Beer: Is it zoned out?

Assistant brewer Bart Roberts (right) and Ford Craven, enjoying a beer at NoDa Brewing Co. Photo: NoDa Brewing

A group of local brewers and beer lovers is working with the city's planning department to make Charlotte a more beer-friendly city in an unusual way: zoning amendments. The group held its second meeting at NoDa Brewing Co. last week, continuing a process craft brewers hope will adjust the city’s zoning ordinance, which currently restricts breweries to locations zoned for industrial uses.

Where are Charlotte's breweries? 

Click here to go to the interactive map at the bottom of this article.

“Oil refineries and breweries are allowed in industrial districts. We’re not messing with crude oil. We're making something people drink,” said John Marino, owner of Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in south Charlotte near Woodlawn Road.

Charlotte isn't the only city in the area with craft brewery questions. Over the last two decades, breweries have popped up across the Piedmont.  Yet while the number of breweries increased, some planning departments never incorporated breweries, specifically, into their zoning ordinances.

The Charlotte region is home to 13 of the state’s 61 breweries, with more on the way – leaving a region drowning in craft beer unsure how to plan for a business that’s a hybrid of restaurant, manufacturer and entertainment.

“I've only been here two weeks and I already had two inquiries for new breweries. We can’t just keep shoehorning breweries into our existing code,” said recently hired Cornelius Planning Director Wayne Herron.

The region’s two smallest municipalities with breweries, Morganton and Lenoir, both define “microbreweries” in their zoning ordinances and allow them in business districts. But the zoning codes in the fastest growing beer towns – Charlotte, Matthews, Cornelius and Hickory – never defined “breweries.”

Craft breweries in these municipalities are zoned based on their principal use, which might be processing and distribution, or might be restaurant, then grope through a maze of special permits for accessory uses like tasting rooms.

Any changes made by the City of Charlotte could set a regional precedent for municipalities hoping to encourage craft brewing.

“We want to tag along with the citizen advisory group’s research because we’re getting the same inquiries. Every jurisdiction isn’t reinventing the wheel,” said Herron.

The Matthews Planning Department is also taking a look at breweries and its code. Already in the process of rewriting its development ordinances, researching breweries was an obvious choice.

“This is a new twist of things being put together as a land use. We recognize it’s an issue that's going on across the state and plan to address it,” said Matthews Planning Director Kathi Ingrish.

Amendment process

The Charlotte citizen advisory group is in the early stages of a process to help city planners draft a text amendment for microbreweries. Bridget Dixon, the city planning coordinator working with the stakeholder group, thinks a new definition could allow breweries to move to, or expand in, Charlotte neighborhoods without annoying neighbors.

“We’re looking for a different definition that could allow them [microbreweries] to go in other zoning districts with less restrictions,” said Dixon.

The group has discussed lifting square footage requirements breweries face under current zoning and incorporating small breweries into mixed-use neighborhoods under certain conditions.

Before presenting an amendment, which would require a City Council vote to adopt, the group has to define the variations among breweries. Across the nation there’s little consistency among municipalities and beer-related organizations in how large (industrial) breweries, craft breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs are defined.

The American Brewers Association (ABA) defines craft breweries as independent breweries producing 6 million barrels of beer or less each year using traditional brewing practices. Any brewery producing more than 6 million barrels is a large (industrial) brewery – think beer giants Budweiser, Miller and Coors.

Breweries producing less than 15,000 barrels and selling 75 percent or more of them off-site are microbreweries, according to ABA standards. A restaurant-brewery selling 25 percent or more of its beer on site is a brewpub.

Regardless of the semantics, Charlotte planners think the city’s zoning ordinance should spell out what size of breweries and brewery uses should be allowed in various zones before making any zoning changes.

Current code

Charlotte zoning defines breweries that focus on processing and distribution as alcoholic beverage manufacturers and restricts them to light (I-1) and heavy (I-2) industrial districts.

Those industrial districts also permit asbestos product manufacturing, guided missile production, chemical refining, medical waste disposal, leather tanning and animal cremation. But breweries – already in the city’s most restrictive zone – face additional conditions limiting their size and the distance from residential areas.

The city caps alcohol-manufacturing facilities in light industrial districts at 5,500 square feet. In heavy-industrial districts alcohol manufacturers have no square footage limitations, but all buildings must be at least 300 feet from residential boundaries. Both the industrial districts require tap rooms to be 400 feet from nearby homes.

Those conditions create serious obstacles for brewers.

When opening NoDa Brewing Co. on North Davidson Street, owner Todd Ford had to have the architect position the property so the tasting room fell just outside the residential distance requirement.

“We spent an additional $55,000 doing that, and now our tasting room is in the back of the building away from the street’s foot-traffic,” said Ford.

Marino's Olde Mecklenburg Brewery faces similar issues. The four-year-old brewery wants to expand to a new property in South End zoned light industrial, but the lot has an existing 25,000-square-foot building sitting 100 feet from a residential boundary – too large and too close for an alcoholic beverage manufacturer.

“We want to keep providing more jobs and more beer, but I can’t move a 25,000-square-foot building. So I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Marino.

Both brewers said they don’t understand why those conditions are needed, because the brewing process has few neighborhood impacts. Ford said NoDa Brewing Co. sends and receives fewer shipments than the average grocery store, and the noisiest part of the breweries isn't the manufacturing, but the entertainment in tasting rooms and restaurants.

As for the smell of the malting and mashing process, Ford said it’s a smell most enjoy. “Before opening the brewery, I remember passing the Lance Cookie factory in Charlotte after work and it was an incredible smell. Our brewing process produces a similar smell, just not as strong,” said Ford.

Ford and Marino agree the biggest obstacle Charlotte breweries face is the current code’s square-footage restrictions. To be competitive, Ford says breweries need more space than I-1 zoning allows.

“Some of the larger craft breweries in Asheville are three, four or five times larger than this,” said Ford.

French Broad beer giant

The Asheville area is welcoming three of the nation’s largest craft breweries in the next year – all in facilities larger than 5,500 square feet. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium Brewing are each moving into 200,000-plus-square-foot facilities. Oskar Blues is moving into a 30,000-square-foot space.

More about Charlotte's breweries 

Cheers! A guide to the local and craft beer scene in Charlotte

 Trouble brewing: Charlotte beer-makers say zoning holds back untapped market (subscription required)

Asheville’s growing brewery industry cluster shows the economic and cultural potential of craft beer for Charlotte. The reigning four-time “Beer City, USA,” Asheville is home to almost 20 craft breweries, more breweries per capita (roughly one per 8,000 people) than any other city in the nation. And the city has reaped the benefits.

“New breweries are coming to the edge of our dense urban core, incorporating new parts of the city and investing money in them,” said Alan Glines, a planner in the Asheville Planning Department who developed most of the city’s microbrewery regulations.

Asheville’s zoning ordinance allows breweries in office, central business and resort districts with four conditions: They must have an off-street or alley loading dock, and can’t have drive-throughs or outdoor speaker systems. If they’re in office districts they must be less than 4,000 square feet.

“If you can allow bars or restaurants, you can allow microbreweries. That’s all there is to it,” said Glines.

The brewer-friendly code has contributed to the city’s burgeoning River Arts District redevelopment in big ways. New Belgium Brewing Co.’s recent decision to invest $175 million in the industrial site along the French Broad River helped fuel the transformation from gray industrial zone to thriving mixed-use arts district.

“The brewery scene has become part of our gentrification, but not in the bad way of just making things expensive. It’s sort of made things safe and brought places around,” said Glines. “It's part of our current renaissance of Asheville.”

The question of whether Charlotte can catch up to that brewing giant is yet to be answered, but Glines thinks several Charlotte neighborhoods such as Plaza Midwood and NoDa are primed  – if the code is right.

“The thing is, you can’t build community on the outskirts of I-77. Breweries are looking for young urbanites and want to be part of the cultural environment of the city. They want a scene,” said Glines.

Glines recommends a more hands-off approach to managing brewery development. “People want to micromanage so much that they feel like they have to cover everything. They should adopt the ordinance, try it out and adjust if they feel like they didn’t cover everything.”

His advice to the Charlotte Planning Department: “Don't let perfect get in the way of good. You don't want to miss this.”

Scroll below for an interactive map of breweries in the Charlotte region. Click on icons for more information. Zoom and pan to see more detail of locations.