I’ll admit to being biased in favor of the small start-up breweries in the bad area of town (up-and-coming area!), where an owner/brewer still works the bar on occasion, everyone who works the bar can thoroughly discuss the brews, and you never have to wait long for a pour.
Front Street Brewery is not that brewery. But even though they’ve gone big, they deserve a nod for being one of the earlier breweries on the beer scene. They’ve been operating in downtown Wilmington for 20 years now, long before the cap was popped, and have been producing good beers ever since.
Front Street is down by the riverfront in a great section of Wilmington with restaurants and shops and is walking distance from newcomer Flytrap Brewing. They have a historic building, a beautiful bar, glass look-through to some of the fermentation tanks and a full menu. But it was 30 minutes to get a table on Easter Sunday at 4 pm, and we could only find two seats at the bar for our three-taster party.
They do (free) brewery tours every day at 3 p.m., 3:45 p.m., and 4:30 p.m. with a (free, but only 2-beer) tasting; you just sign up with the Host/Hostess stand. A launching Southport brewery tried to steal away Front Street’s talented Assistant Brewer, Kelsie Cole, but Front Street recognized her value and made her their head brewmaster in January 2015 and one of North Carolina’s first (they claimed “the first”?) female Head Brewers in the state. (Either way, kudos!)
In addition to a full menu, full bar, beer soaps, merch and other gear for sale, they typically have ten or so beers on tap — five core beers and five rotating seasonals. They sell growlers as well as 1/6 and half-barrel kegs. The Irish Red and IPA had run dry when we showed up, but we got a good selection of their solid line-up of beers.
Our favorites: Hoppelganger, Horizon Saison, Dram Tree Scottish, Amberjack ESB.
- Coastal Kolsch (4.8% ABV): With some light fruit tones, this Kolsch wasn’t washed out and, while not a standout, it’s a good style for beach vacations and not a bad little Kolsch.
- Riptide Raspberry Wheat (4.7% ABV): I’m not afraid of fruity beers (Wicked Weed did a, well, wicked 4th of July beer aged in raspberries, strawberries, and all the other berries), this one had the dreaded “artificial berry” flavor that didn’t work for anyone in our crew, although I’m sure it finds its audience. The suggested “Black Razz” (half-and-half with the Scottish ale) mitigated the raspberry wheat a bit, but we’d all just rather have the Scottish.
- Amberjack ESB (4.5% ABV): Extra special but not especially bitter, this was a clean easy drinking and balanced ESB, worthy of a growler.
- Dram Tree Scottish (7.2% ABV): Beautiful red color, although not particularly clear, this solid Scottish has caramel malt notes that are best without the half-and-half of the raspberry wheat.
- Henry’s Helles Bock (7.3% ABV): It was one of our bartender’s favorites and a light, drinkable beer, but it didn’t hold our interest.
- Hoppelganger (9.1% ABV): Front Street describes this black double IPA as “quite merciless”, but that’s got to be the deceptive ABV. Despite the big hops, it drinks well, is not a palate-wrecker and closes with some toastiness.
- Horizon Saison (6.6% ABV): It’s a single hopped aromatic farmhouse style, and a really good floral beer with a little bit of spice.
- Spring Beer (7.8% ABV): This is a World Beer Cup Gold award winner beer, but it was poured in the line-up after the saison, so we lost some of the nuance in this lighter beer. I’d recommend trying it early in the tasting.
Virginia Fitt lives somewhere on the border of Orange County and Durham city limits, and loves risk-taking brewers who use local ingredients, sours, Bretts/wild ales, strange collaborations, and all good beers.