Cape Fear Wine & Beer has been a Wilmington institution for over 16 years. The bar started out in a small storefront on Water Street before moving to its current 139 N. Front Street location in 2009. Its beer selection is legendary—I would know, as I slung suds there for two and a half years. When I learned that the boutique wine and craft beer bar would be adding liquor, I was surprised but not skeptical. Owners Lector Bennett and Maaike Brender à Brandis are masters of their craft, so I knew they wouldn’t attempt something they weren’t fully prepared for. When they rolled out the program late last year, I was proven correct. The liquor selection is humble but thoughtful, providing mid-shelf libations for consumers who are beered-out or carb-conscious.
I sat down with the owners to talk about the changes to the bar.
encore (e): The decision to add liquor to your repertoire is a big one. What led you guys there?
Maaike Brender à Brandis (MB): We were Wilmington’s first craft beer bar. Now a vast majority of spots in town— between the breweries, bottle shops and restaurants—have good beer. When we first started out, that wasn’t the case. We wanted to stick to our roots, but we felt like we needed a face-lift after 16 years. If you don’t try to stay relevant, you could go the way of the buffalo.
Lector Bennett (LB): Statistically, people are drinking liquor over beer and wine more than ever in our lifetime. Although we are part of a great beer-centric community, we are aware of that fact and embrace it. I like to keep the wind to my back.
e: How difficult was the process? Not to throw the ABC under the bus, but as I understand it, the permitting process isn’t easy.
MB: Fortunately, it wasn’t so difficult this time. Having existing permits, a good reputation and relationship with other downtown businesses and law enforcement for 16 years certainly helped. Also, we had help from an NC ABC consultant who walked us through the whole process and expedited various other permits (fire, zoning, building, etc.)
e: The build-out is gorgeous. How did you go about conceptualizing it?
LB: Thank you! I spent a lot of time studying efficient designs. The last thing I wanted to do was double the staff because of mixing drinks. I needed the most ergonomic design to reduce the time spent with my back to the bar. I spent way too much time dwelling on this. I started with the guts, ice well, soda gun, carbonator, C02 and mixers—stuff nobody thinks of. Then we built everything around that. I wanted three mirrors instead of one big one so I could see different angles when I’m making a drink. Our pal Jordan Bearss took the vision and did the build-out.
e: Do you feel you’re seeing new faces in the door?
MB: Absolutely! I recall seeing so many people who weren’t in the mood for beer or wine just turn around and walk out. Now that we’re a full-service bar, we’re excited to welcome many more guests.
LB: I can definitely say we sell more beer because we have liquor. I didn’t expect that, but it makes sense. We have more to offer, and folks stick around longer because of it.
e: I noticed on top of the addition of liquor, you have a new jukebox and four new pinball machines. That’s a lot of change all at once. How do you feel about it?
MB: The new jukebox is another facet of our face-lift. We had the classic punk jukebox for so long, but technology has evolved over the years and so has our music selection. The classics that were available still are—along with so much more. This is another way we’re opening our space to more people.
Pinball has always been a huge part of our bar and we’re happy to be teaming up with The Stern Army and Flippin Balls Amusement. We have never had this amount and variety of pinball games, so it’s really huge for us.
LB: The new pinball games have been great! Downtown has never had tournament-caliber pins. When someone drives from out of town to compete in a tournament, they expect nothing short of perfection when it comes down to gameplay.
We had our Elvira tournament launch party and it was fascinating to watch. People came out of the woodwork for it. League night is Thursday, 7-10 p.m. Guests are welcome.
e: The U-boat is a fun concoction. Can you explain how it came about? How do you make it?
LB: Speaking of Jordan Bearss, he came up with that. I really have no idea how or why. It’s a naval reference to a submarine hidden under a boat. I make it by putting the shot on top of an upside-down pint glass and then putting another pint on top of it to seal the shot to the bottom of the glass. Then I flipped it right side up quickly and I filled it with beer.
By far the most popular one is called the “Irish Crocodile.” The name is a cool cryptid reference. It’s made with Murphy’s stout and a Skrewball (peanut-butter whiskey) shot. The end of the pint finishes like a coffee shot.
e: You made it 16 years! What’s in store for the next 16? Are you planning on expanding the liquor program into a craft cocktail direction? Can loyal customers still go to Beer Church every Sunday?
MB: Honestly, I cannot recall how many years we’ve been doing Beer Church, so it is definitely here to stay. As far as our cocktail program, we’re sticking with the basics with the exception of a handful of specialty drinks (Scorpion Bloody Mary, Hot Toddies, Blue Banshee, U-Boats, etc.) but as we evolve, we expect to see our cocktail program expand.