Coming in Hop and Heavy: The Carolinas' Explosive Craft Beer Scene

by Sean Kenniff
Antoinette Bruno
December 2013

Restaurant

When they drink beer in the Carolinas, they like to drink more than one. Session beers with their gulpability and reasonable alcohol content are the cornerstone of breweries from Asheville and Raleigh in the North, to Charleston in the South. With a session brew or two as an anchor, brewers are able to shoot for the creative stratosphere when devising the other beers in their repertoire. They're developing a name for themselves, for there breweries, and a beer identity for their state. This is especially true in North Carolina, where relatively loose beer laws, natural water supplies with purity and excellent pH, a built-in beer culture (think Nascar, college-sports tailgate mania, and backyard barbecues), and an interest in everything artisanal have combined to bolster the brewery boom in the Carolinas. 

In all the beer excitement—pushing IPAs to their hoppy limits, designing and constructing brew systems out of what's on hand, not to mention dart leagues and corn hole line-ups—Carolina brewers have definitely not lost sight of this simple fact: beer is fun. For the brewers, who almost all got their start by brewing at home, the fun indeed starts with the brewing, but it continues demonstratively with the naming of the suds: Holy City’s Notorious P.I.G., Deep River’s Double D’s Watermelon Lager, Crank Arm’s Holy Mole smoked porter, and Steel String’s Rubber Room session beer.

Carolina brewers may be a fun bunch, but they're also scrappy. To fund their visions and launch their breweries they've crowd funded, maxed out credit cards, turned to friends and family, collaborated with bigger breweries, partnered with deeper pockets, bought second-hand equipment, and depended on second jobs to fund their suds filled dreams. And it's paying off with most new craft breweries experiencing phenomenal growth and having trouble keeping up with demand. 

While yeast strains, hops, and barrels for aging may not always be local, the chefs and mixos that inspire this new generation of craft brewers are. And so are many of the ingredients they use to create flavor profiles distinctive to the Carolinas: sweet potatoes, grits, and yes, even hog. 

Hi-Wire in Asheville has started a new canning program and is aggressively branding and expanding while paying the utmost attention to drinkability and quality. Burial, also in Asheville, embodies the independent spirit and determination of Carolina brewers, funding themselves completely out of pocket so that their vision remains uncompromised. Wicked Weed has practically taken over downtown Asheville with its massive brewery, restaurant, and bi-level bar; they've embraced the artist-patron business model to incredible initial success (the name, with a wink and a nod, must help). You've heard of "tap the Rockies," but what about tapping the Smokies like the Nantahala brewers in Bryson City? Mystery Brewing Company is bringing tiny downtown Hillsborough to life with idiosyncratic beers that have a literary spin. The team at Deep River opened up the first (official) brewery in formerly dry Johnston County. And Fullsteam in Durham has collaborated with regional powerhouse chef and restaurateur Ashley Christensen on a peppery beer to serve with fried chicken.

Pull up a bar stool, pop your top, and get ready for the perfect pour that is the 2013 StarChefs.com Carolinas Beer Roundup. 

Wicked Weed Brewing

Freak of Nature Double IPA

No operation better captures the creative spirit and beer devotion of Asheville, than Wicked Weed Brewing. Brothers and Brewers Luke and Walt Dickinson opened the massive brewery-bar-restaurant in 2012 in the beer paradise that is Appalachian North Carolina. To set themselves apart in the suds-filled market, they make West Coast-style hop monsters, Belgian ales, and beers inspired by local chefs and bartenders.

Also setting them apart is their natural exuberance and slightly twisted minds out of which spring brews like Coconut Curry Wit, Tamarind Saison, and Appalachian Saison (grits, sweet potato, honey). Barely keeping up with the demand, the duo is on target to produce 2,800 barrels this year. They've spread the magic of Asheville brewing to a market near you with a larger scale New Belgium collaboration—along with their undeniably lovable, undeniably Asheville "kiss my grits" philosophy.

Vigilance

Vigilance is from Wicked Weed's barrel aged wild ale program. Reminiscent of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, the tropical and musty profile of the brettanomyces strain accentuates the aroma of pineapple, guava and kiwi. 85 pounds of pineapple and 30 pounds of guava combined with exceptional effervescence create a fruit forward, yet dry and lingering finish.

Freak of Nature Double IPA

The Freak of Nature is a San Francisco inspired hoppy monster. At 8 percent ABV and who knows how many ibu's, this beer is a shrine to the Hop. Absurd amounts of the big West Coast hops gives this beer its citrusy, weedy nose and big, dank flavor—dry hopped with 48 pounds per batch, which is over 3lbs of hops per barrel. In keeping with the classic style of the West Coast double, sugar plays a large part in creating this dry and minimally bitter double IPA. The Freak is particularly pintable for the style.


See Brewery

Hi-Wire Brewing

Hi-Wire Brewing

You can pick up Hi-Wire beer in cans or bottles (look for the circus theme) at Asheville area grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores, and specialty beer and wine shops. Or you can just head Downtown to the Brew District and pull up a stool in the Hi-Wire brewery-adjacent taproom. Though you can grab a Hi-wire brew while you're filling up the tank, Co-owner Adam Charnack and Brewer Chris Foresacker are making creative craft beers at the hi-est of standards, yet remaining approachable, making drinkability their most important goal along with flavor and quality. Their Side Show Seasonal beers are only available from their taps, so make way to Hi-wire for local, seasonal beer or three.

Bed of Nails Brown

The Bed of Nails Brown is an ale crafted as an ode to the traditional English Brown. Its delicate body allows the flavors of caramel and toffee from specialty malts to shine. At 6.1 percent ABV combined with the lighter body and comforting flavors, this beer tends to be a bit of a sleeper, knocking you on your ass before you might expect. It's an excellent beer with balance and a breadth of flavor and aromas.

Primetime Pale

The Prime Timer Pale is an American pale ale, complete with Simcoe hops that bring a plethora of flavors and aromas. From floral to earthy, citrus to pine, this dry ale is an easy drinker. At around 5.5 percent ABV and 37 IBUs, its full body and fruity aromas fill the mouth and nose, finishing with an earthy, almost autumnal flavor.

See Brewery

Nantahala Brewing

4-Foot Drop: American Pale Ale

In the outdoor-adventure capital of North Carolina's Smokey Mountains, Bryson City, Greg Geiger is brewing some damn good beer. Geiger himself was on an adventure, hiking the Appalachian Trail, when he walked into the expansive brewery-taproom-event space that is Nantahala Brewing Company.

Today, along with collaborator and co-owner of the brewery, Joe Rowland, Geiger puts our the Trail Magic Ale series, seasonal beers, high gravity beers, as well as their six flagship year-round brews, including App Trail Extra Pale Ale, Bryson City Brown, and Up Rive Amber. Nantahala is named for the National Forest and the river in its backyard.

4 Foot Drop American Pale Ale

When play time's over, it's time for a light, refreshing brew that packs a flavorful punch. And with a low ABV, like say 4.5 percent from Nantahala's 4 Foot Drop American Pale Ale, you can enjoy this bold, galaxy and citra hopped pale ale and wake up ready to do it again.

Noon Day IPA

Noon Day IPA is Nantahala's flagship. An aggressively hopped India Pale Ale with piney, grapefruit flavor and a big nose. Brewed with pale malts and generous amounts of crystal malts and whole hops, the brew uses a hop back process and dry hopping to produce that award winning floral aroma and crisp, dry finish.

See Brewery

Steel String Craft Brewery

Exile on Weaver Street, 4.8%, German Heffeweizen

Cody Maltais is a co-owner of Steel String Craft Brewery and was a Marine Core Captain. Brewer and co-owner Will Isley began brewing beer especially for the soldier's home-coming. After some traditional fund raising and a crowd funding campaign organized on kickstarter.com, the totally American made brewery and pub offers refreshing seasonal brews such as Exile on Weaver Street, a hefeweizen referring to the main public space in town—a grassy knoll outside of a market that attracts hipsters, hippies, musicians, families, pets, students, professors, hula-hoopers, and beer enthusiasts.

Maltais and Isley opened the Brewery in spring 2013 and started barrel aging some of their brews that fall. In the heart of downtown Carrboro—the Williamsburg of North Carolina—Steel String had set up shop only a few months before we arrived. With a small beer garden street-side that leads to a taproom, this brew pub is all party in the front and business the back.

Rubber Room Session

Chapel Hill's most revered recording studio gives this American Session Pale Ale its name. Rubber Room is an everyday drinker that's made with North Carolina grown rye, is less bitter than many pale ales, and is light in color only. It is hop forward without being overwhelming and has a heavy citrus nose, with lemon, lime and grapefruit notes. At around 4.0 percent ABV and 49 IBUs this easy drinking session beer is appropriate for during or after your meal.

Flagship IPA

Steel String's Flagship Big Mon India Pale Ale begins pushing the envelope at 68 IBUs and 6.7 percent ABV. American hops take center stage in the West Coast style brew. The malt profile is dialed back to light toast and caramel notes with huge kettle additions of centennial, cascade, and Columbus hops, giving Big Mon a monstrous citrus and pine aroma.

See Brewery

Westbrook Brewing Co.

White Thai: Belgian Witbier Style with Lemongrass, Ginger and Sorachi Ace: 5% ABV; 16 IBUs

Young husband and wife team Edward and Morgan Westbrook are the team behind Westbrook Brewing in Charleston. Selling their first beer in December 2010, Edward initially started home brewing while Morgan was in college and he was in grad school. "As soon as I tried the process, I enjoyed it" Westbrook says and deems a good palate the most important ingredient. The White Thai, inspired by Edward's love of Thai food is one of the flag ship brews and is a Thai twist on a Belgian White Ale brewed with spices, ginger and lemongrass. At Westbrook, brewing is a collaborative process.

Shane's Big DIPA, is hoppy and not for the faint hearted- a double IPA thought up by one of the brewer's Shane. Morgan has had a hand in it too coming up with the Bearded Farmer series for her love for saisons. Westbrook's brews are distributed nationally and internationally or pay a visit to the tasting room in Mount Pleasant to try the latest on tap.

White Thai

This beer, inspired by the flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine, is a twist on the classic Belgian witbier style. Instead of the traditional coriander and orange peel spicing regimen there's a dose of fresh lemongrass, ginger root, and a dash of Sorachi Ace hops. The result is a wonderfully refreshing ale with notes of lemon candy, citrus fruit, and a slight spiciness from the ginger.

Bearded Farmer "Hughey"

Hughey is the first installment in Westbrook's "Bearded Farmer" series of saisons. In keeping with the farmhouse brewing tradition, the idea is to brew each successive beer a little (or a lot) differently than the ones before it. Hughey is brewed with a blend of rustic grains including oats, rye, and spelt, and then fermented with a combination of Belgian and French yeast strains, including three types of Brettanomyces.

See Brewery

Holy City Brewing

Holy City Pilsner: German Style Pils; 5% ABV, 45 IBUs

The men behind Holy City Brewing have come a long way from their home brew system made of welded bicycle parts. This local brewery, named after the Charleston skyline crowded with traditional steeples, sits in a 4,000-square foot warehouse in North Charleston. Head Brewer Chris Brown hones his passion for brewing lagers and keeps four on tap all year. The flagship lager, Slanted Porch Ale (so named after the slanted porches of Charleston homes) is citrusy, floral, and easy drinking.

Brown's creativity is evident in his extensive menu of seasonal and occasion beers. Unconventional methods impart flavors like biscuits and honey, along with oysters and pecans. Bacon and beer are brought together in the Notorious P.I.G, a beer for which Brown steeps a mesh bag of cooked bacon in his American Porter. The brewery also doubles as a live music venue that features local bands. Stop by, drink some beer, shoot some pool, and be sure to check out Brown's latest creations.

Pluff Mud Porter

Pluff mud [plŭff-mŭd], noun, A mixture of dirt and water indigenous to the marshes of the South Carolina Lowcountry, with a distinct odor that's endearing to locals, but off-putting to tourists and redcoats. It also happens to be the name of Holy City's American Porter style brew for the Charleston market proper. It presents (and smells) like a classic porter, with subtle chocolate notes and a silky finish, but the medium body and tame ABV (5.5 percent) keep it refreshing at all times. Enjoy this throughout the year, in or out of the marsh.

Slanted Porch Ale

When Holy City needed to add another beer to the line-up, one thing came to mind—historic Charleston and the myriad slated porches plaguing the downtown homes. Because of settling coastal grounds, porches slant as years pass with no rhyme or reason. No two are the same, just like Holy City's Slanted Porch Ale. Just like its namesake, each brew is just a little different. It may be a year-round pale ale, but there is no single recipe that's followed. Best Holy City can do is tell you to expect 5 to 6 percent ABV, ever changing hops, and flavors that will never let you down.

See Brewery

Burial Beer Co.

Skillet Donut Stout

Brewers and besties Doug Reiser and Tim Gormley moved from Seattle to Asheville with plans not only open their own brewery but to live out the rest of their respective lives. To them, the large mountain town suited beer brewing as well as their own lifestyles. When we visited the ambitious and idealistic duo in October 2013, Burial Brewing Co. had only been open four months, and already they weren't able to produce enough beer with their small, self-made brewing system to satisfy demand.

They have plans to build a 20-barrel production facility on farmland nearby. But they want to grow slowly, control quality, and do it all on their, allowing for no outside investment. They're creative, determined, do-it-yourself spirit captures the very essence of Asheville as a cutting-edge beer city.

Pitchfork Saison

Inspired by Burial's future as a farmhouse brewery, this Belgian farmhouse ale is deceivingly complex. With yeast strains cultured from France, this saison boasts a fruity and spicy character as a byproduct of fermentation. Concocted to be malt forward, the high temperature fermentation in this saison imparts raisin and clove flavors and only 28 IBUs at 8 percent ABV.

Skillet Donut

The perfect morning beer sits at home beside a cup of coffee and a chocolate-glazed donut. Just like a well-seasoned skillet, this beer has all the right flavors for just the occasion. Thanks to a healthy dose of nugget hops and milk sugar, 6-row Pale malt from Riverbend Malt House and Brazilian Peaberry coffee from Biltmore Coffee Traders, this stout pairs beautifully with Vortex Doughnut's Rotating Tap Line, which also happens to include a Burial Beer Co. glaze. Be careful of the 7.2 percent ABV however. The sweet creaminess of the beer will quickly trick you.

See Brewery

Mystery Brewing

Evangeline: Saison, 8.1%, Dry Farmhouse Ale with rye, unmalted wheat, Aramis hops and notes of apple, pear, and pineapple

Brewer Erik Lars Myers is a jovial intellectual and his personality is reflected in his beers. Myers's Papa Bois brew is named for the Trinidadian protector of the forest (obviously), and it tastes like espresso with a lemon twist. His German-style sour beer, called Wanderer Moon, is named for a Williams Carlos Williams poem about summer. Relative to other states and in stark contrast to its own strict liquor laws, beer laws are favorable in North Carolina and craft breweries are exploding.

Within that shock wave is the small town of Hillsborough where Myers's Mystery Brewing Company is the brew scene. The brewery is in a large brick warehouse space around the corner from downtown Hillsborough (one street) where Myers's bar attracts locals and day trippers alike to its casual taproom (equal parts game room and library) with an outdoor beer garden in the rear. All the beers on tap change seasonally—proof of Myers's endless fount of creativity—so there's always something new to wet your whistle at Mystery Brewing Company

Langhorne

Mystery's Belgian-style wit puts a twist on the traditional, using rye instead of wheat, which also happens to replace the floral notes of the coriander. Finished with a spice blend that includes blood orange peel, hibiscus flowers, and rose hips, this wit is an easy drinking 3.7 percent ABV and only 15 IBUs. The tanic finish with light tartness from the hibiscus makes you beg for more well the pint starts running low.

Evangeline

A dry farmhouse ale, the Evangeline saison uses a proprietary yeast to bring out apple and pear flavors and spicy phenols. A whort of six grains including un-malted, raw red wheat and malted rye add some pepperiness and light flavors that make this a great refreshing summer beer. Aramis hops bring out 27 IBUs and an adjunct of Demerara sugar helps produce the 8.1 percent ABV.

See Brewery

Deep River Brewing Co.

Deep River Brewing Co.

The fun and flavorful beer varieties at Deep River Brewing Co. in Clayton, North Carolina range from Double D's Watermelon Lager made with Johnston County melons, to their 4042 Milk Stout that's soaked in Videri cocoa nibs to derive its literal chocolateness. Paul Auclair is the brewer and his wife Lynn is the businesswoman behind the beer, but they're both engineers who designed and installed Deep River's massive brew system mostly on their own.

Originally from up-state New York, Paul and Lynn's brewery is Johnston County's first (the county was formerly dry). Shortly after opening their taproom, native Carolinians brought it to the Auclair's attention that Deep River was merely the first LEGAL brewery in the county. The couple quickly and cleverly amended the tagline on their merchandise with a red carrot pointing up to the word "Legal" written in red before "Brewery."

Backcountry Black IPA

Deep River Brewing Company's Backcountry Black IPA is an Imperial Pale Ale that is heavily hopped with five unique varieties. Balanced with a slightly roasty malt backbone, this IPA uses a special blend of Dominican chocolate that doesn't add bitterness during a cold extraction period. A heavy 7.9 percent ABV and 65 IBUs may limit the drinking to one or two, but the rich flavor and texture will let you savor each and every drop.

4042 Stout

Deep River Brewing Company's 4042 is a sweet stout brewed with generous amounts of freshly ground cocoa, chocolate malt and cocoa nibs from local North Carolina chocolatiers. The rich texture and hint of fresh vanilla bean comes in at a low 16 IBU and moderate 6.5 percent ABV. It's basically the best adult black and white milkshake you can find sans a whopping scoop of Sam Mason's ice cream.

See Brewery

Crank Arm Brewing Company

Eat Sleep Bike

We tasted beer directly from the fermentation tanks on the eve of Crank Arm Brewing's opening in the summer of 2013. The brew pub's ESB English-style amber ale (Eat Sleep Bike) was a standout among the cycle-themed beers, with caramel notes and a solid hop backbone. An excellent non-biker beer is the Crank Arm smoked porter Holy Mole, fermented with habaneros, loads of Videri cocoa nibs, and smoked sea salt.

Brew industry veteran Michael Morris loves beer and loves bicycles. Crank Arm's brewery and taproom are united in one grand industrial space adorned with bent-metal bike wall-sculpture, a bike chain bar-backsplash, and wood, cement, and neon-light accents.

Unicycle: Single hop Pale Ale

This crisp American style single hop pale ale is meant to be both enjoyable and educational (to your palate). The malt and hop will stay constant during the year with one catch: Each brew will feature a different hop for bittering, flavor, aroma, and dry hopping. This lets you taste the uniqueness of each hop across the entire season. It's relatively low 4.8 percent ABV skirts the line of sessionable beers, but don't be misled, the balance and drinkability of this beer is wonderful.

Holy Mole Smoke Porter

Inspired by traditional Mexican mole sauce, this Porter is unique. Starting with a medium bodied smoked Porter, the fermentation period kicks this up a notch—adding habañero peppers and some of neighbor Videri Chocolate Factory's cocoa nibs cocoa nibs. It's the perfect balance of chocolate, heat, and smoke that warms you up as the 5.7 percent ABV takes the edge off. If you can manage to wave goodbye, we recommend even marinating a steak in this stuff.

See Brewery

Lonerider Brewing

Brewer Galen Smith brews beers with complexity and depth of flavor and yet from his crisp hefeweizen—with the characteristic banana end-note—to his maple-y marisotter, malt-forward True Britt ESB, the brews are delightfully easy-drinking. Smith's most complex beer is the American-style brown ale Sweet Josie, which requires four different types of malt to produce its fruity-chocolate bar flavor, a profile that the award winning beer is know for. Having opened all the way back in 2009, Lonerider Brewing is practically a grandfather among the prodigious craft brew progeny that have exploded in North Carolina over the last few years, months, days, hours, minutes....

Shotgun Betty: Traditional Hefeweizen

The Shotgun Betty is a German, unfiltered wheat beer brewed with yeast that produces lots of phenols and esters. It features a rich, banana and clove nose with a refreshing dry finish. Think cool, crisp, refreshing on this glass of golden good stuff.

True Britt

True Britt is an ESB session ale that combines spicy hop flavors with a bready malt backbone. Made with heirloom Maris Otter malt this 4.8 percent ABV is easier to drink than expected and offers gentle notes of muscadine grape and maple with a balanced punch of hops.

See Brewery

Raleigh Brewing Company

Raleigh Brew Co.

Kristie and Patrik have found it difficult to keep up with demand for their beer since they opened Mach 9, 2013. During the summer of 2013 they projected exceeding their initial expectations of selling 2,000 to 2,500 barrels in their first year, and are already on 40 different taps throughout Raleigh. Kristie co-owns Raleigh Brewing with her husband Patrick; both are second careerers.

Kristie quit her job in corporate America to plunge head first into the brewing business, while Patrik, an airline pilot, is eager to retire so that they both can focus on their rapidly expanding beer company. The brewery is a pub, too, with plenty outdoor space and has classrooms for beer tasting and seminars. They also consult and sell home and industrial brewing equipment.

Hell Yes Ma'am: Belgium-style Golden

Hell Yes Ma'am is a tribute to Raleigh in the form of a fruity, spicy, pleasantly warming, and dangerously drinkable Belgian Golden. Using premium Belgian Pilsner malt, organic cane sugar, noble hops, and a magnificently complex Belgian yeast gives Golden its dry, kicking complexity. Ringing in at a whopping 9.2 percent ABV makes it a beer to savor, which is good, because it'll take your palate time to find notes of honey and whiskey as the flavor evolves in the glass.

House of Clay Rye IPA

This rye IPA is a tribute to the original buildings of Raleigh's own Shaw University, built with red clay bricks that students made by hand. House of Clay IPA is robust as they come. Four different hops are front and center with the rye bringing it home in a clean, slightly spicy finish. Dry hopped for 5 days brings a nice hoppy nose that's green, powerful, and fresh. Look for floral notes with lots of pollen and powerful aromatics.

See Brewery

Fullsteam Brewery

Cackalacky Ginger Pale Ale, 5%

Durham, North Carolina's Fullsteam Brewery's focus is on creating a Southern style of beer by using exclusively North Carolina ingredients, including malt from Asheville; Carolina corn and sweet potatoes; cacao husks from the expert chocolate makers over at Escazú in Raleigh; regional favorite Cheerwine; and Cackalachy spice.

Brewer Chris Davis's latest beer collaboration was with Chef and Restaurateur Ashley Christensen for her restaurant Beasley's Chicken + Honey. The two worked closely together to develop a hefeweizen to pair perfectly with fried chicken; it's fermented with Teliacherry peppercorns. The downtown Durham brewery space also houses a taproom and large event space with a stage for live music—often bluegrass.

El Toro Cream Ale

El Toro is a true-to-style American Cream Ale, brewed with 100 percent North Carolina barley and corn. Inspired by our home city of Durham, this straw-colored beer is welcoming and unpretentious. A perfect beverage when you "just want a beer." Expect a simply, malty beer balanced with floral goldings hops. And bring an empty belly, cause these go back smooth as glass.

Beasley's Honey White

Brewed in partnership with Chef Ashley Christensen of AC Restaurants in Raleigh, N.C., Beasley's Honey White uses North Carolina honey, oats, and Tellicherry black pepper to give a smooth, rounded mouthfeel and peppery finish. Specifically brewed to pair with fried chicken, and ideally Christensen's honey-drizzled chicken served at Beasley's Chicken + Honey. Expect a menthol sensation to gloriously spread across your mouth and nose before a bouquet of citrus, honey, and balanced notes of pepper consume you.

See Brewery