Thursday, October 6, 2011

Durham’s Beer Scene is Hopp’ning

Durham is now home to three breweries making exceptional products and getting considerable attention for their efforts.  North Carolina's craft beer culture continues to get a lot of attention a) because it's amazing and b) because of the work done by folks like All About Beer magazine and the World Beer Festival - the original of which is held in Durham each year and is happening this Saturday.

Following is a guest post from Bull City Homebrew's Scott Michaels  and appears in the World Beer Festival Guide given to attendees of the festival.  It's a great discussion of beer in Durham and a nice homage to the place where great things happen.

Durham’s Beer Scene is Hopp’ning
Guy walks into a bottle shop. Looking for a light session beer on another day in a long line of sweltering days. He steps into Sam’s Quik Shop, a beer Mecca with more than 1,000 varieties. A tall, skinny, scraggly-bearded dude wearing fatigues, a ball cap, yet with the curious gaze of a professor is at your service. He goes by “Barbeque.” His mom calls him that, too. 
Barbeque, who used to work at a barbeque joint, suggests a Gaffel or Sunner Kölsch. His skill of pairing food with beer makes his job more than just a clerk at a beer store. “It’s sort of on par with being a wine sommelier,” the 32-year-old explains. Stroll just past the counter—the singles for sale and the six beers on tap—y and you’ll find a section devoted to North Carolina beers in cans, bottles and growlers. Unless you know what you’re coming in for, like maybe a keg, you’ll find the “Quik Shop” an oxymoron. Who wants to rush a beer run in nirvana? It’s more of a “beer stroll” anyway. 
Like the premiere of a movie or video, Sam’s is the local place with the figurative red carpet. Adored by distributors, Sam’s gets picked to host semi-exclusive unveilings. Foothills Brewing recently released its Baltic Porter there. Ditto for Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Ops, an 11.8 percent ABV Russian Imperial Stout that lasted for one day last winter. The “If they have a beer, we’ll buy it” mentality makes Sam’s a home for boutique brews not available anywhere else in Durham. 
Another element of the beauty of Sam’s is its atmosphere. “It looks like a dumpy gas station on the outside, then you come in,” explains employee Kyle Hefley. “The characters and grit make the place.” 
Beer lovers who explore the Bull City long enough know Durham’s craft beer scene is a symphonic blend of diverse concoctions and eclectic characters behind the brew.
When Fullsteam Brewery celebrated its one-year anniversary in August, the scene looked like Mardi Gras. A marching band belted out “When the Saints Go Marching In” while snaking through the crowded brewery. There was a wacky hat contest, in line with the “Southern Social” theme. Beads? Check. Masks? Check. Feathered boas? Check. Matlock clones? Um, check. “Do you like my shorts?” asked Sean Lilly Wilson, Fullsteam’s CEO (Chief Executive Optimist). His colorful, plaid shorts matched the irreverence of the establishment. Their web site trumpets their not-so-secret conspiracy to collaborate with “other fellow nut-jobs to craft unique, custom beverages… that celebrate the culinary and agricultural heritage of the South.” 
Fullsteam, with its appropriate, backwards ‘F’ logo, is one of the most unique breweries in the South. “The best ideas in the world are both beautiful and stupid. That’s what we do,” Wilson proclaims. 
There’s the Carver Sweet Potato lager, a naming tribute to Southern agricultural scientist George Washington Carver. The Hogwash is what you might guess—a beer that tastes like barbeque. “That’s our most notable.” Wilson admits the bacon beer has its share of critics whose taste buds may not agree with the specialty, smoked porter. But Fullsteam’s products are winning over admirers from Washington, D.C. to NC, with 100 accounts in the Triangle alone. 
Their flagship brew is the Fullsteam, “a southern lager” in the style of a California Common. The Rocket Science IPA and the El Toro Cream Ale are also big sellers, along with the sweet potato beer. “Our beers aren’t extreme, they’re drinkable, session beers. They’re quirky, but balanced, not kitschy.” 
The main additives in some of the beers come from local growers, who are paid to supply Fullsteam with sweet potatoes, basil, bacon, figs, persimmons, etc. The brewery hopes to extend the model of what Wilson calls a “Southern beer economy” and “crowd-sourced craft beer” by adding locally grown barley and hops to future recipes. 
Less than a half mile away sits Durham’s newcomer to the brewery scene: Bull City Burger and Brewery, which opened in March 2011. In addition to burgers, you can find up to eight beers on tap, all named after people or places with historical references to the city. The two full-time members of the otherwise rotating roster are a Golden Ale and Pale Ale. Bryant Bridge Gateway Golden Ale—named after a bridge spanning the Durham Freeway—is billed as BCBB’s “gateway to drinking craft beer.”  You’ll find it to be a lightly-hopped (Goldings, Glacier), citrusy, session beer. “I really want to be known for session ales—low alcohol, high flavor,” said Seth Gross, the head brewer and owner of BCBB. The Parrish Street Pale Ale offers the same hop schedule, plus Fuggles to provide a crisp, hoppy finish, contrasting with sweet maltiness, apricot and caramel aromas to produce a beer that tastes a tad like fall. 
BCBB ventures away from the mainstream a bit as well, reveling in the wacky side of the brewing beer. Hopheads drank up the hsaWaknoW, that’s “Wonka Wash” backwards. Yes, it’s a shout-out to Willy Wonka, the ultra-creative, goofy, chocolate factory owner in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. The Strong Ale, brewed with, of course, chocolate malt, creates its brown, nutty character that drinkers compare to Arrogant Bastard. Gross admits it’s sometimes difficult to balance the menu’s mainstays with the new arrivals at the tap. “You brew something (that’s loved) and you want to move on and people say ‘no, bring it back.’” 
Within stumbling distance (3/4 mile) is Durham’s third brewery, with a website motto: “We like making beers that don’t suck.” Most would probably agree they succeed, especially when it comes to Belgians. The pride of the Triangle Brewing Company is their Belgian Golden Ale. Weighing in at 8 percent ABV, this Belgian features fruitiness due to a high-temperature fermentation. You’ll find a strong malt presence blended nicely with spicy hops. The Golden captured Bronze Medals at the 2009 and 2011 Carolina Championship of Beer. Triangle’s lineup includes other decorated beers from the same competition. Last year, their Belgian White Ale earned a silver medal, in the “Witbier” classification. The Habanero Pale Ale won silver for “Herb and Spice Beers,” and Winter Stout took bronze in the “Foreign-Style Stout” category. 
Sure, Triangle creates prize-winning beers. But there’s a lesser-known libation “with enough hop kick to wake the dead,” Triangle’s owners say.  And this beer is named after a dead guy who was discovered on Triangle’s premises during renovations. True story. 
“His story was ours to create,” Triangle co-owner Rick Tufts recalls. “After a few beers, with creativity and psychic abilities at its apex, we decided his name was Rufus.” They wanted a good Southern name. Then they created a series of beers named after Rufus. The first was an Imperial Amber, full-bodied Rufus Reserve Double Red (rufus in Latin means red). Another symbol of homage perhaps dotted with a drop of humor: Tufts built a coffin that they pour beer out of at festivals. “He travels with us. We pour beer in the drain for him just to keep him appeased,” Tufts said. 
In the summer of 2010, Triangle started canning its Belgians with the first automated canning system in the state, with a top speed of 70 cases per hour.  You can check it out, plus get free samples during brewery tours on Saturdays at 1pm.  If you’d also like to learn to make beers that don’t suck, Triangle is offering “Intro. to Home Brewing” courses. 
Durham’s homebrewing scene is a lively one. At the forefront is Bull City Homebrew. The store’s centerpiece is its grain room, which offers more than 40 varieties. BCH’s front-man is Nate “Dizo” Cowles. Picture a surfer dude with a Jeff Spicoli-like mischievous smile, equipped with the mind of a beer encyclopedia—that’s Durham’s brewing professor. He earns praises from customers for putting together amazing recipes. “Nate just told me what to do and I won a homebrewing contest,” a BCH patron confessed last year. 
“Introducing people to the world of brewing is always exciting,” Dizo says.  “It’s like learning you can cook when all you have ever eaten has been prepared by others.”  Dizo lists one of his main challenges as developing clone recipes for customers. It’s also a liquid labor of love. “Being able to break down popular commercial beers and recreate them for customers requires a lot of beer drinking experience. As much fun as that is, it pales in comparison to seeing a homebrewer delight in what we have created together.” 
Cowles is part of a fraternity of elite homebrew enthusiasts. TRUB (TRiangle Unabashed homeBrewers) bills itself as “the oldest, active homebrew club in North Carolina.”  The group meets on the second Wednesday of every month at Satisfaction at 7pm. Each gathering is a mini beer festival with members sharing their latest all-grain or extract brews.  There’s outstanding beer along with spirited discussion about what you taste. 
A recent meeting lasted more than three hours. BJCP guidelines were in place as TRUB guys held a mead competition. The Atomic Fireball mead took second place to a peach-flavored honey ale. Got questions about wort chilling, fermentation, dry-hopping, building a three-tiered, gravity flow brewing system, etc… someone at a TRUB gathering will have the answer. A yearly membership costs $15. 
Craft beer is literally everywhere in Durham. You can not only find it at pubs, bars and restaurants— you can even score a growler at a convenience store. 
For the widest selection on tap, there’s Tyler’s Taproom. You’ll find 100 bottled beers, 66 draughts—eight from NC—in addition to a recently expanded assortment of canned lagers and ales. A large percentage of the mixed crowd is quite knowledgeable about what they’re consuming. You’ll find mostly locals here: everyone from DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center) concertgoers sipping on Allagash White to Dukies guzzling PBR.  Off the beaten (tap) path are beers like Lindemans Framboise (lambic), North Coast Scrimshaw (pilsner), and Delirium Tremens (Belgian strong). 
 Other downtown bars feature nice varieties. Bull McCabes showcases 20 draughts, five of which are IPAs. On the domestic side there’s Smutty Nose Finestkind, which took home a gold medal from the Great British Beer Festival in 2004. For an imported IPA, there’s the Belhaven Twisted Thistle from England, which features a sweet, malty backbone. 
Satisfaction spotlights more than 80 bottled beers, and 16 draughts. The roster includes all the regular mass-produced beverages, plus big boys like Ommegang’s Three Philosophers (Belgian quadruple, 9.8% ABV), and Breckenridge Brewery’s 471 IPA (double IPA, 9.2% ABV).  On the lighter side, there’s the Tibetan lager, Lhasa. Across the street you’ll find the The Federal, a cozy neighborhood bar with14 taps – and right next store – James Joyce Irish Pub where you can get pints from Boddingtons, Bass or Smithwicks in addition to North Carolina beers as well as Terrapin, Dogfish Head and Sam Adams to name a few. If you still find yourself wanting more, on the corner of Gregson and Main sits Alivia’s, a bistro that often hosts cask ale nights from Triangle Brewing or The Roxy, a speakeasy style joint that overtook the space Down Under Pub once inhabited. 
Your exploration of Durham’s craft beer scene continues at Dain’s Place with its cooler full of bottled and canned craft beer and several local taps. Broad Street Café also provides a nice selection of bottled beer and has 10 taps, most focusing on NC brews. And then there’s Whiskey, which may have the shortest tap lines around town on their 16 NC tap handles.
 Outside of town you can find a nice pint of craft beer at City Beverage, which carries 27 in bottles and has 33 taps. For beers to go, head around the corner to Hope Valley Bottle Shop. It has 200 kinds of craft beer leaning towards premium imports, plus a few growlers. Newcomer G2B: Gastro Pub & Brewhouse has 14 taps with some of the usual local suspects (Duck-Rabitt, Triangle, Big Boss) as well as a couple of Belgians on draught.
 Nestled in a tiny, strip mall Wine Authorities doesn’t just carry wine but also has 25 different craft beers in bottles. And Total Wine, out on the edge of town by the Chapel Hill line, boasts more than 1,000 bottles of beer on the wall, plus 36 kegs.
It’s not just Durham’s breweries, pubs, and bottle shops committed to craft beers. The Bull City brew crew even broadens out to include Wool E. Bull, although he’s still a few years short of 21. At Durham Bulls baseball games, you can enjoy three different beers each inning and—if you could still stand, sit or see—finish the entire, sudsy lineup in the ninth. Talk about a perfect game; more than half of those 27 are microbrews. When Wool E. becomes legal, his first draught might be the stadium’s Bullpen Pale Ale, brewed exclusively for the Bulls by Carolina Brewing Co. in Chapel Hill. 
In addition, beer dinner have started to pop up around town with Dos Perros—purveyors of authentic Mexican cuisine—leading the way. 
In Durham, our thirst for craft beer continues to grow… --Scott Michaels

1 comment:

  1. << there’s the Belhaven Twisted Thistle from England, which features a sweet, malty backbone.>> we have to pick the bones out of our beer?

    Oh well, better than those spineless "lite" beers.

    Faux Paws