by Kelly Archer
Location: 726 Rigsbee Avenue, Durham
Age range: All welcome until 9 p.m., 21 and up after
With a laid-back atmosphere and a large variety on tap, Fullsteam Brewery is one of the defining points in the constellation of cool eats and drinks in the garden district of downtown Durham.
If you’re still skeptical about Durham’s ability to provide for a relaxed afternoon or evening out, don’t be — Motorco, Cocoa Cinnamon, and Fullsteam are scattered around the park and farmers’ market, providing the perfect balance of quiet and hip scenes for gathering.
Fullsteam’s tagline is “plow-to-pint beer from the beautiful South,” which, while not that unique of a concept in the area, is an accurate description of a warm yet proudly independent brewery with a mission to define Southern beer.
I strongly recommend taking advantage of the refurbished warehouse vibe for a late summer or early fall evening. The doors are thrown open to a huge dining hall-like arrangement of long tables, and the outdoor picnic tables are either encircled by twinkly lights, or they overlook the streets for prime people-watching.
None of this, however, is exceptionally conducive to colder weather — but the location is versatile.
While the crowd is overwhelmingly hip post-grads, a pool table and arcade games make it possible for children to tag along, and the outdoor area provides for an assortment of canine companions.
There are post-work patrons hunched over their work-related materials with a cold pint, and there are tables claimed entirely by mob-sized young gatherings. I’ve even seen a man — with an infant strapped to his chest — enjoying a cold brew with friends.
It’s casual afternoon drinking at its best.
But be warned: You are at risk to be swarmed by group runners in neon attire, sweating profusely, at any moment. It’s not the place to go for an intimate drink.
Fullsteam is both limited and freed by its degree of “chill.”
It attracts food trucks, which are almost always parked directly out front for a convenient dinner or snack. A stage (largely ignored unless supporting a band) makes for great easy listening live music. The large industrial space is also ideal for spirited trivia nights and yoga classes.
All this contributes to a great community feel despite the fact you’re surrounded, overwhelmingly, by strangers.
If you like to cozy up to a physical bar, you’re a little out of luck; the bar itself is usually suffocated by people ordering beers, growlers or flights. It’s a little dark and muggy compared to the other bars in the area.
If you’re looking to avoid children and dogs while drinking, you’re also out of luck. Fullsteam allows children until 9 p.m. because they say it shows drinking in a responsible and positive light.
Children are welcome at the establishment as long as they are well-behaved and I found it didn’t distract from my experience. If anything, it contributes to the community hangout dynamic.
One may make the easy misconception that because it is a local brewery, the ratio of hipsters to casual drinkers might be skewed. I can assure you this is not the case, and there is a comfortable balance between knowledgeable and casual drinkers, both young and old.
If you’ve never had Fullsteam beer before, I highly recommend getting a flight, which will run you $12 and meant to be shared. The beers are locally brewed, served all over North Carolina.
I’m an adventurous drinker and will try anything, which made for an exciting tasting experience. Never assume your tastes in beer until you try everything.
Because it is a brewery and tavern, you have the rare ability to sample a variety of beer types while having experts at your disposal to explain beer types and the brewing process, so take advantage of this.
I started my flight with the Basil Summer Farmhouse ale, a crisp beer that is a must in summer months. The smoked Hogwash is the best way to get a taste of N.C. with its combination of bacon and chocolate notes — but certainly don’t order a pint of this unless you’re confident in your appreciation of dark beers.
The Carver sweet potato lager also supports the North Carolina authenticity, as does the Fearrington Southern lager with a clever nod to the local farm.
The tavern also serves wine, cider, soda and iced coffee. However, there is no liquor served at this establishment.
There aren’t many locations in the area where you can get the full brewery-tavern experience. This makes Fullsteam a somewhat coveted destination. It also puts a lot of pressure on the location to make it worth the drive when many of the beers are available on tap at other restaurants.
While I think the beer quality and happy-go-lucky crowd manages to make it worth the trip, the industrial space layout is not a unique concept anymore. It seems to limit the gatherings to a casual late afternoon or early evening outing.
The weather, timing and general feel of the entire group has to be very intentional as well, making Fullsteam a time- and evening-consuming event.
Additionally, you are limited, obviously, to beer. If you only stomach light beers on the occasional weekend, this might not be the spot for you. Not taking advantage of the varieties of beer feels almost insulting to a brewery that takes so much pride in its creations.
Overall, Fullsteam offers a wide variety of exotic-sounding, but locally-brewed beers served by a knowledgable staff.
Be sure to check out the schedule of events on Fullsteam’s website. The tavern hosts a running club, dog walk, comedy shows, trivia, yoga classes and local bands.