On Friday afternoons at 3 p.m., Piedmont beer lovers flock to Whitsett, home of Red Oak Brewery just outside of Burlington. Though it seems like an odd time for a brewery tour, more than 40 people line up on a recent Friday and pay $15 each for the one-hour brewery tour and tastings that follow.
We must have driven by Red Oak Brewery just off I-85 dozens of times, saying, “we have to come back here sometime on a Friday.” In December, we finally made that happen, and it was well worth the drive.
Brewmaster Chris Buckley offers a very thorough one-hour tour, with detailed descriptions of Red Oak’s brewing process, barely pausing to draw a breath along the way. Born and raised in Germany for 25 years, Buckley attended brewing school in Munich.
“I see a few familiar faces again,” Buckley tells the crowd. The tour comes first, then beer. “We learned from experience to do it in that order.”
Red Oak got its start in 1991 Spring Garden Brewery in Greensboro. The name was changed in 2002 to reflect the brewery’s signature lager, and Red Oak moved to its current location in 2007. It has been a fixture on I-85 ever since.
Red Oak brews Bavarian-style lager, according to the 1516 Law of Purity, which requires that beer be made from only four ingredients – hops, malted barley, water and yeast. Red Oak beer is never pasteurized or filtered. “Pasteurization is done to further destroy the flavor of beer and increase the shelf life,” says a passionate Buckley.
For 18 years, Red Oak lagers were sold on draft only. Today, Red Oak bottles Red Oak Amber Lager and Hummin’ Bird Helles, a lighter lager, sold only in 12 packs, to save you a trip back to the store for another six pack.
Red Oak brews two winter seasonals – Black Oak Bavarian-style Dopplebach and Battlefield Bavarian Style Boch. Fall seasonal Old Oak is, naturally, a Traditional Bavarian Oktoberfest Lager, and spring seasonal Big Oak is a Vienna Lager.
Red Oak and other small N.C. craft breweries are fighting a strange state law that requires brewers to sell beer through a distributer, once they reach production of 25,000 barrels a year. Brewers on the verge of reaching this tipping point may be keeping their production below 25,000 barrels in order to continue self-distribution.
Should the state repeal this law, Red Oak is prepared to expand their I-85 facility to a “beer village,” complete with a tasting room and expanded production.