Friday, February 23, 2024

NC trend: A brewer in Southern Pines moves beyond suds to offer cocktails in a can

Micah Niebauer

Since its 2014 founding, veteran-owned Southern Pines Brewing Co. has grown to become one of the state’s largest craft-beer producers, and has added a second taproom in its Moore County hometown.

The brewery is led by Micah Niebauer, who co-founded the company after retiring from the U.S. Army’s Special Forces unit. Now the sole owner, he’s adding Southern Pines Spirits, which offers ready-to-drink canned cocktails. 

RTDs, as they are called by insiders, are the fastest-growing alcohol category nationally with supplier revenue gaining 42% to reach $1.6 billion in 2021, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. Convenience is a key factor: People don’t have to invest as much to mix their own cocktails and they can drink one wherever they are. A 4-pack sells for $15.95.

The Southern Pines brewery’s goal is to foster community “and we do that through continuously reimagining the craft beverage and hospitality experience,” Niebauer says. “Why not keep evolving, and using the equipment and talented people that we have to enter into new market sectors?”

A few N.C. brewers share that enthusiasm. In 2018, Raleigh brewery Lonerider released a bourbon whiskey finished in sherry casks. A year later, the brewery debuted its “Whiskey Mule” RTD cocktail. It is now available at many bars, restaurants and most ABC stores statewide. 

“Our sales have been steadily increasing each year since its launch. One good thing about the pandemic, people gravitated toward things like canned cocktails,” says Derek Tenbusch, vice president of marketing for Lonerider. Lonerider has five tasting locations. 

Canned cocktails have been on Niebauer’s radar since November 2021, when he heard that North Carolina lawmakers might allow their distribution beyond ABC stores and into supermarkets. That restriction remains in place, but Southern Pines Brewing will be ready if
the law changes.

“We have all the equipment to do them in-house, and we have a huge competitive advantage over almost every distillery in the state if these start to go into grocery stores,” says Niebauer, who has invested more than $100,000 in the expansion. “They don’t have distributors. They don’t have retail relationships. They don’t have canning lines.”

Many craft brewers oppose allowing canned cocktails to be sold in grocery stores, fearing a loss of precious shelf space. The state also taxes distilled spirits at a higher rate than malted liquors such as White Claw, which are sold at groceries. 

But Niebauer thinks spirits “allows us to cater to more people. Not everyone likes beer and those that do may want something else from time to time.”

Rather than install a still, he secured a federal distillery permit and sourced white-label spirits from existing distilleries. Creating the cocktails was a sort of  Willy Wonka science, aiming to create flavors that aren’t too sweet out of a can, yet sweet enough that they held their taste when served over ice, Niebauer says.

Niebauer’s team mixed components by hand, canned their creation, and sent it to a Kentucky company that extracted the flavor compounds, mixed in a flavor additive, and sent it back for approval. The Southern Pines group then tasted the beverage
and sent notes back, rinse and repeat, for 12 months.

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