North Carolina Goes West…and Dominates: The Great American Beer Festival

I made the pilgrimage. I went to The Great American Beer Festival last week in Denver, Colorado.

Of course, it was delicious and fun. Of course, you should go. Of course, I had all the rare beers.

But the experience was also filled with surprises. Three days prior to the festival I was offered a Wicked Weed beer at a barbecue joint in Boulder. Our waiter met my surprise with a cool, “Oh, it’s our third Wicked Weed keg.” Fast forward to a conversation with Certified Cicerone© Chris Westgard of Crafty Beer Guys, and I learn that many breweries around the country opt to distribute in popular beer cities in addition to or sometimes in lieu of local distribution. The delicious, agriculturally-focused Fonta Flora in Morganton practices this distribution method.

[Side note: It’s just another example of how there is no one right way to be in the beer business and the importance of leaving growth and distribution choices to each brewery regardless of production.]

Medals, Medals, and More Medals!

First, the medal count. North Carolina’s success this year is unprecedented. Seventeen and the best Very Small Brewing Company and Brewer of the Year (Brown Truck Brewery in High Point, opened in 2016 and yes the taproom is open daily!)

Seventeen medals. Only three states took home more: California (68), Colorado (38), and Oregon (21), which are home to some of the most popular and experienced breweries in the nation. North Carolina is a major player.

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In the  Charlotte-area, D9 Brewing Company (Cornelius) won Gold for Experimental Beer with Dry Hopped Systema of Naturae – Scuppernong & Lily and NoDa Brewing (Charlotte) won Gold for Herb and Spice Beer with NoDajito.  Suzie Ford, president of NoDa, was particularly excited for NoDajito winning gold, as it “makes us even more excited to get in and put our own twist on traditional styles; that’s what the NoDable Series is all about. Beer is fun and winning for NoDajito, a truly fun beer, reminded us of that.”

It was also a fantastic festival for some of our state’s older breweries, who have paved the way for the Wicked Weeds, Crank Arms, and Birdsongs out there. Foothills Brewing (Winston-Salem) won Bronze for Bohemian-Style Pilsner with Torch Pilsner, Olde Hickory (Hickory) won Gold for Old Ale or Strong Ale with Irish Walker and Silver for Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout with The Event Horizon, and Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery (Farmville) won Silver for Sweet Stout or Cream Stout with the classic Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout.

The Festival Hall: Where the Beer is Poured!

If you’ve not attended, the hall is divided up by regions, except for a Meet the Brewer area (where NoDa was located so participants could talk to Head Brewer Chad Henderson) and an area for state brewery guilds to answer questions about their state’s beer industry and try local beers that didn’t get a spot on the festival hall floor. Executive Director Margo Metzger of the NC Craft Brewers Guild was at the NC table the first night pouring Gibb’s Hundred, Ponysaurus, New Sarum, Wooden Robot, and others who did not have a table on the hall floor.

Now with 780 breweries in the festival hall, grabbing an attendee’s attention is a little like a book cover trying to capture the attention of someone roaming around a Barnes and Nobles. And despite the regional labeling, within regions there seems to be no method for where breweries are set up. For instance, an NC brewery can be found between a Florida and a Georgia brewery, not beside all the other NC breweries.

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So with all this choice and volume, first impressions and visuals mattered. And entertaining brewery names don’t hurt either. Ass Clown (Cornelius) had a significant and continuous line throughout the festival, a small circular brand sign accompanying the generic festival one. Birdsong covered up the generic sign with their big red branded banner and also saw continual business, as did Catawba Brewing with a banner and flags that attracted a steady crowd. Wicked Weed, with reputation in hand, had a branded ranch-style entrance sign, a hanging hop lamp resembling their logo, and two lines consistently 20-yards long to taste regular beers and their hard-to-get sours.

NoDa and The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery were two local breweries with tables but not the branded signage and the lines did appear significantly shorter. The group I was with felt a little bummed because we love these two breweries — the people and the beer — and felt the lack of branding was detrimental to getting more people at the tables. We wondered if it had anything to do with their respective roles with Craft Freedom, opting to keep all branding efforts stateside, but it turns out, at least in NoDa’s case, sometimes a banner just gets left unpacked – accidentally – in the rush to get out to Denver. But we did see the immediate impact of NoDa winning Gold with NoDajito on Saturday morning, as the NoDa traffic increased significantly at the evening’s imbibe session.

But What About Our Other Breweries?

There were 1,752 breweries in the competition and 780 tables. So most breweries were not lucky enough to snag a spot to pour to the public. This helps explains why Legion, Triple C, D9 Brewery, and our other breweries may not have had tables in the hall. But don’t feel too bad, while consuming all the beer, mere enthusiasts can forget that the festival is also an industry gathering place for brewers and industry folk to learn and connect. I ran into Legion brewer Alexa Long at the festival who beamed over the fact that she had been able to meet with so many other brewers, attend special tastings, and expand her network and knowledge. So while I was hoping to see her pouring her beer to attendees, it proved a proud moment to know our local brewers were engaging and networking with change-makers and influencers in the $22.3 billion-dollar craft beer industry.

Final Thoughts

This was just a small slice of the whole experience. The cheese, the hands-on learning opportunities, the Draught Quality Summit — did I mention the cheese? It is a fantastic three-day event. And for those planning to go next year, as you might imagine, each night gets a bit rowdier, more volunteers and less brewery staff at tables, more costumes, more daytime pre-gaming the event. For those who homebrew or are into sensory experiences, follow the Brewers Association and Cicerone© organization. The big guys and gals are all there, happily willing to chat.

But my main takeaway is that North Carolina is a craft beer state. I encourage you to all check out a few breweries this coming weekend and say, “Thank you.” They did us proud.

Beth Salyers is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. She can be reached at salyers.beth@gmail.com

Birdsong Brewing to expand into Western North Carolina market

Birdsong Brewing Charlotte

Birdsong Brewing

We get so much good Asheville beer here in Charlotte that it only seems fair to share. Birdsong Brewing just announced in a press release their plans to distribute into Western North Carolina via an agreement with Skyland Distributing Company.

While the brewery plans to continue self-distributing its beer locally, they have partnered with Skyland to distribute their beers primarily in the Asheville area (and in counties west of Gaston Co. as well). In the press release, brewery manager Chris Goulet described the move as “a natural extension of our brand in an area that feels like a second home to us.”

Indeed, the brewery’s name came after Goulet and his wife mistook head brewer Conor Robinson’s snores for birdsong while staying at a hostel in Asheville (learn how other Charlotte breweries got their names here).

Of course, the city is seen as one of the best beer markets in the state. Birdsong will join that market in May, when kegs of their most popular beers — including Free Will Pale Ale, Lazy Bird Brown Ale and Jalapeño Pale Ale — begin hitting bars. Cans of those last two will make their way to Asheville as well, and some of the breweries seasonals should follow later.

New Bottles from Unknown Brewing Co. and Birdsong Brewing

We’re halfway through October, which means Halloween is just a couple weeks away. If you’re going to release a beer imploring people to murder clowns, now’s the time to do it.

Or at least that’s the tongue-in-cheek message behind The Unknown Brewing Co.’s latest bottle release, “Rise Against Clowns.” The beer is inspired by founder Brad Shell’s hatred for clowns. No, not a fear — this is a brewery whose mantra it is to encourage others to face their fears. We’re talking a serious disdain here.

That’s why Shell teamed up with Florida’s 7venth Sun Brewing to brew Rise Against Clowns, a barrel-aged sour beer brewed with blood oranges and floss sugar (which is what’s used to create cotton candy). The beer is fermented completely with Brettanomyces, a wild yeast that can contribute tart or funky flavors. In a press release, the brewery summed the resulting beer up thusly:

“The blood oranges give it a pop of citrus flavor and the cotton candy gets fermented out leaving a subtle vanilla finish. The end result is like a Brett orange creamsicle.”

Unknown Brewing Rise Against Clowns

Wax-dipped bottles of the beer will be available in the taproom starting today (Thursday, Oct. 15). Nose-spiked knife and cymbal-banging monkey, however, are not included.

But if it’s monkeys you want, you’re in luck. Today Birdsong Brewing is releasing the latest in its Take Flight series, Mongeese on Monkeys. The beer is an imperial version of the brewery’s Lazy Bird Brown Ale that has aged in barrels that once held Muddy River Distillery’s Queen Charlotte’s Rum. Bottles are $14, and there is a four-bottle limit per person.

Mongeese on Monkeys

Birdsong Brewing and Hi-Wire Brewing collaborate on “Bird on a Wire”

Hi-Wire and Birdsong Bird on a Wire Collaboration

Last month, Birdsong Brewing’s Conor Robinson made the drive up to Asheville to brew a collaboration beer with Hi-Wire Brewing. That beer — a peated Wee Heavy ale called “Bird on a Wire” — will be released at both breweries this Friday, March 13. They will retail for $8 a 22-ounce bottle, with a two-bottle limit per person.

Employees from the two breweries met last year at the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver. Robinson and Luke Holgate, the head brewer at Hi-Wire, were at Great Divide Brewing Co. discussing what they had learned at their seminars when they realized they had very similar brewing styles. They even talked of doing a collaboration, though at the time it was more of a joke since both breweries were at capacity and doing everything they could to brew their own beers.

A few months ago, though, the breweries got back in touch and decided it was time to revisit the idea of a collaboration beer. Both Robinson and Holgate are Scotch drinkers, and so the decision to brew a Wee Heavy — and  especially one with some peaty notes — was an easy one.

The beer will be on draft and available in bottles at 4:30 p.m. this Friday when Birdsong opens their doors. It will also hit local accounts closer to Charlotte Craft Beer Week, which runs March 20-28.

Birdsong Brewing Celebrates Three Years

Birdsong Brewing is hard at work on their new facility, but that won’t stop them from throwing one last anniversary celebration at the current brewery this weekend. They will celebrate their three-year anniversary with three days filled with special beers.

It all starts this Friday, when they tap Puppies on Penguins at 4:30 p.m. You might remember from last year that Puppies on Penguins is the brewery’s Belgian abbey ale, The Pride, that has been aged with cherries in red wine barrels. That one has some age on it, and a fresh batch of The Pride will be on as well. Then at 7:30 p.m., they will tap Nighthawk Postcards, which is a sour-mash stout brewed with raspberries.

On Saturday at noon, they will tap a bourbon barrel-aged version of their St. Tuber Abbey Ale. I had this one last year, and it was fantastic. It’s as fitting an “end to fall” beer as you’ll find. At 5 p.m. on Saturday, they will tap a red wine barrel-aged MexiCali Stout.

And then on Sunday, they’ll tap 2012 and 2013 versions of The Pride, so that you can compare them with this year’s batch. Not only that, but in addition to their Pride, they’re also tapping Joy –a beer brewed with the second runnings of The Pride, and then fermented with muscadines and Brettanomyces.

The Birdsong crew shared some of these details and talked about the new building on the latest episode of Cheers Charlotte.

Upcoming Bottles (and Cans) from Charlotte Breweries

Several Charlotte breweries will be releasing new bottles and cans in the weeks to come, which is perfect timing for anyone wishing to share some local beer over Thanksgiving dinner or give a bottle or two to someone for Christmas.

Be on the lookout for the following beer releases:

  • Tuesday, Nov. 11: Fresh off the heels of releasing The Force and The Dude Imbibes, Triple C Brewing will waste no time getting their next bottles out. They have bottle their White Blaze winter ale for the first time, and you can pick up bottles at the taproom starting on Tuesday (they will soon be in area bottle shops). This winter seasonal is brewed with cinnamon and vanilla beans.
  • Thursday, Nov. 13: Birdsong Brewing will release “Turtles on Pterodactyls,” the third in the brewery’s Take Flight series. Last year, they put some of their popular MexiCali Stout in bourbon barrels, where it’s been aging for the last 11 months. They’ll blend this aged beer with a little of this year’s MexiCali Stout and throw some more cinnamon and cocoa nibs in for good measure. The bottles will be released at 4:30 p.m. this Thursday, with a four-bottle limit per person. It will be on draft as well.
  • Saturday, Nov. 15: Their White Blaze might be new to bottles, but this will be the third year that Triple C Brewing has sold bottles of Up All Night Breakfast Porter. This beer is brewed with chocolate malt, flaked oats, honey and lactose before being aged on coffee beans from Charlotte’s Magnolia Coffee. They will sell bottles starting at noon on Saturday, Nov. 15, and this year they are also offering some package deals. You can get two bottles of this year’s Up All Night plus a Teku glass for $30, or a bottle each of 2013 and 2014 Up All Night and a glass for $32 (these Teku glasses, which you can see here, are $10 by themselves).
  • Tuesday, Nov. 18: NoDa Brewing’s Coco Loco Porter is hardly new, having been a popular beer at the brewery since they opened their doors three years ago. But next week, you’ll be able to find this medal-winning porter in cans. It will be the brewery’s fourth canned beer, following in the footsteps of Hop Drop ‘n Roll, Jam Session and CAVU Blonde Ale.
  • Friday, Nov. 21: The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery will release Dunkel, its winter seasonal. They brewed this dark lager earlier this year and have had it on tap at the brewery, but now fans of the beer will be able to grab six-packs.

Remember, Remember, the First of November

First-November-Slider

“Remember, remember, the first of November: new breweries, beers and whatnot.
I know of no reason why this wonderful season should ever be forgot”. 

With apologies to Guy Fawkes, you’ll want to remember the first of November. Start your morning off at NoDa Brewing for their bottle release of Monstro, an imperial stout aged in Van Winkle Special Reserve bourbon barrels, at 10 a.m. Saturday morning. A food truck will be selling breakfast, which will be crucial for anyone drinking an 11.2 percent stout that early in the day.

Then head to Unknown Brewing for their own release of “La Jordana del Escorpion en Fuego Hacia la Casa del Chupacabra Muerto,” a 10.1 percent ABV Mexican imperial lager brewed with agave nectar, serrano peppers and 99 real scorpions. From 1-3 p.m., they will have a Mariachi band playing and free “Day of the Dead” face painting. Juan Taco will be parked outside. EDIT: The weekend just got a little less busy. Unknown has moved this bottle release to Sunday, Nov. 9, which is also the day they are hosting a chili cookoff. Bottles go on sale at 12:30 p.m., and you can start sampling chili around 2 p.m.

While you’re in SouthEnd, you’ll want to move on down to Sycamore Brewing, which will open their doors from 2-9 p.m. (I’ll have a little more on what you can expect next week).

Sycamore’s neighbors at Triple C Brewing will also be hosting their Harvest Fest and oyster roast. Tickets are $25, which includes one beer, oysters, and a $5 donation to Friendship Gardens. The Josh Daniel/Mark Schimick Project will play from 5-8 p.m. ,with oysters at 6 p.m.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. On Halloween night, The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery will tap Fat Boy Baltic Porter and host a Halloween costume contest. Bottles of a barrel-aged version will be released in January, when a breakfast and bottle share will accompany the release.

Also on Halloween, Birdsong Brewing will tap Mexicali Stout, its fall/winter seasonal brewed with cinnamon, chili spice and coffee from Charlotte’s Central Coffee Co.

Birdsong Brewing to release “Eat A Peach” on July 17

Birdsong Brewing Eat A Peach Release Party

Birdsong Brewing will host a release party for their summer seasonal Eat A Peach Pale Ale at the taproom from 4:30-10 p.m. on Thursday, July 17. The beer was so popular that it lasted but a fortnight last year, so the Birdsong gang has brewed twice as much this year. The base beer is a pale ale, to which the brewery added 300 pounds of peaches from Barbee Farms in Concord.

At the release party, DJ Jason Herring will be playing music and the Tin Kitchen food truck will be parked outside. The beer will be distributed to bars and restaurants starting the following week.

Birdsong Brewing Signs Lease on New Location

Birdsong Brewing Charlotte NC

After just two and a half years, Birdsong Brewing has outgrown their current space at 2315 North Davidson Street. As a result, they have signed a lease on a larger location just down the road at 1016 North Davidson near the McGill Rose Garden.

The brewery has experienced a 300 percent growth in production since opening in December of 2011, and the 17,000-square-foot building, coupled with a new 30-barrel Premier Stainless brewhouse, will allow them to better keep up with demand.

This will be a much larger operation than their current space, which is only 4,600 square feet and contains a 10-barrel brewhouse. Automating some of the brewing process will allow them to brew three times as much beer in a day with fewer labor hours.

Construction on the new space starts in July, and they hope to start brewing there this fall, with a new taproom to follow later in 2014. Until then, you can continue to visit Birdsong’s current location at 2315 North Davidson.

In 2012, the brewery produced 740 barrels of beer. In 2015, they hope to reach a capacity of 5,400 barrels a year.

The additional space and fermentation capacity will also allow head brewer Conor Robinson to brew new beers, or to possibly turn some popular seasonal selections into year-round offerings. And while Birdsong has aged beers in barrels before, their new space will allow them more room for a dedicated barrel-aging program. They also plan to start packaging their beers in the future.

This news comes on the same day that Birdsong’s next-door neighbors, NoDa Brewing, announced they would be looking for an additional location and eventually installing their own canning line (Land of the Sky Mobile Canning currently cans their beer for them). Meanwhile The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery is hard at work on their new location, which they plan to open to the public on July 19.

Charlotte Breweries Roll Out the Barrels

My editor at The Charlotte Observer, Kathleen Purvis, just published, “Bourbon: A Savor the South Cookbook.” If that’s not a good enough reason to write about barrel-aged beers, I don’t know what is.

Please head over to the Observer to read my piece on bourbon barrel-aged beers in Charlotte, and to check out my “Sip of the Week.”

Also, apologies that I haven’t been quite as active here as usual. I’ve been hard at work on another book, “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas,” which will be published in March of next year.