspired by Charlotte’s Sycamore Brewing, which has a mountain cabin vibe. It’s cozy and relaxing all-around. “We want you to walk in here, with our staff as friendly as they can possibly be, and we want you to kick your feet up and relax,” Donnie tells. “You’re not just coming in here for a quick bite to eat and running out—which you can do. But we want it to feel like home in here.”
When it comes to the beer, Donnie has been homebrewing for years. He likes to play a part in the process, but he knew Bill’s Front Porch would need help from a master brewer. “I thought I knew a good amount about making beer until our head brewer, Jim Deaton, came along,” Donnie muses. Deaton was the head brewer of Blowing Rock Brewing Company outside of Boone. A graduate of Appalachian State, with a degree in business, he worked his way up from waiting tables at Blowing Rock to being taken under the wing of their brewmaster.
“Obviously we needed someone who was going to be completely focused on making beer, and Jim has been wonderful so far,” Donnie tells. “We’re coming out with what we feel is a good product. He was very limited at Blowing Rock and that was a huge factor of why he wanted to come down, for new scenery and he has family down here—and he can spread his wings a little bit. He knows his stuff for sure.”
Donnie calls the Mosaic IPA the pub’s top seller, followed closely by the Mango Wheat, ESB and Scotch Ale. The brewpub started with six beers on tap after opening June 21, and expanded to more than two dozen just over the last few months. Guests can always expect a fresh, unique beer to be flowing.
“That’s something we’re looking forward to: not being complacent or predictable,” Donnie urges. “We want to always do something new. Who wants to do the same beer over and over again? Yeah, the Mosaic IPA, we’re not going to mess with that every other week, but there’s not a week that goes by we aren’t asking ourselves, ‘What are we going to do next?’”
Namely, they played around with 20 pounds of golden raisins soaked in Cruzan Dark Rum for their Belgian Dubbel, “Raisin the Dubb.” Bill’s Front Porch will be the first to release a New England IPA in the area, too.
“It’s a popular style coming up right now,” Donnie begins. “It is an IPA that uses a lot more hops than the average IPA. In most beer, you don’t dry hop until after fermentation is done, and you don’t dry hop in the bright tanks either—those are mostly used for clarification. The New England IPA has hop additions not only in the kettle, when you’re boiling, but we dry hop ours during fermentation, after fermentation, and in the bright tanks. It’s a very hazy, cloudy IPA. Very juicy, not as bitter, thanks to the certain hops used in this style post-boil. From the time it goes in the fermenter, there’s going to be hops in the beer all the way until it hits the keg.”
The brewery will have upcoming seasonals, including a breakfast stout, which Donnie believes will turn into a Black Friday staple. “Jim got a silver medal at the Carolina Championship of Beer for that one,” he praises. “It’s a coffee, chocolate, maple syrup, oatmeal stout that will be on nitro.”
Meanwhile, folks can expect special releases to coincide with large charity functions taking place at Capt’n Bill’s. For charity tournaments, a dollar from each pour of that special beer will be donated. “The Grapefruit IPA will be going to Joe’s Bucket Bash, [where proceeds benefit an individual battling cancer]. We are brewing a hibiscus honey wheat for Love is Bald, [an organization supporting cancer patients and their families], and the six pounds of hibiscus will turn it pink.”
Bill’s Front Porch is only Wilmington’s second brewpub, joining the ranks of Front Street Brewery. Many local breweries often host food trucks instead of investing in the costs of a fully run kitchen. When the Mussers traveled to Asheville, they noticed the same trend. “It’s hard to open a restaurant,” Donnie says. “And it’s hard to open a brewery. It’s really hard to do both at the same time. But John wanted to do something special with this place outside of the banquet hall.”
The brewpub—open for dinner Monday through Thursday, lunch and dinner Friday through Saturday, and brunch to dinner on Sunday—provides a mix of specially crafted “beer drinkin’ food,” as Donnie calls it. From hand-rolled pretzels, made with spent grain from the brewing process, dipped in IPA cheese soup or beer mustard, to the massive Bill’s Bacon BBQ Burger (topped with crispy-edged smoked pork, thick-cut bacon, barbecue sauce, and coleslaw), it’s an elevated take on pub grub. The crowning jewel is the Mussers’ Southern fried chicken.
“Everybody loves John’s fried chicken, but you could only get it at catering events before,” Donnie says. “So people would go to a wedding he catered and say, ‘That’s the best fried chicken I’ve ever had! We call that our premier signature dish.”
Like the funky beers, guests also can expect funky menu items on the specials list. Surrounding 4th of July, Bill’s Front Porch featured an apple-pie burger. A recent edition included the “Kamikaze Dog”: Sriracha, peanut butter, fried okra, and onions on a hot dog. “It’s wild,” Donnie asserts. “Not only will you get special items, but they’ll be off the wall. And for our head cook, Joel Marinucci, desserts are his thing. The dessert menu changes every two weeks or so.”
The latest offering included carrot cake cheesecake and pistachio crème brûlée.
“People notice we are supporting as many local products as we can,” Donnie adds. “All of our wine and liquors are from North Carolina. Joel uses Carolina Farmin’ products as much as we can. Our catfish is NC-raised, seafood local. Anything we can get our hands on and use from the state of NC, we do.”
Bill’s Front Porch celebrated its grand opening on October 1st. They’ve received supoort from the local beer community and long-time customers of Capt. Bills. Donnie cites the help of Wilmington Brewing Company for sharing their legal knowledge of the industry, as well as their hops, and Waterline Brewing Company allowed the use of its keg washer before theirs arrived. “It takes a lot of people, a lot of help,” Donnie explains. “We knew how beer is made and what good beer tastes like, but when it comes to the business side of it, you need some help. And they were there for us. That goes for everybody in this community. It’s awesome that it’s so open-armed. It doesn’t feel like competition, and it shouldn’t be. It’s everybody wanting everybody to brew good beer so that Wilmington can get on the map. Nobody has closed their doors because they don’t want you to see their tactics or know who they’re getting grain from.”
Bill’s Front Porch has begun slight distribution, comfortably serving eight accounts. “When you have people like the owners of Bombers Bev Co, Hey! Beer and Fermental asking for our beer, that’s awesome,” he divulges. “Not only are we excited about it, but we’re appreciative of it. We know they don’t have to put any Wilmington beers on tap. They could go with the Prairie Artisan Ales and Lost Abbeys of the world.”
Already, expansion into a bigger location and bigger brew systems have been discussed in Bill’s evolution. Currently, though, the Mussers want good, clean beer, food and fun. “You’ll see one of us here at all times,” Donnie says. “Who knows what it will be three or four years from now—who knows what the beer scene in Wilmington will be like then?”
Bill’s Front Porch and Brewery is located at 4238 Market St. (910) 762-6333. www.billsfrontporch.com