Case Study: In a Tough Market, NoDa Is Growing by Leveraging Quality and Retail Flexibility

Bucking the current headwinds to grow via distribution, Charlotte’s NoDa Brewing has ambitions to become no less (and no more) than the brand of the Carolinas.

Joe Stange May 2, 2024 - 22 min read

Case Study: In a Tough Market, NoDa Is Growing by Leveraging Quality and Retail Flexibility Primary Image

Chad Henderson Photo: Courtesy NoDa Brewing

While many around the country are shrinking their maps and digging deeper roots—or just focusing on their taprooms—there are still local breweries out there with regional aspirations. One such is a 13-year-old North Carolina company that has blossomed outward from the arty neighborhood that is its namesake.

NoDa opened in 2011 on Charlotte’s North Davidson Street, cofounded by Suzie and Todd Ford and brewer Chad Henderson. With NoDa’s enduring local popularity and national reputation for quality—winning a Great American Beer Festival medal in its first year, a World Beer Cup gold in its third, and more medals since—local writers sometimes refer to NoDa as the “crown jewel” of their beer scene.

Along the way, the brewery opened two more locations—its North End production brewery and taproom in 2015, and its taproom in Concourse A of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in 2018. (NoDa shut its original taproom in 2016, only to reopen it a few years later … before the pandemic closed it again. Thus, the brewery got to celebrate a grand re-reopening of its first taproom—dubbed the OG—in August 2022.)

Yet NoDa has plans beyond Charlotte, in recent years growing via distribution into more of its own state and the one just south, aiming to steadily become what they call “the brand of the Carolinas.” And that’s where they want to stay. Henderson compares their goal to the status of New Glarus in Wisconsin—people know you have to go there to get it. “If someone’s not in North Carolina or South Carolina, and they’re going, we want their friends who are into craft beer to be like, ‘Hey, make sure you pick up some NoDa stuff.’”


In 2023—not a great year for beer, by most accounts—NoDa’s sales grew more than 20 percent, up to about 22,500 barrels. Bucking the prevailing trends, NoDa is investing in growth via distribution, refreshing its brand and adding a variety of packaging formats. As we go to press, NoDa is adding about 20,000 square feet of storage and dry-dock space to keep up; they already need that space.

“We’ve been stretched to the point of breaking at the peak of the growth,” says Jacob Virgil, the brewery’s director of strategic development, comparing every day to a “giant game of supply-chain Tetris.” Virgil joined NoDa in 2021 after working seven years with the media company Red Ventures; he and owner-president Suzie Ford make a formidable mother-son duo.

Virgil offers a straightforward reason for expansion: People beyond Charlotte wanted the beer. “We are proud of our product,” he says, “and truly believe that it can be a household name from the mountains to the sea.”

Origins & Early Wins

The Fords had been involved in the local homebrewing scene since the mid-1990s. Suzie worked in banking, Todd was a pilot, and they were becoming increasingly disenchanted with their jobs. That was around the time that Henderson moved to town, in 2007, after graduating from Appalachian State, where he studied physiology, biology, and psychology.

“I went into the medical field because I like science—I like biology specifically—and I wanted to help people,” Henderson says. However, like the Fords, he was less than enamored with his chosen field. “Just wanting to help people and liking science isn’t enough to really thrive in that industry.”


Homebrewing, meanwhile, gave him a creative outlet where he could dive deep into the science. Inevitably, he thought a lot about how to start his own brewery. He had the drive but lacked resources. He met the Fords one night by “rudely interrupting” them at a restaurant. “I heard Todd talk about planting hops in his yard, and I was like, ‘Oh, this guy’s obviously a homebrewer.’”

The Fords were closer to making that leap. “They basically decided that instead of doing things that they hated, they wanted to do something that they loved,” Henderson says. “And they wanted to start a brewery up, and they wanted to have a dedicated brewer. And my name kept circulating around to them because I was crazy enough to do it.”

“It was honestly an easy decision to make,” says Suzie Ford. They loved Henderson’s beers and his passion, she says. “Todd and I just clicked with him immediately.” They offered him the job while at Charlotte’s Flying Saucer, as he was celebrating “his third or fourth ‘plate party,’” she says.

“I emphatically agreed,” Henderson says. “I walked into the building for the first time right behind Todd and helped build out the original spot.” They installed a 15-barrel brewhouse and a couple of tanks. “We thought we’d be this little neighborhood spot and just make something that we really believed in.” NoDa opened on October 29, 2011—making it the city’s second-­oldest brewery, two years behind Olde Mecklenburg on the other side of town.

Less than a year later, on October 13, Henderson and the Fords were on stage with Charlie Papazian in Denver, celebrating a silver medal for their coconut-­and-cacao porter, Coco Loco—an impressive feat for any new brewery. “That kind of spoils you,” Henderson says. “If you win your very first year of competing, you just know it’s possible.”


A more momentous accolade came in 2014, at the World Beer Cup. That’s when NoDa beat out 223 other breweries in the most competitive category, American-­Style IPA, winning gold for its Hop Drop ’n Roll IPA. “It was definitely one of the highlights of my life,” Henderson says. “Completely unexpected.”

He was on stage again, but he almost didn’t make it into the room—a virus laid him low as soon as he landed in Denver. He spent the Craft Brewers Conference stuck in his hotel room, unable to keep down any food or liquids. “The first day that I could walk around normally without having to run into a bathroom was the last day,” he says. “I went to the award ceremony as our one representative, and I was just praying for a third place.” When the category came, they announced bronze, and he didn’t hear who won silver. He expected nothing. “And suddenly I see ‘Hop Drop ’n Roll, NoDa Brewing Company’ up on the screen.” He found himself standing, heard himself yell, “You’re shitting me!” As he began to move, “the entire area around me starts slapping the crap out of me. I still hadn’t eaten in several days, so I was trying to dizzily get out of the aisle.”

The dizziness would continue; that medal spun NoDa into higher orbit. “That put us on the map,” Henderson says. “Our sales went up like 370 percent immediately after that. It was a wonderful nightmare when we got back.”

They brewed Hop Drop as often as they could, but there was a hop shortage, and their contract was limited. “Especially as a younger brewery, getting Citra and Amarillo was really hard,” he says. “And we had a hard time getting Centennial. And that beer is basically mostly Citra and Amarillo, and then a bit of Centennial and Chinook. We only brewed it when we could get those in, and suddenly the entire community wanted as much Hop Drop as they possibly could.”

Hop Drop is still NoDa’s best seller, accounting for more than 30 percent of production. Its win and the press that followed led to higher demand, which fueled early growth.


Another perennial success for NoDa is its seasonal pumpkin beer, Gordgeous, which won gold at the 2018 GABF—and then did it again in 2020. “That has a cult following all on its own,” Henderson says. “It usually makes our top six of our best sellers of the year, and it’s available only for a month.”

Quality & Flexibility

NoDa started out as a team of six people, including Henderson and the Fords; they produced a bit less than 2,000 barrels their first year. The brewery’s production has grown tenfold since then, and so has its workforce.

Henderson says NoDa has been guided by what he calls “sustainable innovation.” He cites three guiding principles: QA/QC, stability for the team, and support for the community. “I’ve got the best team in the world,” he says, “and our quality is always at the forefront.”

The goal for 2024 is about 25,000 barrels. They want to grow steadily but not overstretch; growing so fast that they sacrifice quality is not an option, Henderson says, and they are realistic about today’s market.

For a while, the brewery self-distributed in Charlotte and the Research Triangle area, including Raleigh. It was good exposure but a lot of ground to cover—it wasn’t efficient. NoDa began working with distributors, figuring out how to identify good partners as well as “the right brands to throw into their vehicles,” Henderson says. “To really give them a good array of not just good-tasting beer, but well-proven beer, and then also well-established marketing for it.”


NoDa’s strong emphasis on quality—including consistency and shelf stability—has been a major selling point with distributors, Henderson says. “It’s not really trying to bash other people’s abilities,” he says. “it’s more just we’ve invested really heavily on that side of it. … So, we run that pretty hard, along with really feeling out the market on what is needed and wanted.”

Packaging variety is a key part of the strategy. NoDa was one of the first breweries in the Carolinas to embrace 16-ounce cans, but there are still many markets beyond Charlotte where those are not the norm. In 2022, the brewery retrofitted its canning line to fill 12-ounce cans. “Being able to offer up 12-packs, six-packs of brands that we already had in four-packs really helped us get into other markets at higher volumes,” Henderson says. That led to more shelf placements “because we were able to fit their setups without them having to make adjustments for it. … If you’re going into a territory [where] you’re still less established, you want to be able to cater to them, not make them cater to you.”

In February, NoDa launched a refresh of its branding, developed with Indianapolis-­based CODO Design, aiming to appeal to a more diverse array of drinkers. They also launched a hop water, Hop2O, in 2023. Meanwhile, they’re offering variety packs and more formats. (The day before we spoke in late February, NoDa packaged its first run of Hop Drop in 19.2-ounce stovepipe cans. “We’re jumping in hard on C-stores this year,” Henderson says.)

“It’s like a Swiss Army knife,” he says. “You’re fitting the right tool and the right brand into the right market. … You want to be able to give them all the options … to make it easy to move for them.”

Naturally, price is also part of the plan. The brewery’s thiol-driven hazy IPAs, Lil Slurp and Big Slurp, both have markets where they’re successful—Lil Slurp is in the running for second-best seller, behind Hop Drop. Henderson says the Slurps succeed because they’re different from many other hazy IPAs—but also because they can compete on price. “You need to price things to where it makes sense, which is always a challenge, [especially] in the last couple years. ... The Slurps have really helped to—not be a cheap option, but to be not an absurd option when it comes to that category.”


Of course, growing via distribution with different formats takes significant investment. “In order to do that stuff, you have to spend a lot of money,” Henderson says. The growth “is good, ultimately, but at the same time, we’re not really feeling the benefit of it yet because it takes a lot of up-front cost and expense resource to just get there.”

The NoDa team mitigates any risk by sticking to their game plan—prioritizing quality and flexibility. “We always want to try to challenge the scene with something that we think can move well,” Henderson says, “and then you have to grow and adapt. You have to lick wounds for some things that don’t work right and really push and capitalize on things that do.”

Photos: Courtesy NoDa Brewing

Science & Development

The physiology student who pursued a health-care job because he wanted to dive into science has found his ocean in the world of brewing.

Henderson loves the whole process. “Waking up with an idea in your head and having an artistic, creative impulse … and then solving the math, the science, the analytical side of how to make that happen. … And then having that early morning, hauling the hoses around, hauling the grain, getting dirty, and getting that physical stimulus with it—and actively brewing, and being around the steam. … And then monitoring the fermentation, and charting and collecting data points, and having this other analytical stimulus. “And then … people enjoying a product that you have, and that social thing, that aftermath satisfaction, people spending money for things that you made, that added some enjoyment to their day. I feel like this is literally every single thing I want in a job.”

Sometimes that process is creating a product from scratch, and sometimes it’s problem-solving. Adding the Slurps to NoDa’s core range wasn’t only about making some tasty hazy IPA. It was also about solving the kind of analytical problem that Henderson loves: how to maximize efficiency, using thiols and advanced hop products to reduce vegetal matter, “ultimately resulting in IPAs that yield almost lager volumes,” Henderson says. One result of that process was NoDa’s most recent GABF medal—a bronze in the Experimental IPA category for Big Slurp, one of the first medal winners made with thiol-enhancing yeast. (For more on that story, see “Balanced Aroma: Adjusting the Thiol Dial,”


Another welcome challenge is keeping NoDa’s bestseller consistent from year to year. Henderson says they’ve never fundamentally changed Hop Drop’s recipe; they’ve only made incremental tweaks to adjust for variations in the crops, for example, and to extend its shelf life. That’s meant paying more attention to dissolved oxygen and dry-hop timing, among other things. “That’s one of those things where I take pride in what we’ve been able to add—almost a whole other month of shelf life on Hop Drop.”

Hop selection is a critical part of maintaining Hop Drop’s character. After a bittering charge of Chinook and a Centennial-Amarillo addition at 10 minutes, the Citra-Amarillo combo takes over—at 5 minutes, in the whirlpool, in the hopback, and then again at dry hop. Given the importance of Citra and Amarillo to its profile, Henderson’s priority when he goes to hop selection is consistency. “We really want to have something that smells like the Citra we’ve been smelling all year long,” he says. “If I smell it and it’s like, ‘That’s the craziest-smelling Citra I’ve ever smelled in my life,’ that is not necessarily going to be the one that I pick. The one that smells the most like we just opened up another bag of Citra to add to the hop addition on Hop Drop—that’s the one we need to go with.”

That hopback addition, incidentally, is all whole-leaf. “They are a pain in the ass,” Henderson says. “We went to this because we felt it tasted better. It’s nowhere near cheaper or … less work. Like, it’s a ton more work for us to add those things in and muck it all out.”

From whole-leaf to T-90s, concentrated pellets, flowable aroma extracts, and more, Henderson says he enjoys working with different forms of hops and figuring out how best to use them. “It kind of keeps me grounded in respecting where the industry is going,” he says, “but also still holding value to what’s been around for a long time.”

One of NoDa’s newer products neatly combines Henderson’s love of R&D with the brewery’s push to appear on more shelves. Cheerwine Ale is a cross-promo partnership with a locally beloved cherry-flavored soda made in North Carolina. Henderson and team worked closely with the Carolina Beverage Corporation to develop a beer that really tasted like Cheerwine—but it couldn’t be sweet like Cheerwine. It had to be as drinkable as a great beer.


Cheerwine sells its sugary flavor extract commercially, but Henderson knew he didn’t want that—the sugars would ferment, and the flavors would change. So, he asked for the unsweetened flavoring compounds—“which I still don’t know the components of,” he says—so he could shoot those straight into the brite tank. They also had to identify the right base style; malty stouts and ambers clashed with Cheerwine’s brighter acidic flavors, while blonde ale was too stark a canvas. To Henderson, the answer became increasingly obvious: “One of my first beers I really enjoyed when I started drinking beer was actually Sam Adams Cherry Wheat.”

They ferment the beer on cherry puree to underscore Cheerwine’s own flavors—fruity and familiar but still beer, finishing dry enough to keep you coming back. It’s been a success; Cheerwine Ale is close to Lil Slurp in sales, just behind Hop Drop. It’s also winning over distributors and retailers.

“There were a lot of counties and territories in North Carolina [where] we hadn’t gotten good saturation in because they just weren’t real big craft-account areas,” Henderson says. “And Cheerwine is a household brand. So, we got our foot in the door with a lot of different chains with the Cheerwine, and that allowed them to look at the rest of our portfolio.”

Part of the Community

Next to taking care of quality and taking care of their team, taking care of the community is a core principle at NoDa. It’s important to the cofounders, too; in 2018, the Fords won the Outstanding Philanthropic Small Business Award from Charlotte’s local fundraising professionals.

The brewery supports a variety of causes­—pediatric cancer research, mammograms for uninsured women, Pints for Prostates, local dog shelters, and more. Besides donating beer or hosting events, the taprooms feature a rotating charity each month; patrons can round up their bills to support it. “Basically, anything that comes through that’s a good cause, we like to be able to try to help it out,” Henderson says. “It’s just really easy for us to do as a social-lubricant producer, you know? … It’s something we consider to be a duty, and we take a lot of pride in it.”

When the Fords chose Henderson as their brewer, he left an industry that he chose because he loved science and wanted to help people.

“Considering that we can use our product to facilitate so many various charities and events and worthwhile functions,” Henderson says, “it’s kind of ironic that … I’ve gotten more fulfillment from helping other people through the avenue of craft brewing than I have through the avenue of medical science.”

Joe Stange is Managing Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and the Brewing Industry Guide®. Have story tips or suggestions? Contact him at [email protected].