Like last year, Sean Lilly Wilson of the Durham brewery Fullsteam found out that he was on the list of 2013 James Beard Award semi-finalists via Twitter. And he thought it was a mistake. His reaction? “Profound disbelief,” he says. Wilson’s Fullsteam made the semi-finalist list for the Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional Award, joining names like Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Buffalo Trace Distillery, and The Brooklyn Brewery.
Wilson was “extremely honored” to be given the distinction from the James Beard Foundation, although he says that the selection seems “more mysterious to me than the selection of the Pope.” He was also glad to see the number of beer professionals on the list grow. Although breweries have been semi-finalists before, the James Beard Foundation changed the category from “Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional” to “Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional” this year. “It’s nice to see beer on the list, in the same lot with great food and great cooks,” Wilson says.
Fullsteam opened in the summer of 2010, but Wilson and head brewer Chris “32” Davis had been enthusiastic about home brewing for years previously. They collaborated on new beer ideas, and Chris home-brewed test batches that they shared with friends and chefs across the region. In 2009 they were put in the regional spotlight when they were invited to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium – an annual gathering celebrating Southern food culture. “It was a coming of age moment for us,” Wilson says. They began collaborating with regional chefs to craft beers around certain foods and ingredients.
Before he opened Fullsteam, Wilson worked in sales and marketing. He says he always knew that he wanted to open his own business at some point, but he didn’t think it would be a brewery until he became passionate about craft beer. In the early 2000s, Wilson led the Pop The Cap campaign to raise the legal alcohol by volume (ABV) limit in beer from 6% to 15% in the state of North Carolina, a proposal that was signed into law in 2005.
In a given year, Fullsteam might create 15 to 20 different kinds of beer, sold at their Durham location and at a handful of establishments mostly in eastern North Carolina. They also like to experiment regularly, pulling inspiration from fellow chefs or seasonal ingredients or “fellow nut-jobs” as their website suggests. Among the unique brews they’ve created include First Frost, a winter ale made from wild persimmons, and Beasley’s Honey White, an ale with honey and black pepper created specifically to accompany Beasley’s fried chicken with honey.
While business has been good for Wilson, he plans to quadruple their brewing capacity this year to keep up with demand.
The James Beard Foundation will announce their nominees for the Restaurant and Chef Awards on March 18. Final awards will be given on May 3.
Stay tuned! This article is part of a series of profiles on some of the local restaurants and chefs nominated as semi-finalists for James Beard Awards. North Carolina claimed 13 semi-finalists for the annual Restaurant and Chef Awards, nine of which are in or near the Triangle.