New Anthem sounds on Dock Street
By Trevor Normile
Thursday, December 1, 2016
Aaron Skiles of New Anthem Beer Project takes a seat at the brewery’s streetside bar, accepting high-fives from passersby.
He’s showered up for the second half of the day after a shift brewing beer that drinkers won’t see in grocery stores any time soon.
New Anthem doesn’t seek market domination and their little craft brewery on Dock Street doesn’t serve food.
New Anthem’s mission: Give back a little bit, and “make dope-ass beer.”
Asked whether he feared that the beer market is becoming saturated in North Carolina, Skiles, 44, said he didn’t. He views the craft industry not as a boom but a froth; less a bubble, rather just bubbling— like the beer he loves.
“Brewing beer is still cathartic for me, I like making things ... it’s still fascinating to me that you can throw grain in water, throw this little organism in it, and it comes out, it’s beer,” he says.
“I would call it magical, but I know it’s not magic.”
No, it’s not magic. It’s the convergence of science and creativity. Consistency is key, so says Skiles.
But long before he knew that, the Virginia native (and North Carolinian for the past 20 years) worked in the recreational marine industry for a German auto supplier.
Skiles says it was on the hoppy West Coast where he first tried to brew his own beer, unsuccessfully.
“I moved to California in 1994 and I was really exposed to some hoppy stuff. I liked it, I homebrewed beer out there a little bit. It wasn’t very good ... it’s disappointing when you try to do something as a hobby and it’s not [how you imagined it],” Skiles remembers.
But I sampled another “accident” of his: the daisy-cutter 90-IBU Steez IPA.
New Anthem added too many hops to the brew, but the result was a powerful pale ale: with waft-across-the-room florality, fruity flavors and just a slightly woody finish (to my taste), it’s also a refreshing medicine for cleansing one’s sinuses.
Perhaps failure then is a potent germ for brewing. Skiles was discouraged to the point of taking up golf, a sport befitting a corporate man, but perhaps not the man inside.
“I was on a vacation with my wife five or six years ago and ran into a guy on a brewery tour. He owns a brewery in Denver. He was telling his story, and it was like everything, up to the point of owning a brewery, sounded like me,” he remembers.
“He was corporate-world and wanted a lifestyle change, enjoyed making beer and wanted to make the leap. I was kind of inspired, one, by his beer, which was really good, and also by his story.
“My wife got me back into brewing. It was a lot easier and a lot better. I brewed and brewed, it was very cathartic. Instead of playing golf on the weekends I brewed beer. My ROI (return-on-investment) was better, because I suck at golf [laughs].”
Then in July 2014, Stiles approached a friend, Bill Hunter, with the idea over beers. Skiles presented a business plan and two years later, they’re serving nine varieties of craft beer.
New Anthem has yet to hold a grand opening in their 1920s-era shop, though it could come before the new year. The bar is open for service, with a variety on tap including IPAs, cream ale, an “especially unfiltered” blonde ale, Nobel stout, Saison and an espresso porter coming.
“Our wheelhouse is unique, East Coast-style hobby beers ... We don’t use traditional American yeasts in our IPAs, it’s just the flavors I enjoy in the beers more than others,” Skiles says.
Since New Anthem isn’t selling its beer in every IGA in the state, it doesn’t need to invest thousands into packaging, leaving the brewery able to experiment while remaining sustainable. Support for the brewery will come from foot traffic, much of which is local.
The hope isn’t for New Anthem to take over the town, but to simply become one the neighborhood breweries.
“You have to have your presence local I think. It’s an opinion, I wouldn’t call it a market study, but I think drinkers are appreciative of their local product,” Skiles says.
“It’s kind of their own, whether it’s the Front Street beers or Wilmington Brewing Company beers or Waterline, us, Flytrap or Ironclad, I think it kind of creates a community.”
Part of that relationship involves giving back. Skiles says New Anthem is a member of the philanthropic network Pledge 1%; they give 1 percent of their equity, product and time to charity. In New Anthem’s case, it’s for hunger and children’s charities. Skiles explains that the company pays for its employees to volunteer at least once per quarter.
Still, New Anthem is just one of eight breweries in Wilmington, all with faithful followings. While that’s good news for beer drinkers, it’s an added hurdle for anyone trying to break into a business as competitive as beer brewing.
For this little downtown brewery, it’s all about staying focused.
“We want to refine what we’re doing, make clean, quality beer every time, grow, do what we can to help out the community ... we just hope we can be an anchor on this side of Front Street. And make dope-ass beer,” Skiles said.
“We’re getting better at the dope-ass-beer stuff.”
If their brews are any indication, beer drinkers should be singing the New Anthem before long.