Oral history interview with Sean Lilly Wilson, 2018

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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0:00 - Opening credits / introduction

1:10 - Background and interests

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Partial Transcript: We'll start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself.

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses his personal background and interests.

2:38 - Initial interest in the brewing industry

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Partial Transcript: How did you first become interested in the brewing industry?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses how he was initially introduced to craft beer and the brewing industry.

4:27 - Pop the Cap

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Partial Transcript: So, since you've already slid into Pop the Cap - for those who don't know, what exactly was the Pop the Cap movement?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses the Pop the Cap movement, which successfully advocated for raising the cap on the ABV of beer sold in North Carolina.

Keywords: Eric Lamb; Julie (Bradford) Johnson; Legislation; pop the cap movement; Theresa Kostrzewa

5:32 - Beer and brewing in North Carolina before Pop the Cap

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Partial Transcript: How would you describe the beer and brewing scene in North Carolina before 2005?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson describes North Carolina's beer and brewing scene prior to the success of Pop the Cap's legislative initiative as enthusiastic but handcuffed by regulations.

Keywords: All About Beer; Brewers Association

8:22 - Building a coalition for Pop the Cap

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Partial Transcript: I think it was originally 35 people in the Pop the Cap. How did all these people manage to come together?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses the ways the individuals involved in the Pop the Cap legislative advocacy movement came together.

Keywords: Julie (Bradford) Johnson; Pop the Cap movement

10:25 - Initial expectations when beginning the Pop the Cap movement

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned that your goal was to strike one line out of the law.

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses the initial goals and expectations of the group that began the Pop the Cap movement.

Keywords: Legislation; Theresa Kostrzewa

12:11 - Greatest challenges in Pop the Cap's advocacy work

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Partial Transcript: You've kind of touched on this, but what were the greatest challenges in working with organization, the grassroots movement, to get to the point where you're getting the law changed and what challenges along the way were you facing?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses challenges associated with the Pop the Cap movement's advocacy, including some individuals in the industry who were opposed to the law, opposition from the Christian Action League, and different viewpoints from brewers in different regions of the state.

Keywords: Christian Action League; Craft Freedom Movement; North Carolina Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association

17:54 - Craft Freedom

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned Craft Freedom. For people who don't know what the Craft Freedom movement is, do you want to talk briefly about it?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson describes the current Craft Freedom movement related to self distribution in North Carolina.

Keywords: Craft Freedom Movement

19:28 - Reflections on Pop the Cap

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Partial Transcript: Now looking back at Pop the Cap, is there anything that you would change or do differently?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson reflects on the Pop the Cap movement, including opinions from legislators who were in opposition to the bill and the first beer he had in NC that exceeded the previous ABV cap.

Keywords: community; pop the cap movement

26:24 - Decision to open Fullsteam

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Partial Transcript: You actually stated earlier that when you started Pop the Cap you had no intentions of owning a brewery, so what changed?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses his decision to open Fullsteam in Durham. Factors included a desire to create jobs and a love of the beer industry and entrepreneurship.

27:57 - Decision to locate Fullsteam in Durham

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Partial Transcript: Why Durham?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses his decision to locate Fullsteam in Durham. He compares Durham's growth and renaissance to that of the craft beer movement.

31:31 - Challenges faced in opening Fullsteam

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Partial Transcript: Were there any unique challenges you faced when you were opening the location?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses challenges faced in opening Fullsteam, including issues of funding.

32:24 - Origins of the name Fullsteam and the backwards "F" logo

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Partial Transcript: Why'd you name the place Fullsteam?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson describes the origins of the name Fullsteam as a way of looking backwards while moving full steam ahead.

34:12 - Fullsteam's "Plow to Pint" philosophy and the "Southern beer economy"

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned your plow to pint philosophy - can you tell us a little about that as well as the Southern beer economy?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses Fullsteam's emphasis on creating distinctly Southern beers through emphasis on local ingredients and support of local farmers.

Keywords: agriculture; community; local agriculture; southern beer economy

41:23 - Sustainability and community engagement efforts

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Partial Transcript: You're also involved in locally and sustainability and community engagement effort.

Segment Synopsis: Wilson describes the way that Fullsteam in its community engagement work aims to mirror Durham as a progressive Southern city.

Keywords: community; community engagement

43:28 - Balancing customer expectations with food and specific beer styles

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Partial Transcript: And Fullsteam opened the kitchen in April of 2017? Yes.

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses the opening of the kitchen at Fullsteam in 2017 and the importance of being able to manage the customer experience. He also describes the need to balance a focus on uniquely Southern beer with customer expectations.

46:55 - Growth predictions for Fullsteam and the industry

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Partial Transcript: How do you see Fullsteam growing in the future?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson describes a conservative growth and a continued focus on local while also possibly expanding regionally.

48:04 - Craft brewing industry today

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Partial Transcript: What is it like working in the craft brewing industry today?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson describes the craft brewing industry today as fast-paced and forward-thinking, but with a strong sense of where the business is today.

50:14 - Comparing the craft brewing industry today to the industry in 2005

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Partial Transcript: How would you say then, based upon my vague question of what it's like to work today, how would you use that to compare to what it was like when you got started?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson compares the craft brewing industry today to the industry when Fullsteam opened in 2010. He discusses different customer expectations for craft brewing.

57:27 - Awards for Fullsteam

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Partial Transcript: This was your third year being a James Beard award semi-finalist and Fullsteam just brought home three Good Food awards.

Segment Synopsis: Wilson describes his reactions to and the importance of Fullsteam winning three Good Food Awards as well as his third year being a James Beard Award semifinalist.

Keywords: good food awards; james beard foundation award; Leah Wong Ashburn

59:35 - Favorite beer from a North Carolina brewery other than Fullsteam

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Partial Transcript: Do you have a favorite beer from a North Carolina brewery other than your own?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses his love of beer from North Carolina breweries that focus on the local, including Free Range, Fonta Flora, Mystery, and Wooden Robot. He also discusses how North Carolina breweries defy naysayers.

Keywords: southern beer economy

62:14 - Fullsteam's flagship beer

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Partial Transcript: What would you say is Fullsteam's flagship beer is?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson notes that Rocket Science IPA is the best selling Fullsteam beer, but he feels that Humidity Pale Ale is their flagship because it speaks more to a sense of place and to the South.

63:41 - Personal favorite Fullsteam beer and the Farm's Edge series

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Partial Transcript: What's your personal favorite Fullsteam beer?

Segment Synopsis: Wilson discusses the Farm's Edge series of Fullsteam beers, including the deadnettle gose.

65:32 - Interview conclusion / closing credits


Richard: Starting here, just say and spell your name.

Sean Wilson: All right, my name is Sean Lilly Wilson. Sean is S-E-A-N. My middle name is L-I-L-L-Y, last name Wilson, W-I-L-S-O-N. Lilly is my legal middle name. It's my wife's maiden name.

Richard: Cool.

Sean Wilson: I had no affinity for Richard. Yeah, you're like I'm right here.

Richard: You would've found out in a minute. I don't have to say my name.

Sean Wilson: I felt like I was competing with you.

Richard: Lilly was actually my mother's name.

Sean Wilson: Yeah? All right, very cool.

Richard: You said in conversation, so today is Thursday, May 17th, 2018, and we are here at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina. I am Richard Cox, 1:00talking today with Sean Lilly Wilson, chief executive optimist as part of the Well Crafted North Carolina Project. So we'll start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself.

Sean Wilson: Wow, you're leaving it that open ended.

Richard: I am leaving it open ended.

Sean Wilson: Should we take that in any particular direction.

Richard: Nope, go for it.

Sean Wilson: Okay, excellent. I am a Scorpio. Let's see, I am 47 years old, I've been married, this year, I will be married 25 years to my lovely wife Caroline. And we have two kids, Echo and Sophie. Just yesterday, the youngest finished high school. So that's that. We've lived in the area, the Durham area, since 1992. So I'm not from here originally, I'm from Pennsylvania, I guess. I moved around a lot as a kid, but grew up in Pennsylvania, went to school in suburban Chicago, that's where I met Carolyn. We moved out here and we're stayed here 2:00ever since. I have a love and an interest in creating change and rabble rousing, and doing things just a little bit differently than following the standard path.

Sean Wilson: So my career's been a long rambling ... Not very consistent, but I found my passion, and I found my love in craft beer. And it took me a little bit, but I got there.

Richard: And how did you first become interested in the brewing industry.

Sean Wilson: Well, I was in grad school at Duke. And I had just finished up the program, and a friend of mine who stayed in the area was a big craft beer enthusiast. And he was a home brewer and way very persuasive on this whole, "You should try this beer, and you should try my beer." Just one of those evangelists 3:00for craft beer. I was like, "That's cool. I drink craft beer." Because I buy whatever's on sale at Harris Teeter. And I thought I knew what craft beer was, and he took me to a party, invited me to a party where there were all these corked and caged beers, and things that said batch number one, and bold flavors. And I had never tasted anything like this before. And I asked my friend where can I get these beers? And he said you can't get them in North Carolina. And I was like, "What? That makes no sense."

Sean Wilson: And then he explained this law that kept beer to under 6% alcohol, you couldn't sell beer above 6%, you couldn't buy beer above, you couldn't brew beer above 6% alcohol, a law that had been in place since prohibition. And I thought that was a dumb law, and I started thinking as I was also getting into 4:00craft beer and getting interested in this whole world, maybe there's an opportunity to try to change that. And so working on that law change was my foray to craft beer. I didn't think I would start up a brewery. I didn't have any intentions of starting up a brewery, but that's ultimately what happened.

Richard: So since you've already slid right in to Pop The Cap, for those who don't know, what exactly was the Pop The Cap movement?

Sean Wilson: Sure. Pop The Cap was a grassroots movement that started in 2002 with three key people, Eric [inaudible 00:04:39], Julie Johnson, at the time she was Julie Bradford, and myself, and a bunch of other volunteers and craft beer enthusiasts, and a key lobbyist, Theresa Kostrzewa. So that group worked as volunteers, as craft beer enthusiasts, to change a law in North Carolina, part 5:00of the general statutes. Our original intent was just to strike a clause and say and not more than 6%, legal definition of what beer could be. And it took us about two and half years of lobbying and pressure on the legislature, but we were ultimately successful with getting that law change. And the cap is now a more reasonable 15%.

Sean Wilson: There's still a cap, but it covers about 99.5% of all beers that are made out there.

Richard: So how would you describe the beer in brewing scene in North Carolina before 2005?

Sean Wilson: It was enthusiastic. It had the makings of a solid industry, but it was handcuffed by an unnecessary regulation. We were one of five states with that regulation in place. And they were all southern states, and it was hard to be a force. It's hard to be a legitimate state for craft brewing when you have 6:00this restriction in place. About a third of the world's beer styles were illegal to brew and sell. And so that, again, handcuffed. Now, the enthusiasm was there, the bones were there, some experience was there certainly with Highland, and Red Oak, and Weeping Radish. And Foothills had opened by then, Eddie Greens I had opened I believe in the midst of all of that. And so there was a wave and anticipation that this law would change, but it was a different era.

Richard: And what were you up to at the time?

Sean Wilson: Well, I was unemployed, that's why I took on this volunteer job. Like I said, I had some extra time on my hands, the translation was I didn't have a job. And then I actually did get a job and work wise, I was working at 7:00the Duke of Alumni Association. I worked there for about a year. And I did membership programs. And it was a great job, it was a very manageable job. And so that afforded me some time to scheme, to have the side project. But when I first started out, I was literally trying to figure out how can I get into the craft beer world. And that's how I connected with Julie Johnson. Her then husband was head of All About Beer magazine, and what was called the Association of Brewers. Which merged with the Brewer's Association.

Sean Wilson: There were two organizations, the Brewer's Association of America and the Association of Brewers. Those two merged and formed the Brewer's Association, which is our trade organization. And he was head of that, and head of All About Beer magazine. I was doing my networking, like, "God, I love craft beer. How can I get into this?" And I found out that just two blocks away from here was All About Beer offices. And basically just hounded them for a job. I 8:00did some initial work with them, and then did that work at Duke. So again, as I started a rambling career, non linear process, but that was my start.

Richard: I think it was originally 35 people in the Pop the Cap.

Sean Wilson: Yeah.

Richard: How did all these people manage to come together.

Sean Wilson: Through the power of email. This was before Facebook, and a lot of the campaigning, ease of campaigning and getting people aware of those movements. So there was no hashtag associated with this thing, but we just knew enough people in our networks to reach out. Especially Julie, she's very well 9:00connected in the beer world. And we knew enough people who had been rumbling about this change. And we just started sending out an email to as many people we thought might be interested in joining and figuring this thing out. So on a miserable, cold February in 2002, we got about the core group, 35, 40 people together at the All About Beer offices.

Sean Wilson: Not very many people ended up really being a part of that organization, but enough did that there was enough of a spark. We were like, "There's something here." And somehow through it all, I ended up serving as president of it and then building that group from 35 to what ended up being for people who wrote their local representative, or walking the halls, definitely a few thousand people.

Sean Wilson: Beer brings people together, yeah. And that was a really fun thing about all of this, is that it was non-partisan. There were libertarians, 10:00conservatives, liberals. It didn't matter, there's just this audience of people that were just passionate about craft beer and wanted to see it change. And we were all walks of life.

Richard: Yeah. And I know you mentioned that your goal was to strike one line out of law. When you were first getting together at the offices, what sort of expectations did you all have as far as how long this would take, or what you really could achieve?

Sean Wilson: Well, we knew what the goal was, we just had no idea how to do it. And this is coming from a graduate of public policy masters program. I did public policy and business at Duke, and I had no earthly idea how to change a law. We literally thought that maybe a petition would work. In retrospect, it's so laughably naïve. As they say in the South, bless your heart. We had plenty 11:00of bless your heart moments in our early days as we tried to get this thing going. But that's where Theresa provided great expertise, and also a very loving but direct, "No, we're not doing that."

Sean Wilson: And we entrusted her to go through this crazy process of changing a law in North Carolina. And again, following her lead, but we had no idea how to do it early on. We knew what the goal was, and we weren't distracted by any other agenda, or language. It was very clear. All we wanna do is strike six words, "And not more than six percent." Yeah, six words, I remember my talking points. Yeah, all we wanted to do was strike six words from the general 12:00statutes. Of course, it was a lot more complicated to do that.

Richard: I think we touched on this, but we're gonna ask what were the greatest challenges in working with an organization, the grassroots movement, to actually get to the point where you're getting the law changed? What challenges along the way were you facing?

Sean Wilson: I would say there were many challenges. If you break it down in political science methodology, you have the different actors. And the players were definitely the wholesalers association who provided a considerable challenge in both opposing and being neutral on this issue. They were in a difficult position of having to appease a wide range of constituents. Some of whom were against this law change, some of whom were for it, some of whom had no idea what on Earth this was all about, even though they're in the industry. 13:00Because this is not something that the wholesalers were used to. Wholesalers, they're really good at moving efficient boxes of similar sized things. And this is coming in as an industry and saying, "No, what we'd like to do is ship trapezoids and tetrahedrons, and polygons." And they would like to move boxes.

Sean Wilson: And so we were very different audiences, a very different look at what beer was to them. And some of these are multi-generational stayed families that are very happy with the opportunity that they have to control a part of the market. And some of those constituents didn't want to see the law change. It's true. They lobbied very effectively in the background to try to kill this thing. That was a significant challenge. Christian Right was another significant challenge, and this coming from somebody who grew up in the faith community, 14:00went to a religious school, and just spoke a different language about beer than did the Christian Action League, who was very costic in their language. They're very passionate, but also full of great rhetoric and great leverage.

Sean Wilson: Leverage their connections, the ones that they knew would be against it, as vocal opponents of the law change, to try to through out some scare tactics. I think there's a lot of noise in that, I don't think it was particularly effective, but you have to navigate around that. They're just looking to have something catch on fire and get people skiddish because it is trying to change alcohol law in the South. And to do that, Theresa reminds us of 15:00this to this day, to be able to change that law on the first go around is pretty remarkable. And she would call it unprecedented.

Sean Wilson: And then another constituency that was difficult was our own internal audience. So to clarify what that means, Pop the Cap really was centered in Central North Carolina, within an hour's drive, generally, of the state capital. And I think the people who were inclined to see this change, who know a little bit about North Carolina's political climate, we live in politics more in the area than do people in Charlotte and in Asheville in particular. 16:00Asheville is somewhat separatist leaning. Somewhat like on the mountain, leave us alone, we got this thing. We're Asheville. I love you Asheville, but that's always been the mentality, and it came into play with a little bit of a laissez-faire attitude towards trying to get this law changed.

Sean Wilson: Charlotte, as a banking institution and a financial center, doesn't really understand the political nonsense that happens in Raleigh. And I get that, too, but we knew that we had to play a certain game and work a process to get this law changed. There was no way around it. It's interesting now, you see the dynamics playing out with craft freedom who has basically said, "No, there is another way." We're tired of the political system, and I get that, because 17:00the wholesalers are almost uniformly against that law change. That, of course, is the goal to lift the self distribution cap in North Carolina. But they're really entrenched and pretty united on not seeing that through, and they're very well politically connected. So they're going their own path on that, which I totally get.

Sean Wilson: For us, we worked within the system. That caused some rancor and discord from other regions. And so we had to work to create this local, I'm almost tempted to call them cells, but little pop up groups that waved the Pop The Cap flag within that community. Holy moly, that was a long answer.

Richard: That was a good answer. So you mentioned craft freedom. For people who don't know what the craft freedom movement is, do you wanna talk briefly about ...


Sean Wilson: Yeah, it's this ongoing movement now to lift the alcohol cap on self distribution in North Carolina. Now, it's not on the amount that you self distribute, it's on the amount that you produce as a brewery. So once a brewery exceeds 25,000 barrels annually, they no longer have the right to self distribute. We are a self distributing brewery, we're at about 8,000 barrels. So we're short and shy of that cap, but we would love to have that opportunity to grow beyond that. And we support breweries like NoDa and Olde Mecklenburg, Red Oak, and others that are either closer to that cap or really have an active interest and are pursuing this change. The method of going about it, I have my concerns on it. I don't know if ... But I get it, but I have my concerns. And that's okay. I get it, I have my concerns, those can coexist. So I'm on the sidelines watching this one play out, and adjusting accordingly. Wholeheartedly 19:00throwing our support to the people in the front lines on this one, but they are suing the state to basically state that the franchise laws and the self distribution cap are unconstitutional, would be the language.

Richard: Cool. So now looking back at Pop the Cap, is there anything you would change or do differently? I mean, it worked.

Sean Wilson: Yeah, it worked. It worked pretty effectively. Anything I'd do differently. I think we could've done a better job of working within the communities to build more trust of our intentions and our process. But that's a pretty small change. We were always gonna have opponents and it was fascinating 20:00political theater, and I wouldn't have changed that for a bit to hear some of the rhetoric that came out of that. That drinking one craft beer is like drinking straight vodka, or another representative said something like that this law change is gonna lead to more deaths, more abortions, and more academic suicides. Actual things that legislators said to try and defeat this endeavor. I wouldn't have changed that for the world, it's hilarious.

Richard: Okay.

Sean Wilson: But it was also invigorating. If it was easy, if it was just like, "Yeah, okay, we get it." It would've been easy, but it's the fight that makes it all worthwhile. It's the stories that come out of it, it's those memories that are just ... They just empower me to this day.


Richard: What would you say is your best memory?

Sean Wilson: The best, since that's the thing, the best was when I heard the news that the law changed. Which is the simple answer, but that was pretty great. The funny thing is, I was actually on a family vacation in Tennessee and I literally was coming out of a cave. So I came out of a cave, right? And not just any cave, but it was you pay admission for a cave and you go on a tour, a legit cave. Complete with admission. And come out and my phone was buzzing and lighting up, and all that, and the law changed. And everyone was calling me and texting me, or whatever happened back in the days of cell phones in 2005, but it 22:00did exist. It was a cellphone. I was getting some kind of notifications. And just that feeling of, "Oh, my God, it happened. We really did it."

Sean Wilson: It seems strange. Why were you on vacation? Shouldn't you have been there? But you don't know sometimes when a bill is gonna be taken up and when things are gonna happen. That was just such a joyful moment. It was neat, it was with my family. We didn't got out necessarily because we were in rural Tennessee. We didn't go out and celebrate with a specialty beer or anything like that. But just that feeling of the hard work that we saw through. There's a million other memories, but the best, that would be it.

Richard: What did the next day, after the law changed, what changed? Did people 23:00suddenly start ... Suddenly these 14.9% beers magically starting appearing at pubs?

Sean Wilson: We had a really, just a sad spike in academic suicides. I'm just kidding, that's too soon still. I shouldn't joke about that because I know things happen in life and all that, but yeah. So that's now on record, great. The snark gets the better of me. Okay, so the things that I really remember were Highland brewed ... And I think they might have known that it was in the works, so they had it in the conditioning tanks or something, but I remember that first beer was the Tasgall. It was an imperial brown ale. I had it actually, out of all places, at Top of the Hill. I think they had it on tap there. This is where 24:00my memory gets fuzzy. I might've brought a bottle to Julie or some kind of connection there, but I just remember that beer in particular as a malty, maybe 8% beer. Nothing crazy, but just that first taste of something that had been illegal in North Carolina for 70 years that was made in North Carolina, that was by a brewery that I really respect and love, that was fun.

Sean Wilson: So you started seeing slight changes. The first movers were things like Duvel and Maredsous and these imports that came in, these Belgian imports. There's this first wave of like Delirium Tremens. Yeah, and so those were some of the first things that happened. And then over time, you would start seeing 25:00actual IPAs. I know, I'm a little concerned that this sounds like back in the day, but it's just weird to think about. Especially where we're at now. And I think about this a lot, not to jump ahead, because maybe this a question. I don't know. But so many people, people in their 20s and 30s, they had no idea this law existed. And you know what? That's great, they shouldn't have known about this law. They have no need to know about this law. I love that we're talking about this and that there's a chronicling of this, but this law should never have existed, so there's no reason to celebrate the difficulty. I love the stories of my experience and our experience coming through all of it, but by no means am I just like, "If you only knew."

Sean Wilson: Beer's so good these days, and we're so lucky that ... I don't care 26:00that people don't know about this stuff. I appreciate the chronicling and documenting of it, but not from a "yells at a cloud" kind of standpoint, if that makes sense.

Richard: Way to end the Pop The Cap part. Let's talk about Fullsteam.

Sean Wilson: Okay.

Richard: So you actually stated earlier, when you started Pop The Cap, you had no intentions of owning a brewery. So what changed?

Sean Wilson: I love the industry, I love the people. I knew that the industry was gonna change, and part of our talking points with Pop The Cap when the question came up, "What do you expect the economic impact would be?" We would always say we thought it would be around 300 jobs. Yeah, so I was like, "Maybe we can create a couple of those 300 jobs." Yeah, I laugh because it's been a lot more than that. We woefully underestimated the impact, but I thought I love this 27:00industry, and the people, and I always considered myself an entrepreneur in waiting. I wasn't ever quite ready. I didn't have the idea. And I also am not a technologist, I'm not an engineer, hell, I'm not even a brewer. And so all these reasons, I'm like, "Well, I'm never gonna own my own business because I'm not that person." I'm not your typical works out of the garage and invests something, but that's such a fallacy. And really, what it took was me gaining my own confidence to break away and start my own thing.

Sean Wilson: But it came back to beer, I loved the industry, the people, and I knew that there was gonna be an opportunity to ... I wouldn't say leverage my experience, but to build upon it and take it to the next level.


Richard: And why Durham?

Sean Wilson: Why Durham? Well, we looked at a lot of other towns and cities, and I kept on coming back to the city that I loved, that I first moved to in 1992. And I don't live in Durham now, but I obviously have a strong affinity for Durham. It just has the bones of a physical space that worked for us at the time. Rent was relatively inexpensive, so we secured 14,000 square feet. We rent here, but it was a place that we knew that we could have good bones and good people to support the on-premise component of what we were looking to do. We had looked at some smaller towns, and Hillsborough, Saxapahaw, Pittsboro, but it kept on coming back to Durham as this place with great energy and promise. And at the time, I think Durham and craft beer tracked really nicely with each other.


Sean Wilson: Both were underestimated, both were rising ... I would say a phoenix from the ashes, but just a little bit of that grit and can do spirit. Where a lot of people, particularly ten years ago or so, were like, "Durham? Why would you go there?" And make some unfortunate comment about the fact that this is a wonderful diverse, gritty, and sometimes challenging city. And craft beer, without trying to thread it to ... But craft beer at that time, had a little bit of an image problem. What's craft beer? That's for weirdos. It's strange to think, but it went from weirdos to hipsters to mainstream. And so we were in the weirdo stage then. And a little bit of that misfits toys thing. It just worked 30:00for us to build out something that was pretty different for Durham at the time.

Sean Wilson: Durham very quickly made sense for us.

Richard: And what was downtown and the Durham area like in August of 2010 when you were opening the doors?

Sean Wilson: Downtown was coming along. There were some early movers in there, like Rue Cler, which is a restaurant ongoing, and a few other businesses. But it's remarkable what's happening in downtown Durham. Now, we don't really consider ourselves downtown. We're just north of downtown in a little warehouse district. And this area, too, people literally would come here and say, "Why here?" In the early days, but a lot of warehouse districts and a lot of that movement towards urban revitalization. There's a collective of businesses that 31:00are independent, or entertainment oriented, food, night life, what have you.

Sean Wilson: And so we've really seen a lot of success because we're complimentary to things that make this area vibrant and fun. So Motorco, Cocoa Cinnamon, Geer Street, the Pit, Accordion Club, Surf Club. This is a neat little nook of Durham that's a fun place to hang out.

Richard: So were there any unique challenges you faced when you were opening the location?

Sean Wilson: No. No challenges at all. It was breeze. Of course, yeah. First off, it was capitalization, just raising the money. I definitely had some come to Jesus moments where I was like, "Oh, my God, we are not gonna make this." And so thankfully, some investors, they came through and made this thing possible. I did not start this with my own money. I needed to raise money to make this 32:00happen, both debt and equity. I mean, I had never done anything like this before. Again, I'm not an engineer, so entrusted a lot of people to help build this thing out. And we worked together and it was a very stressful time, but it was wonderful.

Richard: Awesome.

Sean Wilson: Yeah.

Richard: So why did you name the place Fullsteam?

Sean Wilson: There's a sense of optimism, a sense of purpose and pride that comes with a vision that we have of making distinctly southern beer using local ingredients. And this plowed a pint vision that we had that we're going Fullsteam ahead. I have past predictions of the future. So past predictions of the future were often times full of optimism and hope, and what could be. And our predictions of the future now are not so good. So there's a little bit of hearkening back to past predictions of the future. So there's this dualism, that's why the F is backwards. It's like looking backwards but moving full steam ahead.


Richard: You got my second question already.

Sean Wilson: Why is the F backwards?

Richard: Why is the F backwards?

Sean Wilson: In the snarky one, it's because you ask. I like saying that a lot, except no one ever likes hearing that. If it was a forward F, you wouldn't be interested, but the backwards F is ... I mean there's multiple reasons of it. From a marketing perspective, I wanted something that was iconic, and bulky, and easy to recognize at the tap. You have Fullsteam, boom. So that's the marketing guy in me, but also, the simplistic, easy to see logo that stood for something and made you, what I call, tilt of the head moment. When a dog tilts its head when it sees something unusual or hears a weird sound. It's like, "Why'd you do that?" A backwards F is a little bit of the tilt of the head. You know what it is, but it's not what you think it is, and you wanna know why. It's also an opportunity for a conversation, "So why did you make that F backwards?" And that 34:00leads to just so many conversations that start with a logo decision, but goes into a philosophy and allows us to tell the story of why we do what we do here at the brewery.

Richard: So you mentioned that your plow-to-pint philosophy. Can you tell us a little about that as well as the southern beer economy?

Sean Wilson: Of course, I'd be honored to. When I first looked at starting up a brewery, I didn't wanna do just ... I wasn't necessarily passionate about replicating existing beer styles. I didn't have a vision to do a German brewery, or an English brewery, or a west coast brewery, west coast style beers or whatever. I wanted to create distinctly southern beer. I had worked at Magnolia Grill, a seminal restaurant in the south. I worked there in the early '90s just as a waiter, but the Barkers there, Ben and Karen, taught me so much about 35:00southern ingredients, and marrying drink, then wine, with seasonal food.

Sean Wilson: And the idea that I had was instead of replicating existing styles, it's more interesting for me to create. What if? In that spirit of optimism and the envisions of the future, what if beer was distinctly southern? What would that look like? And what if we used local ingredients? And what if beer was the crux, and this is lofty talk I know, but what if beer was the crux of the agricultural economy? Because it used to be tobacco and it's no longer tobacco. So can beer create opportunities for a southern beer economy in a post-tobacco south. And so our vision, and remains to this day, to use local grains, local 36:00herbs, and fruits, vegetables, to connect people to the land and to one another. But to create opportunities for wealth for farmers, agricultural entrepreneurs, and for foragers.

Richard: So now, how would you describe what is southern beer?

Sean Wilson: It's a deceiving simple question. I think southern beer, as we define it, has a quiet confidence about it. Which it's always fun to use that phrase, quiet confidence because it's like, "Hey, quiet confidence, let's talk about our quiet confidence." But it's one of our core values at the brewery and it's also enbued into our beers themselves. That they try hard to not try too hard. And so I was thinking actually driving in today, not about this interview but I just think about stuff. Where are we at now in 2018 in the craft beer 37:00world? And I think we're in a morning zoo stage of craft beer. Remember morning zoo shows? At least there's an audience. There's a world of brewers. And God bless them, they're fun, but they're the morning zoo of craft beer.

Sean Wilson: It's just bells and whistles, and funny sounds, and fart noises. And they're like, "Look at me." Tune into what we're doing. It's great, I love them, they're fun, but they're not always for me. To me, southern beer is tempered. It's quietly confident. It's retained. It knows that it's place is as a component to community, to food. That is doesn't have to always be the center of attention, that it can work to enhance the moment, right? And of course, the inclusion of local ingredients help give it a sense of place, so that there's a 38:00taste. I wouldn't say "terroir". That, to me, has always felt a little overwrought for beer because taste of place can be so changed by the ingredients that you use, be it the hops or the ... Just whatever you add to it, it's gonna have those flavors rather than the taste of Earth, which is what terroir really means.

Sean Wilson: So this is the Fearrington Spring, a collaboration with Fearrington Inn and restaurant in Chatham County. And it uses Riverbend Appalachian wheat grown in North Carolina, malted in Asheville, but also a significant dry hop. The hops aren't grown locally because it's tough to have that as a commercially viable industry. So one might taste this and not know it's necessarily southern. 39:00But we try to highlight the local ingredient components in each beer. And our goal is to get to 30% local, and we may ever be able to push that to 50%, depending on our business model. So that equated to about $100,000 in local agricultural spending last year in our local purchasing, ranging from ingredients grown in North Carolina. We do also include anything of value added that was manufactured or had an element of a value added process in the state.

Sean Wilson: So just to be clear what that means, things like coffee. Coffee doesn't grow in North Carolina, but we work with Counter Culture, with Muddy Dog, with other rosters. But the vast majority of it is our ingredients that are grown in North Carolina.

Richard: I think on your menu list actually has a percentage of how much of each beer is locally sourced.


Sean Wilson: That's right. And you would never know by tasting, say, the Unscripted, an India Pale Lager. You're not gonna know that that's 88% local by weight. And that of course, doesn't include the water, but that's all North Carolina grown barley and not local hops. You're gonna taste that as a hoppy, crisp lager. And the fact that it has local ingredients as the base of it means a lot to us. How we communicate that to the customer is a challenge. I think we could do a better job of telling that story, even here at the tavern. Maybe more on social media and on our website. A lot of people just don't care. They're just gonna have a Rocket Science, they don't know anything about our mission. And that's okay, but I'd love to be able to tell that story more and more about 41:00the importance of agriculture in North Carolina, and to have people fall in love with it. Not for our sake, for our sales, but to really do what we can to see this southern beer economy through.

Sean Wilson: We're very passionate about the southern farm, and beer just happens to be a vehicle we express our passion for the land and for community.

Richard: And you're also involved in local sustainability and community engagement efforts. Is there anything you want to say about that?

Sean Wilson: I think a lot of breweries are. We just have our own unique spin on it. So we work hard to be a mirror to Durham as a progressive southern city, and we take pride in that, in being unabashedly progressive, for standing for things that we believe in, that reflect the spirit of Durham. And so a lot of our 42:00events or political opinions or fundraisers will have that element to it if we're involved in it. For example, gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is evil and it sucks, and it leads to divisive things, like HB2, which was a very negative thing for our state and was done only for political gains. And so if we and Trophy and others who are passionate about ending gerrymandering and getting fair districting in the state can help raise awareness.

Sean Wilson: Then, it fuels that vehicle for getting people to think about this complex issue called gerrymandering, then we're doing our job. We're also heavily involved in endeavors like the Triangle Land Conservancy, where we 43:00regularly forage for ingredients on this land that's managed by TLC and forever protected from development. If we can get people to think about wandering those lands and taking advantage of this great public resource, for thinking about what a black walnut is or what persimmons are through beer, then we're doing our job.

Richard: And Fullsteam opened a kitchen in April of 2017?

Sean Wilson: Yes.

Richard: What was the thinking behind adding a food program?

Sean Wilson: What was your thinking? Is that what you mean to say?

Richard: Yes.

Sean Wilson: What were you thinking? I don't know what I was thinking. No, I do know what I was thinking, it's just been it's own beast for sure. We relied very heavily on food trucks for our food here for seven years or so. We were a place for food trucks, and that served us well until the food trucks didn't show up. And we couldn't really tell the story of how beer and food pair wonderfully 44:00together. I'm not sure that we still can tell that story, because we have to meet customer expectations. And our patrons don't want anything too, too fancy. So how can you really tell the story about how great beer and food is when you're doing tater tots, I don't know. But tater tots are delicious, and if I'm at brewery, I might order them as an example. So we've had some growing pains with food, and I think we're finding our niche and our way. I think a lot of it really just comes down to we wanted to be able to manage the customer experience and there were too many variables when food trucks didn't show.

Sean Wilson: Food trucks had a moment here, going back to Durham and Durham's ascendancy. Food trucks were a big part of the vernacular, and now it's a known factor. And so brewery of our size, of our era and age, we have to innovate. We 45:00can't stand still. We can't just be like, "Well, this is who we are and this is what we do." Even though I have this background, no one cares. Even though I have this history, no one cares. Even though we've had this track record, no one cares. It's about right now, and I get that, but that means that you have to constantly innovate and adapt, and exceed customer expectations. But invention is the name of the game. And so actually coming back to beer, that's a big part of why we do things like New England style IPA. I thought you were a southern brewery, but why do you make a New England style IPA?

Sean Wilson: Well, it's because that's what customers want, and also because they're delicious. They are very tasty beers. So while we have this passion for southern ingredients, we also are mindful that we have to meet customers where 46:00they're at and what they want. And so I'm particularly passionate about the fusion of that, where we can connect our love of southern culture with emerging styles that are not from here. And so we have a beer that's coming out, it's a paw paw New England style IPA, which is a morning zoo show style of beer if ever there was one. It just happens to be a radio station in the south. But I'm okay with that because it's gonna be delicious. It's gonna take native paw paws, farmed by Wynn Dinnson in Siler City, between Siler City and Pittsboro, and marries that curious, dank, mysterious fruit, with the lively juicy, buoyant New England style IPA. And I'm looking forward to that.

Richard: So how do you see Fullsteam growing in the future?

Sean Wilson: Well, we remain in the awkward teenage years. We're frozen in time 47:00in this awkward teenage era, where I don't exactly know where we're taking it. I have a vision for it, but you start seeing, at this moment in time, the consequences of breweries growing too quickly. I'm actually pretty conservative for someone who comes down. We've been pretty methodical about our growth, but we are at capacity, running efficient equipment. And we're at a point where we need to figure out where we're taking this thing. So I'm looking at some options, but nothing's yet set.

Sean Wilson: Ultimately, we want to be a land mark brief for the south, but we want to be anchored in Central North Carolina. Definitely the movement is local, local, local. I don't think that's gonna change, but I think we have a lot of opportunity to be the craft brewery of central North Carolina, of this region, and hopefully be on it.


Richard: So what is it like working in the craft brewing industry today?

Sean Wilson: What is it with your ambiguous questions. What is it like? What is it like? Well, it's fascinating, it's exhausting, it's ever changing. There's no laurels in this industry, so you can't ever sit still and think you've accomplished anything or earned anything. It's very forward thinking, very fast paced. That said, we've worked well at creating methodologies and systems that manage a bit of this chaos. And so right now, what it's like working in the 49:00industry is we feel like we have got a good handle on who we are, what we stand for, and where we're going, and how we get there. And so as a business, even though the industry is ever changing, we feel very solid and anchored as a team. And we know what we're trying to accomplish and what our goals are. I couldn't imagine not having that. Well, I remember not having that because we've grown and matured as brewery, I've matured as a leader.

Sean Wilson: I remember those days when it was too phonetic and too stressful. So it's still very stressful, but there's a sense of quiet confidence about our ability to accomplish what we're trying to do here. Also, too, I've gotta hand it to our brewers who just make great, delicious beer, and very few missteps. Brian and crew are just so amazing that they really deserve the credit for 50:00anything. If you ever think of Fullsteam in a positive way, it's because of them. I'm just the mouthpiece.

Richard: So how would say then, based upon my vague question what it's like to work today, how would you use that to compare to what it was like when you got started?

Sean Wilson: As Fullsteam itself or as the industry?

Richard: How about the industry?

Sean Wilson: Yeah, that's a different take. So the industry, when we first started was a lot more what could be aligned with who Fullsteam was? What could be the sense of optimism, and excitement, and enthusiasm. Now, craft beer's a known thing and there's great craft beer throughout the state, which is awesome. But I also think there's a sort of a smugness and a loss of joy a little bit 51:00amongst consumers as they just expect very beer to touch their lips to be an experience. And I hope that we can return to a point, or come full circle where the industry and it's consumers recognize that beer can be very well constructed and well made, but it doesn't have to have 20 different ingredients competing for your attention. It can just be what it is and a sort of self-actualization about it all. We're not at that stage yet, we're in that, "Look at us," stage as an industry. Not universally, but there's a lot of that out there.

Sean Wilson: It's the good and the bad of the Untappd, and the ratings, and all 52:00of that. A lot of brewers would say it just bums you out a little bit when somebody would rail on a well-balanced, well made beer that's just trying to be a good pilsner. All it's trying to be is a pilsner. Just let it be a pilsner. It's a weird industry, if you think about it. I don't eat a hot dog, and I finish it, and I'm just like, "It's pretty good, for a hot dog."

Richard: Yeah.

Sean Wilson: That's all I got.

Richard: It makes me think of the way about the wine industry and how that can very much be that way.

Sean Wilson: Yeah, but wine is a lot more chill now than beer. Wine people are just like, "Yeah, there's a time and a place for every wine." Sometimes, I really wanna geek out about this Hudson, or this Edna Valley this or that, or 53:00this first growth. But sometimes, I'm good. I'm good with glass of pinot. It's good, it's a really good glass of pinot. We'll get there.

Richard: So speaking of getting there, we talked about currently in the past, do you see a direction, or that sort, forming for the next few years of North Carolina craft brewing? Five years?

Sean Wilson: Five years at what?

Richard: What do you see as trends maybe?

Sean Wilson: I think we'll get to that point where there will be that sort of actualization and happiness about the moment. Right now, there's a lot about beer for the chase, and I like beer for the moment. That's just where my heart is. And beer for the chase is fun. Do you know what I mean by that? Should I explain that?

Richard: Go ahead.

Sean Wilson: Yeah? It's like a leading question. Would you like me to explain 54:00that? Of course you would.

Richard: Of course. Please explain that.

Sean Wilson: Thanks. You can tell I'm getting giddy from my one sip of beer right here. Beer for the chase is the race, the frenetic getting in line and the trading, and the tickers, and the ISO's, in search ofs, and all that. Maybe five years from now, maybe 20 years from now, we will have no idea what ISO and FT means. And most people don't now what that means. And what it means is in search of, and for trade. Those are all fun things, there's a subset, but it's a very noisy subset of the industry. And I think a lot of those people would be like, "Cool, I remember when I was that guy," because I was that guy. That's what got me into beer. I was that guy who literally wrote on beer advocate, "I'm not sure I love Anchor Steam anymore?" Has it changed? No, the recipe didn't change. I 55:00just was starting to discover other things. And I thought Anchor Steam is boring now.

Sean Wilson: But you come back and you just appreciate Anchor Steam for its legacy and for what it is, and for the moment. And there are moments for a Steam beer, there are moments for a good pale ale, there are moments for crazy macadamia nut coconut gozas. But one isn't better than the other, and I hope we'll get to that point, where there's still this audience that's like, "I'm over here. You're into craft beer? Yeah, but I'm over here in craft beer." You're over here? No, I'm over here. And we are in, again, I said morning zoo, I'll use this other phrase that I use. We're in a dada stage right now of beer. It's just absurd. It's so weird. It's dadaism, but dada can be beautiful. It's just all these other expressions of art that are also beautiful. And I think 56:00we'll come full circle to realize that beer is an expression of art. We all are our own artists. Brewery's are artists that have a pallette that we work with in this genre.

Sean Wilson: Now, us as Fullsteam, we've evolved somewhat in our expression of that art, just like I think a good artist doesn't get stuck in her own ways and create the same sort of art, redundant. But just challenges and pushes themselves in new directions. I hope that in five or ten years, we'll take a giant chill pill and understand that there's been beauty in all of this, but that beer has its place as a moment in community and with food, and doesn't need to be the be all end all. The other thing that I worry about is that we don't 57:00get to that point, and that there's a whole audience that's just like, "Oh, my God. You're into beer? I don't get it." And that there's wholesale tailing off of it because it has failed to become accepting and inclusive, which is what got me into beer in the first place.

Richard: So this was your third year being a James Beard Award semifinalist, and Fullsteam just brought home three Good Food awards. So how does that feel?

Sean Wilson: It's very satisfying, for sure. Both are incredibly rewarding and for us, it speaks to our niche of beer in food and working well together. And the good food awards is not something that a whole lot of beer enthusiasts know about, and maybe not even a whole lot of breweries. But to see Brian 58:00[Mandeville, head brewer at Fullsteam] receive a medal from Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, the godmother of the local food movement. To have my own experience a couple years ago of Carla Petrini, the head of Slow Food International do the same for me, it's a very satisfying and wonderful to be amongst the peers of not only other breweries that have won Almanac and Jester King, and a number of others that have a similar ethos to us in sustainability and local ingredients and flavor. But also other makers, because the good food awards obviously food. Beer is just one of the genres, one of the categories. The James Beard thing is its own curiosity. I have no idea how that all happened.


Sean Wilson: But I had received a semi-finalist nod in, I think it was in 2012 and 2013. And then to have it again five years later after I was like, "Okay, well happened and that will never happen again." To have it come again in 2018 was just immensely satisfying. Yeah, thank you.

Richard: You're welcome.

Sean Wilson: But I'll also say, it was really cool, too, to share that honor with Leah Ashburn of Highland, who I think dearly of.

Richard: Great. Do you have a favorite beer from a North Carolina brewery other than your own?

Sean Wilson: No. I'm just kidding.

Richard: I'll let it run. Feel free to continue.

Sean Wilson: I really love what free range does in Charlotte. Of course, the have a similar ethos, so I'm biased on that one. Basically, in anything from 60:00them, I gravitate towards. And then the whole world of breweries expressing local. Be it, Haw River, or Fonta Flora or Mystery, Free Range, of course. Wooden Robot does a lot in that arena. Coming back to the southern beer economy, we were seen as pretty weird in 2010 when we made a beer with local wheat and local basil. That was very far out. I literally got hate mail in my inbox. I literally got people saying, "You shouldn't even bother. Leave brewing to the pros, to other states." And they listed the other states, which was very strange in retrospect because they said "leave brewing to Washington, Oregon, Michigan, 61:00and California." They were very specific with who should be allowed to brew. And North Carolina wasn't one of them. To me, that was just motivation, just like [Jim] Jacumin [former North Carolina state senator] saying that his rhetoric back in the day with Pop The Cap, that it would lead to more academic suicides and more abortions. All the stuff motivates you because you know you're on the right track.

Sean Wilson: Just like when we, in our community endeavors, people say to us, "Shut up and brew beer." You know what that tells me? We're doing something right. We're on the right track. So when we brewed a beer with local basil, and local wheat, and people were like, "What the hell are you doing? What is this madness?" We knew we were on the right track. And the whole idea of a southern beer economy, is that we wanted to pioneer it, we wanted to be the first, but economy means that there's a collective of businesses doing this thing. If it was just us, it'd be a southern beer business. But it's an economy, and so the 62:00beers that I love tend to be breweries that express that flavor of the south, using local ingredients who help fulfill this vision that we had of the beer economy, of the southern beer economy.

Richard: What would you say Fullsteam's flagship there is? If you have one.

Sean Wilson: What I would say is different than what the numbers say. The numbers would say it's Rocket Science IPA because people love IPA's. Now, it does have 10% local ingredients, it has a nominal amount. That's about all we can afford in a mass produced hits at the store's shelves at about $10 a six pack. Using local ingredients, it's only so much we can do there in that arena. The one that I would love to say is that flagship is Humidity, which speaks more to a sense of place. Humidity, it is the South, we're trying to put a positive spin on what sometimes people associate as a negative thing, but it does make you feel a sense of place. And it also uses triticale, which is North Carolina 63:00grown cross hybrid between wheat and rye that's grown in Eastern North Carolina and malted right here in Durham by Epiphany and then of course brewed by us.

Sean Wilson: So that inclusion of local ingredients ups the percent local in a year-round beer for us that we hope will catch on. And not just be a seasonal for us. We do offer it year round, but it does have this kind of seasonal push because people are like "craving that Humidity" because they do that Pavlovian association, which I get. The name is Humidity. But I hopeful that over time, we'll see Humidity sale out pace Rocket Science.

Richard: And what's your personal Fullsteam beer?

Sean Wilson: These days, what I really love is this dead nettle gose. It's part of our Farm's Edge series. So Farm's Edge is exploring this magical space between the productivity of the farm and wild of the woods, the edge of the farm where magic happens. And this gose is made with foraged dead nettle. It's 64:00basically a grass or a weed that grows natively and has a slightly bitter, somewhat minty taste to it. And the inclusion of that and lemon and Bulls Bay sea salt from Charleston in a very refreshing gose. It's a Brian recipe, it's a Brian [Mandelville] vision from start to finish. It's super delicious. We started with Pop The Cap, but it's funny, but not surprising, that the beer I mentioned is so not an above 6% beer. It was never about brewing high alcohol beer. You look at our list and we have above 7%, we have maybe five above 6%, maybe five on that list. So about a third. Like I said, a third of the world's 65:00beer styles. And here we are with about a third of our beers above 6%.

Sean Wilson: So it was never about wanting to brew or specialize in high alcohol beer. It was wanting to brew the full range of styles that beer affords us. And yeah, my choice is a goza. It sits at four and a half percent. 4.7%.

Richard: Is there anything else you'd like to add.

Sean Wilson: No, these are great questions. I can't think of anything else. Yeah, I think anything else that I'd add would be self-indulgent. I'm good.

Richard: Awesome. Thank you very much.