Talking with Sean Wilson
Fullsteam Brewing's mad scientist of malt
Sean Lilly Wilson, like all self-respecting Southerners, loves beer and hates kudzu. If you aren’t familiar with it, kudzu is that invasive parasitic plant that swallows entire trees along the freeway, climbs up houses with abandon, has been known to attack small pets. If you aren’t familiar with beer … well … god help you.
In the South, it’s generally agreed that they have two main problems where beer and kudzu are concerned. One, kudzu is everywhere. Two, the Southern states suffer under archaic beer laws. You might be saying to yourself, “What the hell do those have in common?” They have Sean Lilly Wilson in common, and he’s doing something about both.
As CEO of Fullsteam Brewing (opened 2010), located in Durham, North Carolina, Wilson’s list of craft brews follows a distinctly Southern bent. He and his brewers make beer from local scuppernongs, muscadines, sweet potatoes, hickory-smoked malt, rhubarb, and foraged wild persimmons. While the kudzu beer hasn’t materialized yet, he’s not giving up. Additionally, Wilson’s the man who founded and led both Pop the Cap and Permit Beer, two North Carolina beer lobbying organizations that have opened up economic markets to North Carolina’s craft beer industry and changed the laws to allow for beers with up to a 15-percent alcohol level. We sat down with him to ask a few important questions, from brewing politics to those bastard plants.
What can you tell us about Fullsteam Brewing?
Our overall goal is to explore the idea of what it is to craft a Southern beer identity. We have no answer yet, but we are having a lot of fun, making a lot of beer.
We have two sets of brews. The first is our Workers Compensation Line. It’s a series of easy drinking beers, with local ingredients. For example, there’s a carver sweet potato lager, an El Toro Cream Ale, and one called Workingman’s Lunch that’s a chocolate dark ale. It’s meant to taste like a Moon Pie and an RC cola combined. Then we have the Southern Apothecary line with Hogwash, that’s a hickory smoked porter, First Frost, which has hand-picked persimmons and there’s even a summer basil is coming out this summer.
You guys are experimenting with kudzu in beer. As a southerner, I dutifully hate kudzu. Can you please make it into beer already?
We started doing some experimentation with kudzu, but sadly, we haven’t made a full-on beer yet. It’s a lot harder than you think. Kudzu grows everywhere, but it usually grows on the side of the road where there’s exhaust and a bunch of other pollutants you don’t want in your beer. So, we found a farm that grows kudzu.
Excuse me? People are growing it on purpose?
Yes, they grow it as an alternative to snuff … you know, as in chewing tobacco? This farm grows it and sells it. Between you and me, these people might be a bit insane. Lovely wonderful people, but a bit crazy. I worked a day on their farm, and we were bailing kudzu for this snuff guy. It was pretty funny. The guys that own the farm are in their 80s. Super nice and really into kudzu. But eventually we had to start working with things we knew were viable. Reality hit in the form of bills, and we had to stop chasing the kudzu dream for a moment. We are going to get back to exploring it at some point.
You are also the man behind two important beer-lobbying organizations, Pop the Cap and Permit Beer. Tell us about these.
In 2003, I was unemployed and had some free time. I had graduated with a degree in public policy and an MBA from Duke, and I’d always been interested in politics and policy. A friend of mine at a party introduced me to these (then-illegal) beers. I’d never seen a beer in a big bottle. I thought I knew what craft beer was, but he opened my eyes to a whole other category. I founded a group under PoptheCap.org in ’03. We successfully lobbied and got the law changed in 2005. We had some crazy opposition, too. I remember one legislator claimed changing the beer law would lead to more abortion, more rapes and more academic suicides. It was absurdly weird. I also got to learn how a law is changed in N.C., and that came back to play in 2009 when I decided to spearhead Permit Beer. I wanted to give breweries the same rights to sell at farmers markets and festivals as wineries and vineyards. That got passed last year.
For people who want to get involved in changing archaic liquor and beer laws, how does that process start?
I’m no expert but I begin with the “why.” A lot of times, the answer’s history. People made a law decades ago for a reason that no longer exists. If no one has changed the law, contact your legislature. It’s so important because it creates jobs, brings in money to the economy and most people want more flavor and more options where food and beverage come into play. It’s a total win. We estimated that 300 new jobs have come out of the lifting the cap on beer alcohol levels here in this state.
What’s new at Fullsteam this year?
We are releasing this Sparkling Pear beer as part of our Forger Series. It’s a third series we are launching where we get local farm goods and backyard harvest from the community. People brought us 150 pounds of heirloom pears. We pay them, and if they don’t want money, we put a market rate on it and then give that money to charity.
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