It’s NC Beer Month — Five Ways to Celebrate

Brewer during a tour

Tour a brewery to celebrate NC Beer Month.

April is NC Beer Month, and there are many ways to celebrate. So whether you’re a new or seasoned craft beer lover, here are five ideas for how to celebrate.

Tour a local brewery. Not all breweries offer tours, but many do, and some do a really great job of showcasing how their product is brewed. Most brewery websites will give the time and details of the tours. Some charge for their tours, usually with a beer reward (and a glass) at the end. Others offer free tours, but you buy your own beer. Know what a mash tun is? The four ingredients in beer? Yeah, you definitely need a tour!

Visit your local bottle shop and try some NC beer. Some grocery stores now carry a good selection of NC beer, but without the expertise you’ll find in a bottle shop. Explore the different ingredients that give beer its taste – are you more of a hoppy — bitter, citrusy — beer person, or do you prefer the caramel, coffee flavors of malt? Not sure where to start? Take this NC Beer Month quiz to find out your beer style.

Attend a beer tasting event. There are lots of them in April, from the mountains to the coast. Take the opportunity to try something you haven’t tried before. Some events offer unlimited tastings for the price of a ticket; at others, you pay as you go for what you taste.

Set out on a beer trail. Find an NC community with several breweries, maybe even some within walking distance of each other. Could be one of NC’s beer meccas, like Asheville or Raleigh. Some areas offer incentives to visit all their breweries, like the Raleigh Beer Trail. A new app from Our State Magazine helps you find breweries around North Carolina.

Experiment with beer and food pairings. Love Mexican food? Ask for something light and refreshing to offset the heaviness of the food. Chocolate dessert? Try a nice dark porter or stout. Whatever you do, make sure that your favorite restaurant serves a good selection of NC beer.

Two beer glasses

What’s your favorite beer? Try something new for NC Beer Month.


Baseball goes better with beer

beer taps

Carolina Brewing Co. is one of the featured breweries at the Salamanders ballpark.

Nothing is more American than summer baseball and the beer that goes with it. In the Triangle area, baseball pairs perfectly with great local beer.

Last year, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park debuted their own brewed-in-the-park beer, Bull Durham Beer Co., which is the only brewery in a minor league baseball park. The beer is good – I’m partial to the Lollygagger Kolsch – and their fill-from-the-bottom cups just get me every time I see them.

There aren’t as many different beers now at the DBAP. Used to be there were concessions from Carolina Brewery of Chapel Hill, Natty Greene’s of Greensboro and Foothills of Winston-Salem. The first time I ever tried a Foothills beer was at the DBAP, and I think you can still find it there. When Natty Greene’s still had a Raleigh brewery, they offered round trip bus rides to games at the DBAP, complete with beer.

You can still find Carolina Brewery beer at the park. Bullpen Pale Ale is brewed in honor of the Durham Bulls, and Sky Blue is a favorite among those who prefer really lite beer. We found a White Street Kolsch at one of the vendors recently.

I think the food concessions at the park have sort of lost their way, and friends have said the same thing. The barbecue sandwich is pretty good, if you can find your way to the stand high above right field. As long as you can find a good beer to wash it all down, you will be fine.

The Holly Springs Salamanders are college players getting in a little practice over the summer, and they have a really fancy little park for a small Wake County town. The local Carolina Brewing Co. is a major sponsor, and you can certainly find lots of their beer for sale there. But Salamanders’ park also offers some drafts from Draft Line Brewing Co. of nearby Fuquay-Varina, which opened two years ago, and from also from Holly Springs’ own Bombshell Brewing Co.

A pretty good beer lineup for a small ball park. I was pretty happy to find the Bombshell Strawberry Crème Ale on draft, having recently visited Bombshell. Try any of these local beers – they will knock one out of the park every time.

Ponysaurus brings fun and good beer to Durham

server pouring from tap

Many beers on tap at Ponysaurus.

Despite our best efforts, bloggers can sort of let the breweries get away from us. Because, you know, the fun part is really visiting the breweries – trying the beer, hanging out with friends, playing giant Jenga. But the photos and the unposted reviews start to back up… Yikes! So Tarheel Taps &Corks is at least making an effort to go back through the last few months brewery and winery visits share some places that were great to visit in winter. Just imagine how much more fun they will be this summer!

Ponysaurus Brewing Co., Durham

When I grew up in Durham, but there were just some part of town that, well, we never actually saw. And the Ponysaurus Brewing Co. at Ramseur St. and Fayetteville St. was one of those places – industrial, near the tracks, off the beaten path. But today, beer lovers are beating a path to the Ponysaurus in this neighborhood that is experiencing new life.

We visited back in March during the ACC tournament, and the night was warm enough to sit outside at one of the large community tables. There were so many beers to try that we ordered two flights.

The outdoor experience at Ponysaurus Brewing Co. is what it’s all about. In fact, there’s really not that much seating indoors, so I can’t really imagine what it would be like there in winter. But when the large garage doors are open, there are lawn tables, two upper deck seating areas and covered tables with screens right outside the taproom. Seems to be kid-friendly and dog-friendly (and even Duke-student friendly, but what can you do?) There are food trucks on the grounds also.

And here’s a fun summertime thing to do – you can reserve a grill at Ponysaurus, choose your meats and sides, arrive to have your picnic waiting for you. Grill and enjoy your dinner, throw your trash away and head home when you’re done. What a great idea!

Ponysaurus Brewing Co. Taproom
Corner of Ramseur and Fayetteville Streets, Durham

flight of four beers

Get a flight to try as many beers as possible.

Red Oak’s Law of Purity Leads to Great Lagers

brewmaster leading tour

Red Oak Brewmaster Chris Buckley leads a Friday tour through the brewery.

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.

More than 3 miles of stainless steel pipe carry Red Oak lagers through the brewing process.

More than 3 miles of stainless steel pipe carry Red Oak lagers through the brewing process.

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.

brewery doors and guests on the patio

Red Oak’s Friday tours are popular, as beer lovers spill out onto the brewery’s patio.

Women and beer, New Belgium in Asheville and Anheuser-Busch quality control

Women at brewery tour

Women account for 18 percent of beer bloggers, though the count appeared higher at this year’s conference.

It was notable that two of the major speakers at the Asheville Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference were women – including Julia Herz of the Brewers Association who has kicked off every beer bloggers conference since 2010, and keynote speaker Kim Jordan, founder and CEO of New Belgium.

Herz described beer as a $102 billion industry, with more than 3,500 breweries now open in the United States. Too many? Herz says no – while 615 new breweries opened in 2014, only 46 breweries closed.

Women account for 32 percent of craft beer sales and 18 percent of beer bloggers, though women beer bloggers who attended the conference in previous years seemed to believe there were a larger number of women beer bloggers at the 2015 conference. And women bloggers participated on every blogger panel. Let’s go, girls!

Kim Jordan, New Belgium CEO/founder

Kim Jordan

Kim Jordan of New Belgium was keynote speaker

By now, every craft beer fan in North Carolina knows that New Belgium of Ft. Collins, Colo., will become the third large West Coast brewer to open a brewery in Asheville. Kim Jordan, New Belgium founder and CEO, came to the beer bloggers conference to share the story of how New Belgium grew out of efforts by Jordan and then boyfriend Jeff Lebesch the brewery’s co-founder, decided to try brewing Belgian beers in their basement.

Lebesch became interested in Belgian beer after a bicycle trip there that inspired New Belgium’s flagship beer, Fat Tire Amber Ale. It was a long shot – at the time, there were no categories in the Great American Beer Festival for Belgian beers. But that didn’t stop Jeff and Kim from brewing Belgian beers, photocopying their beer labels at Kinkos.

Jordan described the evolution of telling the New Belgium beer story, from a time when Beer Advocate was the only online publication about beer and brewing, to the company’s early email newsletters, then blogs and today’s social media. Blog posts, photos and videos are an important way New Belgium tells its story on the company’s website.

“Every 24 hours, probably two new craft breweries open,” Jordan said. “Bloggers help ‘connect’ the dots and tell the story. I suspect there will be a bit of slowing … the industry can’t grow at this level forever. But I think we will see a vibrant craft beer scene for a very long time.”

Anheuser-Busch quality assurance

Bud beer bottles

“The King of Beers” goes through a thorough tasting process everyday.

It’s a safe bet to say that most of the bloggers at the conference aren’t the biggest fans of “the King of Beers.” And some of us still get a little miffed just thinking about Budweiser’s snarky Superbowl commercial making fun of craft beer. But Mark Yocum, director of quality for Anheuser-Busch, did a great job describing and demonstrating how the company’s rigorous quality-control tasting program works.

The A-B taste panel meets every afternoon to sample and critique beer at different stages of brewing, including the water that goes into brewing the beer at various stages. The complexity of the sampling process demonstrates A-B’s commitment to quality and attention to detail, Yoakum said.

The panel begins by tasting water from different stages of brewing, from the tap water that comes in to the plant to filtered water through different stages of brewing and even the rinse water for bottles, cans and kegs. Yocum brought samples of beer at various stages of production – wort, alpha fermentation beer and “chip beer” from day 19 or 20 in the lager tank with beechwood chips. We also tasted malt (I could eat it like cereal from the box), and passed around a sample of A-B’s famous beechwood.

Anyone on the quality panel can call an ingredient or sample into question, resulting in further scrutiny and analysis. A-B brewers pride themselves on quality and consistency, competing internally for the prized “Brewer’s Cup.”

When I was in college, a favorite bar game was to see who could quote the marketing slogan on the Budweiser can, which began, “This is the famous Budweiser beer.” … and ended with, “Our exclusive beechwood aging process produces a taste, a smoothness and a drinkability you will find in no other beer at any price.” – and now you know why.

Last call for Natty Greene’s of Raleigh

beer and last hurrah sign

Saturday marked the last bash for Raleigh’s Natty Greene’s.

Natty Greene’s Pub and Brewing Co. was a Greensboro fixture when the brewery decided to locate to Raleigh’s Glenwood South neighborhood five years ago. The brewery was alone among the area’s pubs and sports bars, but others would follow.

Saturday marked the end of Raleigh’s Natty Greene’s, after rent for the popular pub became too steep, and the brewers decided to leave town. The closing was marked with a festive atmosphere — bands, beer and rapidly dwindling menu options, as the restaurant sold its final wings and fish and chips.

Proceeds from the day were to support employees, who are losing their Raleigh jobs. Here’s hoping another establishment will open there soon – prior to Natty Greene’s, the site seemed to turn over about every year. And I’m still hoping that maybe someone is trying to find a nice new Raleigh site for Natty Greene’s – raise a glass of Summerfest lager to that!

outside of brewery building

Natty Greene’s in Raleigh’s Glenwood South will be missed.