At low tide, when the marsh and mud surrounding North Carolina’s oyster reefs wafts the unbridled scent of sulfur and salt, oystermen trudge through thick earth to harvest the mollusks. For two locals, Jud Watkins and his father, Peter, oystering was not only a pastime but a way of life. And it usually included beer. “We’d go out oystering and take a little six-pack with us, and after you oyster, you have a beer,” he shares. Eventually, the duo dabbled in home brewing. “When we’d be bottling beer, we’d be steaming oysters. With homebrewing you’re using the same setup; it’s just a propane burner. That was my father and I years ago.”
A little over a decade ago, the Watkins began to wonder why there was only one local brewery downtown, Front Street Brewery, for a city with the population of about 95,000 people. “We thought, ‘Asheville’s on fire.’ There were just breweries popping up there left and right at that time. There really needs to be a brewery on this side of town [near Wrightsville Beach]. We brewed on and off over the years and joked about the idea at first.”
About four years ago, Watkins and his dad began seriously looking for a location. They committed. “We were all in,” Watkins affirms. However, shortly after, at only 59, his dad passed away from a heart attack. “I had the best dad in the world,” Watkins says. “We had 30 great years together. And I thought, ‘We said we were going to do it—I have to move forward, and it’s too good of an idea to let it go.’”
It took Watkins the better part of three years to secure a location, but he eventually discovered his perfect site. “It started out with that live oak on the corner of Oleander Drive and Greenville Avenue,” he tells. “I love that tree. I grew up climbing trees like that.”
He wanted to be sure if they moved forward with the lot, he would be able to preserve the tree. He approached a civil engineer, Charlie Cazier, to put the site plan together. “We put the building back on the lot and Charlie took it to the next level and kept all four of our live oak trees,” Watkins tells. “Beneath the canopy of two of the trees is where our beer garden will be, about 50 feet by 150 feet.”
As construction continued, the project—dubbed “Wrightsville Beach Brewery”—ended with about 16 trees needing to be cut from the building space. Watkins refused to take the trees to the dump; instead, he called a friend with a portable sawmill. to help repurpose the wood. The outcome: The brewery’s tables and bar.
“We had pecan, two cedars, and just about the rest were pines and magnolias,” Watkins details.
“Woodworkers love pecan and cedar, but we kept it all. The ‘sexiest,’ if you will, is the bar with the live-edge pecan. Even the underside of the bar is the excess metal for the roof. I read before we started this project that as much as 40 percent of waste in a landfill is construction waste. Every time we turned around we said, ‘No, let’s keep that.’”
The brewery, which opened on Jan. 20, is a full-service restaurant with 110 to 120 seats. Watkins wanted to stick to oysters and beer—the two food groups he knows best. But with Chef David Owens, they expanded they menu to feature an array of unique dishes, such as shrimp and grits pizza.
Yes—shrimp and grits pizza.
They tried 60 different recipes before figuring out the perfect pizza dough. The menu will be heavy on the seafood, yet also include vegetarian options.
“He’s cooked in 23 countries, literally all over the world,” Watkins touts of Owens. “He is from Ireland, originally, but he’s cooked in France, Russia, Japan, Hawaii. . . . He’s a seafood specialist, and I’m a commercial fisherman, so we’ll do everything we can to supply him the freshest seafood possible.’
They will have 40 taps, and begin with just a few originals while also pouring eastern NC breweries as guest taps, according to General Manager Rick Grant. Grant—with a background in hotel and restaurant management, plus accounting and finance—grew up on the coast of New Jersey.
“I’m very conscious of the beach vibe,” he says. “I want to maintain that here. I will bring great service to the front-of-house and maintain the concept we’re striving for. This is kind of a dream. Even though it’s Watkins’s business, I’m treating it like it’s my own.”
Grant will book live music in the beer garden every weekend and some weeknights. He plans on hosting reggae Sundays, along with weekend brunches that roll right into live music outdoors in the afternoon. The beer garden will be home to a mobile bar as well for the convenience of guests. Additionally, Grant is eager to begin utilizing the brewery’s private event space, which can hold 60 comfortably.
As for the beer, brewer Kevin Zelnio, will bring an array of styles out the gate. Zelnio began a career as a marine biologist, and lived in Wilmington while working for UNCW’s Center for Marine Science in 2010 and 2011. He and his wife also lived in Beaufort, NC, where he spent time at the Duke Marine Lab. As a hobby, Zelnio home brewed.
“We moved overseas right after that time,” he tells. “I was continuing to work as a freelance science writer and made my own beer out in the woods in Sweden. It sounds really idyllic—and it was.
People liked [my beer] in the village we were living in and said, ‘Why don’t you sell it?’ So I started my own small brewery in an old prison hotel in the middle of downtown Västervik, which is a small Baltic coastal town. I had Bryggeri Fängelset for about three years, and we were kind of tired of living where winter was, so we did the opposite and moved to Florida.”
In Sarasota Zelnio worked as a production brewer at JDub’s Brewing Company. The WBB brewer position opened and his wife informed Zelnio. “She wanted to move back to Wilmington,” he says. “Of all the places we really liked, it was always coming back to North Carolina.”
Zelnio will run a 20-barrel system complete with two bright tanks. WBB will mill their own grain on site and run a steam-controlled system to mandate the temperature. “We’ve taken a little extra effort to put a second bright in so that hopefully we can do some lagers and some more brilliant, in terms of clarity, beers,” Watkins add.
WBB also will feature the city’s first canning line. It’s a director Watkins predicts the craft beer market will embrace. “A can is the best thing for beer,” Watkins spouts. “No light is getting in it, and it’s also the best way to pressure seal the beer. If somebody takes a 12-pack out on their boat, drinks six of them with their buddies, a month later those beers are still going to be good. That’s what we’re all about: the highest quality of beer.”
Distribution is part of the game plan, too, but Watkins and Kevin insist quality control will come first and foremost. They want every recipe to be near-perfect before canning. The early recipes on tap will include an amber ale, pale ale, IPA, and a couple stouts.
“Our Oysterman Stout is actually a more traditional stout that pairs with an oyster,” Watkins reveals. “We’ll also have what I call a ‘new school’ oyster stout, which actually has oysters in it.”
WBB also will be a “give-back” business from the onset. Watkins already has planned 11 percent of sales from every “beer of the month” to be donated to a local charity. “We’re trying to show that if you plan things out right, hopefully you can give from day one,” he says. “Some make billions and then start a foundation. And there’s no doubt they’ll probably make a greater impact than me—but there’s no reason not to try.”
“We’re very interested in coastal life, all of us,” Zelnio adds. “That they are intending to donate a portion of proceeds to the Coastal Federation was a big selling point for me as well. I’m always thinking, ‘What more can we do with the money we make from alcohol sales?’ I think this is a great way to give back to and be a part of the community.”
Zelnio will work closely with Chef Owens to ensure the beer and food menus pair, and the brewpub experience will be both educational and culinary. More so, they all look forward to adding to the already robust growth of Wilmington’s brewpub and brewery scene.
“I think the three of us brewpubs, including Front Street and Bill’s Front Porch, really complement each other, as well as all the breweries in Wilmington,” Zelnio adds. “Everyone is really friendly and helpful, and we’re all looking forward to what each other is doing. There was only Front Street when I left, and now we are the 11th brewery to open in the area. It was extremely exciting to return to so much activity, and it really cements my decision to come back here. In fact, it was surprising, frankly. When I was in Beaufort, there were just a couple home brewers, and you had to go to New Bern to get any kind of brewing supplies. It is very nice to be home again, for the first time almost.”
Wrightsville Beach Brewery • www.wrightsvillebeachbrewery.com
6201 Oleander Dr. • 910-256-4928