Mounted high up on an imposing brick wall, just above a large metal track door that serves as the main entrance to Fullsteam Brewery, a simple sign welcomes visitors. The first letter on the sign is backwards, which isn’t a mistake or attempt at appearing avant garde. Like most things at Fullsteam, that nonconformist “F” indicates one of founder Sean Wilson’s philosophies on beer, Durham, and life.
While the name Fullsteam comes from Wilson’s vision of moving forward, well, full steam, the backwards “F” is a way of looking back. For Wilson, it’s about keeping an eye on North Carolina’s agricultural heritage as both the brewing industry, and Durham itself, continue to grow, reinvent, and rejuvenate.
Wilson took a different path than most to brewery ownership. Instead of traditional education followed by a brewing apprentice, he worked as a lobbyist for a North Carolina group called Pop the Cap, which focused on lifting the 70-year-old ban on high-gravity beers. That ban, says Wilson, made a third of the world beer styles illegal in North Carolina. As that successful campaign came to a close, he realized he liked the people and the industry enough to open a brewery.
His philosophy of honoring the agricultural roots of North Carolina has been brewed into each Fullsteam beer. Carver, for example, is a lager brewed with 200 pounds of North Carolina sweet potatoes in each batch—and without the aid of pie spices typically present in beers that use sweet potatoes.
“We wanted to get people back to the true roots, literally, of the sweet potato in North Carolina agriculture,” Wilson explains. “Carver is a subtle flavor of sweet potato on a delicious lager. It defies expectation.”
Beers such as the dark (but not heavy) Working Man’s lunch, a chocolate brown ale brewed with the ubiquitous Southern Moon Pie in mind, are equally indicative of Wilson’s vision into what makes a Southern brewery.
On the other side of that large metal track door is the tasting room, a huge industrial space that’s vast yet inviting. A Ping Pong table and video games invite impromptu games in the entrance. A variety of tables, small square ones and those of the picnic variety, fill a hall space with views of the stainless steel brewing operation. In the third area, a long bar offers a spot to mingle with friends and fellow beer lovers wile occupies a third area. Somehow the industrial space is at once vast and inviting. This, too, was intentional.
“Like Durham, we’re growing, we’re optimistic,” says Wilson. “We want to be Durham’s welcome center.”
Through sponsorships and partnerships, Fullsteam is an active supporter of the local community, with a focus on urban gardening, farming, and redevelopment that’s helping Durham’s regrowth take shape. Attend one of the events at the brewery, and you may just hear another of Wilson’s philosophies: what he calls “the beautiful stupid”.
“The best things in life are beautiful-stupid,” he explains. “Our events celebrate the beautiful: food, and fun, and community. By they also have a bit of silly to them.”
Perhaps the best example of “the beautiful stupid” is Fullsteam’s now-annual 0.262-mile run. You read that right: The playful jab at the marathon distance features a competitive version, and an Olympic hopeful sprinter holds the race record. There’s also a fun version more suited to families, which encourages costumes; Wilson himself runs the race in a gorilla suit.
Fullsteam continues to use its brewery as a place of discovery, the lab where new recipes are tried and judged. But even as the brewery and Durham move forward, expect Sean Wilson to also keep an eye on where they came from.