Sean Lilly Wilson and Page Skelton are on a mission. Call it their manifest destiny. They're also on a tight deadline.
Since summer, the longtime friends have been quietly developing a bold business plan to introduce a new beer they hope will expand the Fullsteam brewery brand from the Carolinas to the farthest reaches of the beerisphere. And they have chosen Jan. 27, National Kazoo Day Eve, for the loud and buzzworthy launch of Cackalacky beer.
"Fundamentally, I'm a gut-instinct kind of person, and my gut says this is the beer that's going to change things for us," says Wilson, self-titled Chief Executive Optimist at Fullsteam. "We do a lot of seasonal and one-off beers, but we don't want this to be ephemeral. We want this one to last."
While the beer is named Cackalacky, it contains none of the "famously original" zesty condiment made from sweet potatoes that Skelton created a decade ago and still produces in Chapel Hill. The beer's distinct flavor profile is ginger pale ale.
"Our Southern beer philosophy is subtlety and nuance, a little pleasing suggestion of a thing rather than over the top," Wilson says, drawing a comparison to Fullsteam's Carver lager, which is made from, but doesn't especially taste like, sweet potatoes. "We approached this beer the same way. We continually try to defy expectations."
Skelton recalls being thrilled at the idea of calling it Cackalacky. "We did market research and found that nobody wanted to drink a Page Skelton," he says with mock sobriety. "Honestly, we've been talking about a collaboration for a long time but hadn't landed on the right idea. This is what finally made it happen."
Some Fullsteam fans sipped early batches of the beer last spring. Production Manager Dave Haydysch used both fresh and candied ginger to create its balanced, yin-yang flavor. Head brewer Chris Davis is the mastermind for tweaking the original recipe for large-scale production.
"We want Fullsteam to be a landmark brew for the South, and we think this will be a landmark beer that tells the story of what is possible," says Wilson, who has been deliberate in developing beers built on products from and relationships with local growers. "We will remain provincial in our sourcing, but we want to be evangelical in our reach."
"Cackalacky is slang for North Carolina, and that's part of the fun," adds Skelton. "I mean, doesn't it sound like fun to walk into a bar and order a Cackalacky? Who wouldn't want to try it?"
"If it's anything like what I tried, I think it will do quite well," Bassett says. "But it's really difficult for any beer to make it big on the national level."
Bassett says the buzz about North Carolina beer is well acknowledged. Asheville has dominated the BeerCity USA contest in recent years, and four in-state breweries won medals at this year's Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
But competition is growing. North Carolina now boasts 73 breweries, four of which opened this month. Only a handful of them market their suds beyond the state lines, and none have achieved national distribution, Bassett says.
Still, he thinks Fullsteam is smart in putting its money on such a distinctive beer style. "I'm fairly familiar with the national scene, and off the top of my head I can't come up with a widely known ginger pale ale, or even a craft-level ginger beer," he says. "It really is unique."
Fullsteam's Wilson thinks of it as a "crowd-pleasing beer" and believes the crisp flavor would complement burgers, pizza and spicy Thai food. He and Skelton are still debating a logo concept that will capture the brand's broad appeal.
"We want to be clear that this is not a novelty beer," says Wilson, adding that the design also needs to look great on a can, which is part of the larger distribution plan. "If we're going to tell the story far and wide, we want a lighter environmental package. But we still want it to look as great as it tastes."
In anticipation of the beer's success, and to generally increase Fullsteam's capacity, Wilson plans to trade out some brewing tanks this summer for larger models. "It will probably be the last big growth mode we do here," he says, quickly adding that he has no intention of relocating the 2-year-old tavern, which has become a de facto community center where locavores and others interested in culture and civic life congregate.
"We're definitely not moving," he says, grasping the long wooden bar to make his point. "Any further expansion would be off site because we are committed to staying right here."
Wilson and Skelton are looking forward to the Jan. 27 launch party at Fullsteam for Cackalacky. They are eager to gauge the response of patrons but admit the debut really has little connection with National Kazoo Day.
"No reason, other than it's just fun," Wilson says with a grin. "I call some of our events here 'beautiful stupid.' If we can meet our deadline and celebrate Cackalacky beer with kazoo karaoke, or a kazoo-off, then we will have met our mission."
Update: The print version of this article listed the launch date as Jan. 28; the date changed after publication and is now Jan. 27.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The big leagues."