A few Wilmingtonians across social media have argued there may be a saturation point for breweries the Port City can sustain. The majority, however, contend there’s plenty of room to grow.
In 2016 Smartasset reported Wilmington as the seventh best city for beer drinkers in the country—tied with Denver, Colorado. At the time, Wilmington had nine open breweries, totaling 7.76 microbreweries per 100,000 residents.
In perspective, Asheville—which held the number one slot—had the most microbreweries per capita in the U.S. at 27.12 per 100,000 residents. Then it was 12th for most number of microbreweries in one city.
Martin de Jongh, brewer and co-owner of Wilmington’s upcoming Mad Mole Brewing, believes the city has yet to reach a tipping point.
“There’s still plenty of beer to go around,” he assures. “We can’t make enough beer to serve Wilmington; it’s a drop in the bucket. If you look at Asheville, the population is less than Wilmington, but they support a large amount of breweries.”
Mad Mole Brewing likely will be the 12th brewery to open in the greater Wilmington area, including Check Six Brewery in Southport, NC. If all goes according to plan, the space at 6309 Boathouse Rd., near Bradley Creek, will be open in March or April of 2018.
Martin is joined by fellow brewer and co-owner Ole Pedersen, as well as partners Chris Worden and Thomas Varnum, who will focus on the business side in marketing and legal work, respectively.
Martin relocated from Raleigh in 2010 with Worden Brothers, an online stock-trading brokerage, where he works with Pedersen and Worden. Chris, who jokes he’ll do more quality control—a.k.a. drinking—than brewing, explains their day job: “We make stock-market-trading software. And beer,” he quips.
Ole has been homebrewing since 1992, but began to take it more seriously after Martin’s move to the coast. “We built our own electric-controlled brew rig,” Martin tells. “We started to get better at home brewing, paying attention to the little details and making better beer. We then entered into local homebrew competitions.”
Over the years at the Lower Cape Fear Homebrewers Competition, Martin and Ole garnered five medals, including bronze for lager and Belgian/wheat categories, silver for Belgian/wheat and amber/brown styles, and gold for pale ale/IPA.
When Wilmington Homebrew Supply opened in 2012, it quickly became an oasis for thirsty homebrewers seeking education and camaraderie.
“We’ve known [owners] John and Michelle Savard for a long time and have watched them grow—and have been slightly envious,” Ole jokes.
“I always wanted to open a brewery,” Martin confirms.
The duo long tried to get Chris involved in opening their own facility and taproom. “They’d been trying to get me to get in it almost eight years ago, and I was like, ‘Craft beer?’” Chris reveals. “I didn’t believe these things would take off. Then we got this building right next to where we work. That’s when they came to me and said, ‘Alright, now let’s get this thing started.’”
Martin says the group secured the location in March 2017. Construction started mid-October; however, it took a long time to get permits in order. “It’s only 2,000 square feet, so it’s been tough figuring out how to fit everything in,” he continues. “We ordered our equipment in May, and it should arrive by the beginning of November. Of course, we have to wait on TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] approval.”
The TTB regulates the beer industry via permissions to operate, taxes and filing, approval of beer labels, and public guidance of beer laws and regulations. Martin expects those permits will be the last items Mad Mole waits on to begin operations.
While still determining the design aesthetic for the brewery, the team knows they’ll feature a garage door on the side that will roll open to their 1,000-square-foot beer garden. A long bar will take up the front right of the taproom, and a low wall will separate the brewhouse but leave it open and visible to the public. There will be no kitchen, but food trucks will make a regular appearance.
“We’ve got a lot of vertical space, which is nice if we wanted to put big fermenters in the building, so hopefully we’ll expand at some point,” Martin adds. “We won’t distribute initially, but hopefully we will once we get production up. We’re not going to have kegs right away. We’re going to be small on a seven-barrel system. We’re going to start with six taps but we have plans to expand to 12, so hopefully that happens quickly.”
The warehouse-style space once housed Mi Ranchito Western Wear, a Mexican hat and boot shop that also caters to quinceañeras, which moved two doors down. Next door is a fitness studio. Worden’s company, Clay Roots, owns the building. He’d like to add solar panels to the roof so much of the brewing system can run off green energy. They’ll recycle and offer a charging parking station for electric cars. “We’ll d structure how we brew to conserve as much water as we can,” Ole infers. “We’re going to do LED lights throughout.”
With part of their brewery’s moniker being a combination of their names—M for Martin and then o-l-e—the logo features a graphic mole with spiral-eyed goggles, resembling a mad scientist. As brewing is a science more than a guessing game, it’s fitting.
“They are computer-programming geeks and hardware junkies,” Chris says of Martin and Ole. “So the equipment they’ve put together for brewing is very technical. Just even seeing Ole go back and forth over the brewing equipment with the people at Brewmation has been very interesting. I think we’re going to be on time, because everything is done and ordered.”
Right now the duo is trying to brew once a week, working on past recipes from years gone by and selecting their flagship ales. Guests initially can expect a West Coast-style IPA, a New England-style IPA, a Belgian dark strong ale and Belgian golden strong. Down the road, folks may see a fruit-infused saison or kolsch. As the lineup—which will feature mole-themed names—finds balance, Mad Mole will release very small batches of beer weekly. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Martin teases.
We were able to sample the most recent batch of their West Coast IPA. The aroma of the homebrewed ale was a palpable tropical-fruit essence, and the full citrus-hop profile comes through across the palate, ending with some of the alcoholic warmth in the mouthfeel. The recipe may tweak as they scale up the batch to a larger size, however.
“We had a previous incarnation of the beer that was just a little too sweet,” Martin divulges. “We were able to cut back and make it dryer, and we wanted a very citrus fruit bomb, but not necessarily a New England-style IPA. A little less malty, a little bit fruitier. It did turn out 8-percent ABV, so we’re trying to decide if we’ll keep it a double IPA or not. The problem with us is we’re our own worst critics; I always think it can be better.”
Martin says the location is in a good area for them because of the proximity to Worden Brothers and it’s close to Wrightsville Beach. They will be the stop between two other popular breweries in town: n Wrightsville Beach Brewery and Waterman’s Brewing. “It makes it more of a destination: triple shot!” Chris tells.
Mad Mole is expected to be open in the late afternoon on weekdays, with extended hours on Friday, opening at noon on weekends. Along with Wilmington’s natural tourist attractions, the beach and the Cape Fear River, Martin believes the brewing scene is a bonus. “When I first came here in 2010, there was only Front Street Brewery downtown,” he tells. “It’s been amazing to see how breweries have boomed and expanded. It’s a great community that’s good for the area. And we look forward to joining it.”
Mad Mole Brewing will open at 6309 Boathouse Road.