April is N.C. Beer Month: Celebrate in Orange County
There is nothing better than a properly poured beer. And that first perfectly poured pint of craft beer in Chapel Hill was on Feb. 9, 1995, at The Carolina Brewery.
Brewer Jon Connolly said they chose their present location on the West End of Franklin Street because it contained a wonderful mix of local and independent businesses. “The huge shade trees in the front of the brewery make it a great place to sit outside and enjoy sidewalk dining,” he said. They have a solid portfolio of beers with their most popular one being the Flagship IPA. It is a beer that has garnered awards from not just the NC State Fair but also medaled at the Great American Beer Festival, held yearly in Denver, Colo.
Connolly explained that they make “true to style beers with time honored brewing techniques.” On the day of my visit, I sampled the Super Saaz Imperial Pilsner. Saaz is one of the strains of Noble hops that come from Germany. The hop imparts a mild, earthy yet spicy flavor to the beer but it is balanced out by its 70 IBUs and has a subtle biscuity malt finish.
If Carolina Brewery is the oldest in Orange County, Steel String Brewery in Carrboro surely must be the newest, having only been open almost a year. Eric Knight, the Hoopla Czar for the company, felt Steel String was something “Carrboro needed.”
“We feel at home here,” he said. “Everybody [in the craft beer scene] is so supportive of each other and nobody is stepping on anybody’s toes,” he said explaining that all of the brewers in the county tend to make different styles of beer. Wherein, Carolina Brewery produces European styles and Top of The Hill Brewery & Restaurant (established in 1996) leans more towards English ales (and is the first brewery in the south to serve cask-conditioned program), Knight explained that their hop-forward beers are pleasantly balanced and sessionable. But, said Knight, they do dabble in other seasonal styles like Belgian saisons and altbier, which is a style indigenous to Germany. And if you ask him what his favorite beer is, his answer is going to be, “Whatever is the freshest. Because the fresher the beer the better.”
Another new, albeit small entry into Orange County’s beer scene is Starpoint Brewing, the vision of Tim Harper. “I have lived in Chapel Hill/Carrboro since 1979. I was born in the old Watts Hospital in Durham and grew up in Parkwood. Since then I have traveled around and visited many places. Through this travel experience it is incredibly clear that this is my home,” he opined. Some may recognize him as the soundman for the popular late ‘80s, early ‘90s power pop rock act The Connells (or just as the guy behind the sound board at the Cat’s Cradle).
“The craft of brewing beer is complete satisfaction for me,” said Harper. “The ability to sample and tweak along the way, use the best ingredients, and learn more every day keeps me coming back for more. I learn more by direct experience than anything.”
“I started small—so I could focus solely on the beer and techniques rather than having to commit to running a large business with large debts and large responsibilities,” But he still has big dreams. “My ultimate goal is to build a 20-30 BBL brewhouse with a community taproom and hopefully restaurant amenities as well. At that point the brewery will serve beer fresh from the tanks in the taproom and continue to package and distribute within North Carolina.”
But right now he is content putting his beer in 22 oz. bottles and selling Surfin’ Buddha IPA, Instant Karma Porter and DUH! IPA to local businesses like Weaver Street Market, while occasionally shipping out some kegs to local beer establishments as a guest tap. Harper said that quality and customer satisfaction are most important to him. “There have been some things that didn't work so well the first time, but thankfully people have beared with us and due to that we have had many successes,” he said.
Somewhere between the old guard and the brand newbies is Hillsborough’s Mystery Brewing Company. Mystery maestro (founder, head brewer, CEO) Erik Lars Myers chose the town for two reasons. “Close proximity to highways makes it easier for distribution,” he explained. He also added, “It’s a small town in close to the Triangle which was away from most of the other startup breweries in the area and (I think) has a very high potential for growth.” His beer is currently available in bombers and kegs. “I’m undecided about on six packs,” he said. But claimed he is often tempted on and off about canning his beer.
As for his thoughts on the Orange County beer scene, Myers said, “One of the things that makes Orange County's beer scene unique is that we're not Raleigh and Durham.
“If you look at it, the third point in the Triangle is really a conglomeration of small towns rather than a city. Chapel Hill/Carrboro/Hillsborough/Pittsboro/etc. Altogether, we might make up the population of Durham,” Myers said. Then he added, “Maybe.”
But at the end of the day it comes down to this for him: “It holds an incredibly wide selection of people from college professors to farmhands. With that comes a really diverse set of tastes and preferences, and the breweries grow out of that and learn to serve it. It's a fun place to have a brewery,” said Myers.
And it is a fun place to be a beer aficionado.
We beer lovers aren’t just fortunate to have breweries in the county; there are plenty of spots like Tyler’s Taproom, The Beer Study, TJ’s Beverage and Tobacco, Carrboro Beverage Company & Bottle Shop. Mo’s Bottle Shop in Hillsborough as well Weaver Street Market and Whole Foods (which now serve growlers to go) where you can purchase myriad craft beers.
Greg Barbera, of Chapel Hill, N.C., has been writing about food, music, arts and culture in the Triangle for more than two decades. He was managing editor of Raleigh’s former Spectator Weekly and most recently managing editor of All About Beer Magazine. He has a monthly beer column in Durham’s IndyWeek and regular writes about beer for MadeMan.com.