Three friends think Charlotte could use more breweries. So they did something about it

By Katherine Perlata

October 18, 2018

Childhood friends Ryan McKillen, Mike Salzarulo and Ryan Owens don’t think Charlotte has too many breweries. Not even close. 

That’s why the three, who grew up in Cincinnati, are renovating the former NoDa Grocery spot to house their new micro-brewery, Protagonist Clubhouse. They plan to expand beyond NoDa, too.

Three Pillars, previously reported as the name for the project, is just the name of the limited liability company that the friends had used for the brewery. They’re calling Protagonist a “clubhouse” instead of a brewery because they say it’s going to be a place that provides beer education and brings curious beer-drinkers together. 

The space is only 1,700 square feet, which means they have to be efficient with how they use it. Roughly 800 square feet will be devoted to brewing equipment, while the rest will be a taproom, Salzarulo and Owens told the Observer this week.

Protagonist will have 20 to 24 taps serving small batches of house-made craft beers, as well as beers made by other local breweries. Salzarulo and Owens say they plan to offer small plates, including snacks like grilled cheese and pretzels with beer cheese, and will have a small outdoor patio.

The plan is to open Protagonist in early 2019.

McKillen, Salzarulo and Owens each started home-brewing a few years ago and realized it was a hobby that brought them together even as they lived far away from one another, since they could overnight small batches of beer to each other. Owens moved to Charlotte about seven years ago for work, and Salzarulo moved his family down from Cincinnati five months ago to work on Protagonist full-time. McKillen lives in New York.

“That’s the cool part about beer, just the community that it builds. It’s more than just beer. It reconnects old best friends who move to different cities,” Owens said.

Protagonist founders say they chose NoDa because it’s an artsy, walkable area that’s growing fast. The spot they chose, at North Davidson and 35th streets, has been vacant since NoDa Grocery closed in September 2017.

Protagonist Clubhouse will open in the former NoDa Grocery spot in the Fat City Lofts building.

“It’s a cool little pocket. It seems like a place that fits our personality,” Owens said.

Already, McKillen, Salzarulo and Owens are setting their sights on expansion beyond NoDa — the rezoning of a property they recently bought in Optimist Park near the Parkwood Station was approved this week by Charlotte City Council. 

Breweries are rapidly popping up all over Charlotte these days, especially near the light rail. A new brewery called Armored Cow, for instance, will open early next year near the JW Clay light rail stop near UNC Charlotte. A Morganton brewery called Fonta Flora is slated to open this year in Optimist Hall (formerly called Tompkins Hall), a historic former textile mill that’s being renovated next to the Blue Line light rail extension in the Optimist Park neighborhood.

Still, Charlotte has room for more craft breweries given how rapidly the city is growing, Salzarulo and Owens said.

Asheville, widely considered a craft beer destination, has a population about one-tenth that of Charlotte and has about 26 breweries, according to a recent analysis by Forbes. If Charlotte had that same saturation, there could be around 260 breweries here.

“Cincinnati isn’t growing. It’s shrinking, and they have more breweries than Charlotte,” Salzarulo said of his hometown. “Charlotte’s nowhere near (brewery) saturation level.”