Swimming in Suds: A local institution will soon breathe new life as Waterman’s Brewing Company

BY • May 3 • 2112 Views • 1 Comment on Swimming in Suds: A local institution will soon breathe new life as Waterman’s Brewing Company

For the Wilmington drinking scene, Fibber’s Public House was an institution. On Friday nights, the Irish pub/karaoke bar/dance club was a pre-game stop along the way to the beach bars of Lumina Avenue—or an absolute destination on Sundays. For many years, Fibber’s served plenty of pints of Guinness, bottles of Bud Light, and too many shots to count. Many UNCW alumni remember it fondly (or at least vaguely).

Owner Bob High and brewer Zac Brown in Waterman’s. Photo by Lindsey Miller Photography

Owner Bob High and brewer Zac Brown in Waterman’s. Photo by Lindsey Miller Photography

In the North Carolina craft beer industry, Bob High is as much of a legend. He’s a current partner in Raleigh’s Crank Arm Brewing and wore many hats as a longtime sales rep for Greensboro’s Natty Greene’s Brewing Co. He traversed North Carolina by bicycle or by pickup truck, to share pirate lore, jam out to local musicians, and always make new friends over a pint of craft beer. Those who have met Bob High don’t soon forget him.
So, when Fibber’s came on the real-estate market, High and a few friends had an idea: Bring the same never-quit lifestyle to a new endeavor, Waterman’s Brewing Company. The team—which includes High’s partners Craig Gee and Don Weber, as well as brewer Zac Brown—completely overhauled the old building to give it a second life. Set to open this summer, the brewery hopes to become a haven for the waterlogged.

“Crank Arm is the cycling brewery,” High explains. “This is the watersports brewery. We want to be here and focus our direction toward the beach with charities and community. We really want to be the beach brewery and get involved with every scene, from spearfishing and surfing, to kiteboarding and stand-up paddleboarding. We’ll be sponsoring the outrigger canoe club from Wrightsville Beach SUP, so they’ll be hosting their socials here. Ryan McGinnis, who does Wrightsville Beach Spearfishing, is intricately involved in this brand and he’s really the waterman. I didn’t want to do anything here that wasn’t going to fit in my wheelhouse, as far as activity, because it’s all got to be fun.”

For the team the brewery is more than just a spot to imbibe. High envisions the space as a “surf lodge,” a place for beachgoers to unwind after a long day.

“‘Waterman’ is the term for people who not only live but recreate and work in and around the water,” High describes. “That’s the oyster guys, clammers, fishermen, as well as duck hunters, surfers, kiteboarders, scuba divers, sailors. I want it to be more of a community feel here.”

The Pavilion Place, home of the old Fibber McGee’s, will see new life when Waterman’s Brewing Company is complete. Photo by Lindsey Miller Photography

The Pavilion Place, home of the old Fibber McGee’s, will see new life when Waterman’s Brewing Company is complete. Photo by Lindsey Miller Photography

When guests walk in the doors of Waterman’s, the first thing they’ll see is the brewhouse. A garage door will roll up and give a full view of Zac’s workspace. To the left will be the bar and lounge, designed with a rustic, industrial feel and capped off with a wood-burning fireplace. Butcher block tables will surround the fireplace.

“The bar itself will kind of be an extension of the brewery,” High explains, noting brushed stainless accents that will appear nowhere else in the space. Patrons sitting at the bar will face the brewhouse, where windows will give a peek into the action. “We have big-picture windows with lights flushing down on Zac’s tanks so you can kind of see what’s going on in the brewery, but you kind of can’t. We want it to be inviting, but we always want him to have his own space.”

Zac’s path to brewing—and a background in music—led him across the country. The partners of Waterman’s found him at Magnolia Brewing Company in San Francisco, but his journey began much earlier.

Originally from right outside New York City, Brown studied music entrepreneurship and trumpet performance in New Orleans. He picked up homebrewing as a hobby in college.

“I’m a geek so I started bugging the crap out of a local brewer,” he tells. “I chose to do one of my capstone projects on making a promotional documentary for him so I could spend more time in the brewery. Then I went back to New York City after college and volunteered at a brewery while I was looking for a gig.”

Eventually Brown landed the director of ticketing position at the World Music Institute. “And then the grant that funded my salary didn’t get renewed—it wasn’t exactly the best time, economically speaking, for the nonprofit arts industries,” he explains. “My job got discontinued, and it wasn’t really a résumé, but I had enough volunteer work to have context and reference for brewing.”

A friend connected Brown with a brewer of Long Trail Brewing Co. in Vermont. Brown asked a lot of questions to get an understanding of the job.

“I got an entry-level-shift brewing job on a 60-barrel manual direct-fire system in the mountains of Vermont,” he says. “So I started brewing professionally at 23, and then went from there to California and started all over again.”

He volunteered his way into Magnolia Brewing Co., which ended up being lucrative, as he moved up from volunteer to lead brewer.

“We had a head brewer above me, and I ran the pub operations and built the distribution network,” Brown explains. “I brewed, packaged and delivered all my own beer; I was there while they added a 30-barrel facility.”
Afterward, Brown went to Cellarmarker Brewing Co. and handled logistics, as well as managed and consulted for the company. His music even took him to Brazil, and brewing afforded him a stint with BrewDog in Scotland. He  has been in practically every facet of the business, from retail to production. “I’ve not grown barley or malted it, but that’s about it,” he clarifies.

“I wanted the brewer here to be a bigger part of this team and this operation,” High asserts. “Rather than just hiring a head brewer, I wanted someone who was going to affect the whole business.”

A certified cicerone with experience running seminars and festivals, Brown as well was looking for a brewery where he could work in more diversified roles. Upon his job at Waterman’s, he’s planning to create a lineup of brews filled with variety.

“I definitely brew on the traditional side of things, but the creative license is why I’m in the game,” Brown shares. “I’m a big fan of continually writing recipes, tweaking them, and you’ve got to have a couple reliable mainstays—not exact recipes but styles. I’ve brewed everything from foreign to domestic.”

Brown’s background has a heavy focus in malts and sessionable ales because Magnolia mostly was an English-style brewery. “I don’t think sophistication and approachability are mutually exclusive,” he counters.  Though he traveled through North Carolina many times and is familiar with its regional beer scene, Brown is new as a resident in Wilmington.

“Zac is a rockstar who has been swinging his hammer here with us, but the good thing is he got to spend some time around town,” High says. “He knows everybody’s lineup, taking notes, talking and studying—that’s just his nature. It’s fun to get his take on what’s happening in the market.”

Already a member of the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance, Brown calls the NC beer scene interesting and diverse. Yet, he traveled from California, where the scene already exploded.

“I’d like to bring some stuff with me from there, as well as the Vermont days, to be the unique brand,” he says.

“I think it fits well with the beach culture and the kind of demographic we have locally. . . . The waves go west to east in the beer industry. Not that nothing starts here, but that’s how it usually goes. In North Carolina, it’s always been cool because beers of different styles sell well year-round; a porter and a Scottish ale are popular beers. But in San Francisco a popular beer is Brett saison and hoppy-as-shit IPA, which is cool. Cellarmaker did pretty much those two things and was awesome at it. But I also worked at the opposite, Magnolia, which was kind of against the grain. It was a very interesting dichotomy to have that versus the West Coast hoppy and dank.”

Guests can expect lighter styles like grissette and saison—refreshing, dry Belgian ales with expressive yeast characteristics in a saison and a more clean flavor in the grissette. In Brown’s opinion, the most difficult beers can be the most nuanced styles. He also will produce more malt-forward, dry, English styles, like an ESB (extra special bitter), mild and dark mild. Naturally, the lineup will regularly include spins on the American wheat and a handful of hoppy beers. The first 28 recipes have been selected and are in the naming process, while High and Brown are working together to finalize the opening-day lineup.

“We’re definitely going to have at least six of our beers before we open,” High ensures. “We’re not a production brewery; we’re not really interested in selling a bunch of beer out in the market. For that reason, we don’t have to repeat anything. I’d like to see 60 beers in here this year.”

Brown built the glycol system himself, as well as hand-inspected all of the equipment for even the slightest scratch. “We are preparing for expansion and our next row of tanks,” he says, as he notes the space to tap into the system when the next tanks arrive. A bit oversized, they installed a 15-barrel proper, which can handle up to 20 barrels, actually, and that’s with loss included.

“We have three 20-barrel and two 15-barrel fermenters, so we’ll try to max those out as much as possible with the lower gravity beers,” he continues.  “We have an oversized glycol system and boiler so, even when we max out the tanks, we’ll be oversized on our capacity to heat and cool.”

On the reverse side of the brewery, in the hallway across from the bathrooms, a mural artist will paint a view that gives a peek inside the brewhouse. Visitors will see both the cold side and hot side. “Then we’ll incorporate the pipes on the outside of the wall, so we’ll make it kind of look like a sketch of what is going on in the brewery through the walls,” High details.

A private event space will eventually become Brown’s barrel room for sours and other barrel-aged beers. Regular brews will be on the long-draw system to the 24 taps, while a separate keg box will host sours, ciders from other companies, and even house-blend nitro cold-brew coffee to serve high-end drinks.

“I just met with my buddy who’s going to be starting his own coffee-roasting business,” High tells. “We sat down for hours, tasting coffees from all over the world. We isolated what we liked and then, like recipes for brewing, we started building our own proprietary recipe—60 percent this, 40 percent that. We’ll sell the beans, but we’ll have the coffee available here. I’m as passionate about the coffee as I am about anything; I want to do it right. I want people to get out of the water in the winter and come here, and sit by this fireplace that kicks 90,000 BT’s and have coffee or beer.”

In the kitchen, Chef Mel Melton is at the helm with kitchen manager Andrew Stanley. The menu will change on a regular basis but Waterman’s does not intend to reinvent the wheel. Items will be affordable, unique pub fare, with the occasional feature of fresh North Carolina seafood.

Stanley will be coming from Brasserie du Soleil, and also worked at Sweet n Savory and tuned up the kitchen at King Neptune’s.

“Our head chef Mel Melton is from Durham but originally Lafayette, Louisiana,” High says. Melton most recently was the head chef and partner at Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse in Durham, which garnered Best Cajun Restaurant in the Triangle from Indy Week magazine for five straight years. He is also lead musician in the band Mel Melton and the Wicked Mojos.

“He’s kind of a Zydeco, Cajun, blues-musician chef,” High states. “He used to cook gumbo onstage while he played. He has been around the horn; he’s friends with Jimi Hendrix’s wife. The stuff that Mel has done just blows my mind.”

Amongst a reinvention of what the 1610 Pavilion Place building once held, the partners of Waterman’s have completely overhauled the building itself. From all new electrical to new flooring and roof, High notes that at one time during renovation, “There was nothing but the studs and nails holding the place up.” Though the structure was in bad shape and the future is an entirely new endeavor, the staff will pay homage to its history by hanging the old Celtic Fibber’s sign on the wall.

“I’m not a local, I’m new down here,” Brown states. “But with the reputation of Fibber’s, you’ve got to kind of pay respect to that institution. You can’t disrespect this property because it’s a real deal, local Wilmington property. And we’re something different, but we’re trying to be real deal, local Wilmington business.”

Waterman Brewing Company • 1610 Pavilion Place

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