Photo by Jesse Kiser
I like beer — me and Tom T. Hall and about 150 million other Americans who just can’t get enough of that wonderful stuff.
And there are as many kinds of beer as there are beer drinkers: American style, light and yellow, sucked from icy cans; crisp Mexican beers that work with chunks of lime; Englsh ales; Irish stouts; Belgian whites; African black beer and Asian beer made from rice. It ranks just behind tea and water on a list of the world’s most popular beverages, and it has been made, in one form or another, since roughly 3000 BC. Even here in North Carolina, a state with fairly strict alcohol regulation and six dry counties, we have a fairly thriving beer culture, a holdover, perhaps, from the days when moonshine dripped from stills out in the woods and its runners tore up country roads before organizing and competing on oval tracks in stock cars. Local craft beers abound right here in the Piedmont Triad, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a tavern that doesn’t stock at least a few brands of our regional brews.
And on Saturday afternoon, at the Summertime Brews Fest, you’ll be able to try them all, along with almost 200 other beers from all over the world.
Part I: Tradition Beer has been made pretty much the same way for eons, a process that breaks down grain and converts the starches into alcohol through fermentation. But within that basic scheme lay thousands of variables in ingredients, technique and process. You can make beer with corn or rice; you can introduce hops in varying species and degrees for bitterness; you can artificially carbonate or tinker with alcohol content. These days, people even add flavors like fruit and spice to beer, hence all that pumpkin gingerbread nonsense come holiday time. But the Germans set the template for beermaking in 1516, when the Reinheitsgebot was enacted in the duchy of Bavaria. At its heart it was consumer protection law, regulating the price of beer within the city and the trade of its ingredients, should they become scarce. But also it dictated what those ingredients could be. It reads: “[T]he only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.” This law, also known as the German Purity Law, was repealed in 1987 because, c’mon… wheat beer? But most German breweries still adhere to them, as does the Red Oak Brewery, located just off Interstate 40/85 in Whitsett.
The Red Oak company began as a Greensboro restaurant in 1979, has morphed into a brewpub by 1991 and now survives strictly as a brewing facility. From the beginning its intent was to create only lagers, the most popular beers in the world — and one of the most expensive to produce. “Lager” in German literally means “to store,” and lagers, which use slow-acting yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol, must ferment longer than ales, under cooler conditions, resulting in a light body and clean taste.
Brewmaster Chris Buckley, who was trained and educated in Germany, also says the beers are unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated.
“All the goodness stays in the beer,” he says. “You can’t selectively filter a liquid.” He’s leading a tour through his brewery on the side of the highway, an ultra-modern, ultra-clean facility dedicated to this ancient art. “Keep in mind,” an old codger in a Hawaiian shirt says, “beer is very nourishing.”
Indeed it is — with pretty much the same ingredients as bread, two pints of Red Oak contains no preservatives, no chemicals and a slew of B vitamins.
The signature beer, Red Oak, is an old-style Munich lager made with malted barley and hops imported from Germany. The barley is kilned, or heated, until it’s barely toasted, aiding in its deep red hue. Yellow beers, like the Hummin’bird, are made from barley that’s kilned just until it’s dry. Dark ones, like Battlefield Bock, use barley that’s dark-roasted like coffee, though the roasting process removes all the sugar; the addition of lighter barley to the mash enables fermentation and ups the alcohol content.
Mash is simply malted barley and water, cooked at 145 degrees and slowly raised to 170, converting the starches in the grain into fermentable sugars in a mash tank. In the lautering tun, liquid is separated from solid. The wet barley goes to feed a herd of Black Angus cattle owned by the brewery, and the liquid, known as wort, goes into a kettle to boil for 90 minutes. At this juncture, hops — basically small, green flowers — are added for bitterness and as a natural preservative. Next the mixture goes into a whirlpool where tangential force pushes residues and proteins out of the beer, and then it’s into the fermentation tanks, where yeast is introduced and, eventually, the whole thing becomes beer. Buckley says the brewery is concentrating on its three core beers, with no plans for seasonal blends or high-octane brews in the foreseeable future.
“These are session beers,” he says. “That’s what beer is meant to be — something you can use all night, socialize, relax. I don’t think brewers should be in competition with the moonshine guys.”
Part II: I drink it up
Natty Greene’s brewpub stands on the corner of Elm and McGee streets in downtown Greensboro, a large corner structure nestled by the railroad tracks. When it opened in August 2004, it was credited with fueling a downtown resurgence that still continues to this day. Things happened quick at Natty Greene’s, starting off with five core beers which quickly expanded to a vast array of seasonal choices.
Tonight there are 12 beers to choose from, and I’m gonna try them all. Bartender Kelly Crump sets me up with tasting glasses, three at a time, and I sample earnestly.
Hessian Hefe-Weizen is a what beer, a bit cloudy, with a medium body and notes of banana, accented by an orange wedge in the glass. The Wildflower Witbier, also a wheat beer, is similarly light and soft. The Patriot Extra Pale Ale grabs my palate — hoppy and bitter, with a smooth finish, everything an EPA should be. Second round sees the Full Moon Lager, Cannonball Double IPA and Elm Street IPA. IPA is an India Pale Ale, a product of 18th-century Britain, designed to survive a long ocean voyage from London, around Africa, to Bombay by virtue of high alcohol and hop content. But the real winner is the Full Moon, fermented, Crump tells me, for an entire lunar cycle, bringing up the alcohol content and producing a bold, malty and sharp brew. Flight three includes Slam Dunkelweizen, Old Town Brown and Buckshot Amber. The brown and amber beers anchor the brewery’s core beer menu, and the Old Town Brown won a silver medal at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival. They’re good beers, but the Slam Dunkelweizen is the most interesting, with notes of pineapple and clove It’s approaching sunset now, and the brewpub is in full swing. Downstairs, late afternoon tables sip the craft beers while the upstairs barroom is fairly bursting with happy-hour sippers watching the Olympics on big televisions. Racecar driver Bobby
Labonte walks past, causing my intern to jump in his barstool. My friend Donnie Heath occupies a barstool in front of a TV set, with a pint of Buckshot before him. It’s all he drinks here. “I tried it,” he says, “I loved it and I kept drinking it. I didn’t sample them all, I just chose well.”
Part III: The pro
“I haven’t really been talking about it,” he says, but he reveals that the donor was the girlfriend of an employee. Bartholomaus came to Winston-Salem to open the brewery and restaurant in 2005 after working at Blind Man Ales in Athens, Ga. Before that he was a home brewer.
As the story goes, he had hooked up with a guy who owned a brewing supply store, a friend and mentor who soon found himself as a professional brewer when Blind Man opened.
The lager tanks at Red Oak Brewery are racked horizontally, allowing detritus to settle in the bottom as the beer goes through fermentation, explains Brewmaster Chris Buckley. (Photo by Brian Clarey)
“He quickly became overwhelmed,” Bartholomaus says. “He had never worked in a brewery ever. “We figured it out together. I didn’t get paid, but I was there thirty hours a week. They paid me in beer.” At home Bartholomaus made batches of five or ten gallons. Here at Foothills, he makes batches of 450 gallons, or 15 barrels, in a set-up cobbled together from auctions, failed breweries and internet sales.
For a newer brewery, Foothills makes a lot of beers. Their seven-item core beer menu includes Torch Pilsner, earthy and spicy with German and Czech hops; Rainbow Trout ESP (that’s extra-special bitter); and Seeing Double IPA, which boasts 9.5 percent alcohol by volume and a strong, malty taste. “I prefer making seasonal beers,” he says. “The high gravity stuff, anything off the wall. My creative side kind of gets off on it.” Like last year for Valentine’s Day, when he created Sexual Chocolate, a cocoa-infused imperial stout with flavors of espresso, molasses and dark plum. A limited bottling of 500 units sold out, he says, in 49 minutes.
Tomorrow, he says, they break out the Foothills Oktoberfest beer. “It’s ready,” he says. “It has to age at least six weeks. I try to get eight weeks.”
It’s an old-school amber — a lot of German breweries now make yellow beer for Oktoberfest, but it all used to be darker — following the 1516 purity laws. Nine varieties of barley give it character; Hallertau, German Pearl and Northern German Brewer hops add the bite, and last year the beer made it to the second round of competition at the Great American Beer Fest. “It’s malty, not hoppy,” he says. “And I prefer a little caramel sweetness.”
He pinches out a taste for me, and I agree.
Ziemba’s home-brewing set-up came together over several years, and he
constantly makes tweaks to the hardware. It occupies an honored place
in his Greensboro garage, where the Battleground Brewers home-brewing
club meets monthly.
Part IV: The hobbyists
On a recent Saturday morning, the members of the
Battleground Brewers Club meet in the garage of Jeff Ziemba just off
Lake Jeannette Drive in Greensboro with the stated goal of tasting all
the beers — 17 of them — submitted for Saturday’s beer festival.
“We’re a very active club,” says President Rick Cockcroft, a trace of Afrikaans in his accent. “In this room there are at least four board members.”
Ziemba’s converted the garage into a brewing kitchen, with different barley strains in airtight containers, two refrigerators, a cold keg box and another cold chest surrounding lawn tools, bicycles and Boogie boards. On a wooden frame he’s installed his brewing apparatus made from sliced metal kegs and a goodly amount of hardware. “It starts as a hobby,” he says. “This is an obsession. I’d much rather be here than out on the golf course.”
The club began in 2000, according to Mac Wylie, one of the founding brewers. “I struggled with my beers for twelve years,” he says. Wylie and another founder were members of the American Home Brewers Association, he says, “and we asked them, ‘Are there any other brewers around here?’ We wanted to start a club. [Before then] I would send beers off to national competitions and feed off the input from those judges, and that was just once a year. Then I started this club, and talking with other guys, you get ideas. With a club you can get input every month.”
Every month they get together share a meal and some beers and talk about… you know… beer. “We have a theme every month,” says Phil Luzwick, another member, “whether it’s to discuss different hops varieties, grains… it’s not just drinking beer.”
is, however, a good bit of beer drinking involved. In his garage,
Ziemba’s serving a cream ale, knocked off from the Genesee Cream Ale he
drank as a youth in upstate New York.
“It’s a light, crisp ale,” he says. “[It’s] cheap, easy to make, a good
summer neighborhood favorite. I use corn, corn sugar… it’s not a
hop-dominant beer. All you’re trying to do is balance out the
He’s also crafted an American wheat, a raspberry wheat and a Gaelic brew, stored in soda-syrup cans and pumped into tiny plastic glasses.
After a quick couple pops, the club’s judges make for the barroom Ziemba’s built in a front room of his house: hunting club green walls, tall tables, mirrors and shelves, a huge collection of beer bottles and a slew of ribbons the club has won in beer competitions.
Cockcroft pops open a summer ale. “It’s all about flavor rather than style,” he charges the judges. “We don’t care what the style is.” The summer brew is a winner.
“This will make a real good addition to it,” says judge Jim Smith after a taste. “People will like this. That’s got a taste in it that’s really pleasant.”
“Lemon zest,” Cockcroft says. “Lemon zest is good,” Smith says. Next comes another light brew, one of Ziemba’s redolent of watermelon.
“I tried to put some Jolly Ranchers in a glass of water for flavor,” he says. “It didn’t work.” So he relied on watermelon extract for the taste.
“Are there any infections? Any funky flavors?” Cockcroft wants to know. Nope, and it is cleared for the festival. And so it goes: A beer made with Mountain Dew, a Belgian brown that comes close to exclusion due to a bit of fink in the finish; a boozy Old English ale. “We’re gonna test your tastebuds with this one,” Cockcroft says as he pours a dark draft into tiny glasses.
“It tastes like a Mounds bar,” says Mike Andrews. “That’s what I was shooting for,” Smith says of his toasted coconut porter. “We don’t have to satisfy a million people,” says Wylie. “We just have to satisfy ourselves.”
The last beer is the creation of Derick Schuler: a jalapeo-tequila gold ale. “I used fresh jalapeos from the garden, soaked in tequila,” he says. “I used tequila to get the jalapeo flavor out.” The beer is crisp and light, with a muted, but very evident, bite of pepper at the finish. It sounds crazy, but the club judges agree it is absolutely fantastic.
Last year the Battleground Brewers sent five beers to the festival. “Well,” Cockroft says, “that’s seventeen beers in our club, and every one is acceptable.”
“Does this conclude the business portion of the meeting?” Ziemba asks. “Can we just drink beer now?”
To comment on this story e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.