Olde Mecklenburg Brewery is planning a massive expansion in Cornelius — but politics could get in the way

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Great news for craft beer fans in the I-77 corridor: Olde Mecklenburg Brewery has purchased a 28-acre plot just outside of downtown Cornelius and is prepared to invest $10 million into a satellite brewery project that could create over 100 new jobs.

Problem is, plans for this second production facility could largely be for naught. The brewery will only build it if a state law restricting independently-distributing breweries is taken off the books.

In a nutshell, North Carolina currently allows local breweries to handle their own distribution and branding rights, but forces them to offload it all to a third-party distributor once they reach 25,000 barrels of annual production. (It’s not just Charlotte that’s unfriendly to small businesses.) Olde Mecklenburg Brewery is very close to that cap.

OMB has been fighting this law for several years, and has joined with NoDa Brewing Company in a lobbying group known as Craft Freedom seeking to have the self-distribution cap raised.

The announcement Monday amounts to a bit of political hardball.

“We won’t start construction there until this legislative session is done this year,” says OMB founder John Marrino. “The North Carolina legislature is going to tell us what we’re going to do there.”

The parcel sits off Zion Avenue, and is largely wooded.

One thing is for sure: OMB plans to turn a 51,000 square foot facility, recently vacated by manufacturer MacLean Curtis, into a new Brauhaus and Biergarten. There’s also talk of a greenway connecting the space to a nearby development.

omb-cornelius-location

via Google Maps

“We’re looking to do what we do here, there,” says Marrino of the project’s comparison to the current OMB space. They’re looking at a general 2018 timeframe for the project’s completion.

The ultimate goal is to build a second production facility on-site, utilizing a new 30-barrel brewhouse. Expect to see production of OMB’s wheat-based beers, such as Hornet’s Nest Hefeweizen, largely transferred to the northern location.

However, should the state continue to mandate that breweries surrender their brand rights, expect a severely neutered vision and investment: no production facility, and $7 million less of an overall investment.

To Marrino, this battle against state-mandated caps is a fight for the brewery’s survival. “I have 133 employees here, I can’t just sit on my hands,” he said. “If we fail (with Craft Freedom), we’re a business with no growth potential.”

Both OMB and NoDa have pledged to throttle their production ability to stay under the state-mandated self-distribution limit. As more people consume their beer, they’ll be forced to constrict their geographic reach to compensate. OMB has already pulled out of the Triad as a result. Expect the same for their limited South Carolina presence.

“Small local brewers take enormous risks to start and build a business, create good manufacturing, sales and distribution jobs, and boost their local economies,” says a press release about the expansion possibilities. “But once they achieve a small measure of success, the state dictates that another private entity should reap the rewards of that effort and inspiration.”

Regardless, news of this second Brauhaus and Biergarten is relieving for any folks north of town that want locally-made German-styled beer, but seek to avoid the parking lot that is I-77. Whether it comes to full fruition depends on Craft Freedom’s success in Raleigh.

Says an optimistic Marrino, “I have full faith that the legislature will do the right thing.”

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Jonathan Wells
| @AllTheWells |
Jonathan Wells is the beer writer for Charlotte Agenda.