On a sweltering day in mid-August, behind the floor-to-ceiling glass that separates Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co.’s taproom from its brewhouse floor, the last few 16-ounce cans of Of Dinosaurs and Horses rattled off the packaging line.
The beer, a white IPA brewed with tangerine puree, was brewed in interstate collaboration between Charleston’s Edmund’s Oast and Ponysaurus Brewing Co., based in Durham, N.C.
Collaborations happen all the time in craft beer. They’re so common as to be almost rote at this point. But Of Dinosaurs and Horses was unusual for its part of an informal, simpatico rollout between two craft brewers as each entered the other’s Carolina home market this summer — not as competitors so much as comrades in craft.
"If we can pick our competitors, then we can work together with our competitors to make both of us better at what we're doing," said Nick Hawthorne-Johnson, Ponysaurus’ co-owner.
Sharing brewing techniques, drafting off one another’s brand equity and trading market insights are among the "win-win" outcomes smaller craft brewers can create by playing nice with regional peers.
Cameron Read, who brewed Of Dinosaurs and Horses in Edmund’s Oast's King Street facility in collaboration with Rob Meehan, Ponysaurus’ director of production, echoed the sentiment.
"In my mind, it's not a matter of like, ‘I need to sell more beer than you'."
It may sound like risky business for one brewery to herald the arrival of a new, nearby beermaker's similar product to its own loyal customer base. Especially if that welcome includes a collaborative, co-branded beer that could cause customers to conflate the two as one. After all, Edmund's Oast and Ponysaurus are roughly the same size; both have compelling, vaguely medieval branding and packaging; and both operate as breweries within larger hospitality groups. Plus, they both make great beer (independently of one another, that is).
In another field, they might be vicious regional competitors.
But this was once craft beer’s grand promise, that by improving your community and industry, you would improve your own business in kind. A decade ago, the motto "a rising tide lifts all boats" was practically canon in the craft brewing industry. A recent academic paper described vaguely a seafaring analogy with a more professorial term: "coopetition." Whatever you call it, the idea still holds water among certain Carolina breweries.
U.S. alcohol consumption is flattening, craft beer’s growth has slowed and, overall, beer is slowly but surely losing market share to wine and spirits (not to mention White Claw.) The industry, no matter how convivial it once aspired to be, has gotten more challenging.
"In the last two or three years as category growth has slowed and more breweries enter the market, there is now competition where there didn't used to be competition," said Mike Mitaro, an industry veteran and founder of Brewers Advisory Group, an independent consultancy based in Charleston.
This is especially true in the country’s most mature craft brewing markets. In Colorado, for example, there are 9.2 breweries for every 100,000 people 21 and older, according to 2018 figures from the Brewers Association, a national trade group. Friendly collaborations happen often, but occasionally become less so "if one brewery takes the spotlight while the other stands in the background or doesn't get credit," wrote Jonathan Shikes for Denver’s Westword in March 2018.
While it may feel like the Carolinas are overrun with craft breweries these days, there are just 3.7 breweries per 100,000 north of the state line, and just 2.1 south of it, per the Brewers Association. By this one measure, at least, there’s room in both states for both breweries to roam.
It’s important to keep scale in context, too. Edmund’s Oast produced around 3,000 barrels in 2018, to Ponysaurus’ 2,600 barrels. (A barrel of beer is equivalent to two kegs, or 31 gallons.) Compared with large regional brewers and bona fide macros, these are small quantities. At that size, "there aren't enough zeros after the decimal point to measure their market share. It’s infinitesimal," said Mitaro. "So it doesn’t matter if you bring in another competitor, especially if they're your ally."
So earlier this summer, craft beer fans across the Carolinas saw some of the industry’s fabled all-for-one-ism at play between the two boutique brewers. As Edmund’s Oast geared up to enter the N.C. market, Ponysaurus put the Charleston brewery’s popular Bound By Time IPA on tap in Durham. Meehan and Hawthorne-Johnson traveled to Charleston to brew Of Dinosaurs and Horses with Read at EOBC.
Ponysaurus teased the upcoming Of Dinosaurs and Horses collaboration brew on Instagram with the hashtag #BeerFriendsForever.
Whether the Ponysaurus cosign helped boost Edmund’s Oast’s early sales in North Carolina is almost impossible to say. But it did set a tone: this Charleston beer is welcome here.
"If a 'drink local' type of consumer sees your out-of-state brand collaborating with one of their in-town favorites, it stands to reason that you have a much better chance of earning their business," said Austin L. Ray, an editor of the beer publication Good Beer Hunting.
In a market full of educated craft beer consumers wary of spending their dollars on interlopers, a local brand's endorsement can be a powerful factor for a brewery trying to earn acceptance.
"We only want to be someplace that we're wanted," Shor said.
Room to roam
Judging by early sales, the friendship has yielded benefits.
"We way outpaced our expectations" in terms of sales, said Timmons Pettigrew, Edmund’s Oast’s vice president of group operations. He said North Carolina has already become Edmund’s Oast’s second-largest market, behind South Carolina itself.
As Edmund’s Oast settled into its new northerly market, Ponysaurus’ own southward ambitions were coming to a head. After over half a decade serving North Carolina’s Triangle region, the small brewery was ready to grow.
"We've been fortunate to be successful in North Carolina, which we're always so grateful for," Hawthorne-Johnson said. "We spent the first two years that we were in existence saying 'no' to everybody who wanted our beer because we just couldn't make enough of it, even just like at a full sprint."
After upgrading its capacity from 1.5 barrels to 15 barrels and moving into its own brewhouse in 2015, no longer was Ponysaurus’ team "scrambling at every moment to cross the finish line," he continued. With the hard-earned breathing room, "the first thing that we all wanted to do was to collaborate with other people, and Edmund’s (Oast) was at the top of that list."
Moving into South Carolina would nearly double Durham brewer’s distribution area. It would also require a wholesaler, because S.C. law prohibits brewers from distributing their own beer. Ponysaurus self-distributes its beer in North Carolina. Selecting a wholesaling partner for out-of-state distribution is considerably more fraught than self-distributing in-state. The brewer must rely on the wholesaler to handle its beer with care and position its brands for success in a market far from home.
To raise the stakes, it is notoriously difficult for craft brewers to terminate a bad distribution relationship (not to mention expensive.)
"It’s like getting married without dating," Hawthorne-Johnson said with a laugh.
Ponysaurus ultimately signed on with Edmund’s Oast’s N.C. distributor, Advintage, for its own S.C. distribution.
"It’s not that having a mutual distributor really changes anything," said Shor, "but it is a fun little cherry on the sundae."
Today, Edmund’s Oast carries Ponysaurus beers in its bottle shop on Morrison Drive, the Exchange. It’s a prime account for a new-to-market brand from another state.
On another sweltering day, this one on the Sunday following the conclusion of Charleston Beer Week in mid-September, Ponysaurus officially debuted in Charleston. The Oyster Shed, tucked behind Leon’s Oyster Shop, had been reimagined as a Ponysaurus redoubt, replete with roasted oysters, inflatable ponies adorned with dinosaur stickers and handsome custom glassware.
"This is a dream come true for us," said David Baldwin, a Ponysaurus co-owner.
(There was plenty of Ponysaurus beer, but no Of Dinosaurs and Horses. All 75 barrels of it, produced across two batches in August, were earmarked for distribution in South Carolina and North Carolina before even being brewed, Pettigrew said.)
Four days prior to the Ponysaurus party, Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. canned another collaboration, this one a dark coffee lager brewed with Mount Pleasant’s Westbrook Brewing Co. and and Methodical Coffee in Greenville. That beer is called Play Nice.
The craft beer dream: still alive in the Carolinas. At least for now, if you know where to look.