Brew & A
Meet the brewmasters from Charlotte’s newest breweries
By Matt McKenzie
Charlotte has become a hotspot for craft breweries over the last few years. In just the past fourteen months, four—NoDa Brewing Company, Birdsong Brewing Company, Triple C Brewing Company, and Heist Brewery—have joined Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, Four Friends Brewing Company, and Ass Clown Brewing Company to provide a host of local libations to the community.
Charlotte breweries offer fresh options to those who prefer a distinct and more innovative brew. And local breweries are also getting nationwide recognition: NoDa and Olde Mecklenburg Brewery each captured silver medals in separate categories at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival in Denver, marking the first time a Charlotte-based brewery has medaled at the GABF in twenty years.
We had a chance to sit down with Charlotte’s newest brewmasters to get their takes on the local craft brew scene, working together to increase awareness, and what’s in store for the future. —Matt McKenzie
Chad Henderson, 28 (NoDa Brewing Company)
Favorite beer from your brewery: It’s not available yet, but it’s tentatively called Ménage a Quad and we’ll release it on Valentine’s Day. It’s a red wine barrel-aged Belgian quad that’s 11 percent alcohol. It’s going to be such a good beer.
Favorite other local beer: I’m going to have to say Captain Jack Pilsner from Olde Mecklenburg. They nailed it on that one.
Scott Kimball, 28 (Triple C Brewing Company)
Favorite beer from your brewery: It depends on my mood. Right after work I’ll have the Golden Boy Blonde Ale. I probably drink Greenway IPA the most, but if I’m having dinner, it’s the Smoked Amber.
Favorite other local beer: NoDa’s Hop Drop ’n Roll. I’m such an IPA fan and I really dig that.
Conor Robinson, 24 (Birdsong Brewing Company)
Favorite beer from your brewery: My (yet to be named) Belgian Dubbel, which I’m currently brewing.
Favorite other local beer: Triple C’s Smoked Amber.
Zach Hart, 42 (Heist Brewery)
Favorite beer from your brewery: I2PA. That’s my baby. I originally made it for me and said, “If nobody drinks this, I’ll drink it all to myself.”
Favorite other local beer: I like several from NoDa, probably their Hop, Drop ’n Roll the most. I’m a hophead.
Describe your personal brewing style.
Chad Henderson, NoDa Brewing Company: In my opinion, beer can be pretty much anything you want it to be. That being said, I came up in the beer industry with the enthusiasm for beers that were exciting and different, and that’s where my brewing techniques and outlook kind of developed. Ultimately, what we do here at NoDa is try to make all beers referable to something that craft beer enthusiasts recognize as a style, and even those not into craft beer can still get an idea of what they’re about to drink.
Scott Kimball, Triple C Brewing Company: It’s purely American. American brewing has its roots in England, Belgium and Germany, and it’s just gone from there. I just turned twenty-eight and I came up drinking these great craft beers. Craft beer has been on the rise, and that’s really all I’ve done.
Conor Robinson, Birdsong Brewing Company: I would say my brewing style is based on balance and simplicity. I don’t like to have one aspect of a beer overpower all others; I like to have them all work together to create a delicious beer.
Zach Hart, Heist Brewery: Even though I like to think I’m not that old, I’m a traditionalist. I really like traditional pale ales, reds, porters … and then I like to put my little spin on them to make them a little bit better. Just ramp it up a little bit to make something come out that might not be in every beer.
How do you decide what beers to brew?
Henderson: Both (NoDa owner Todd Ford) and I were avid homebrewers … so we had a catalog of twelve beers we could be really proud of, going after those where you said, “You don’t see anything like this here.” Coco Loco, for instance—we knew we wanted to do that. It was kind of unique. Everything just kind of fell into place after that … and then we really like doing the small batch of brews that come out every Tuesday.
Kimball: We started with five beers and three of them are pretty hoppy—the pale ale, the IPA, and the double IPA. We’re all hopheads and we love hoppy beer. But 90 percent of beer sold is still mass-produced, really easy-to-drink beer. So I wanted to not knock anybody’s socks off right out of the gate and still have really unique flavor.
Robinson: We brewed quite a bit of different beers trying to figure out which one would fit our target market best. … After all of the trial and error, the thing that seemed to set us apart was how drinkable our beers were. So we decided that when we opened we weren't going to stick with any one particular regional style, but instead brew any style we wanted as long as it was easy to drink.
Hart: Thankfully, I’ve been doing this since ’96 … so in the last twelve years I’ve kind of figured out what everyone likes to drink. When I said yes (to the job at Heist), I pretty much had the basic beers that we wanted. I’m also planning on doing some different seasonals down the road.
For those who are new to the craft beer scene, what are the benefits of drinking local? What sets you apart?
Henderson: When you’re enjoying a local craft beer, you have a lot more control factors that you can get rid of when you buy beer off the shelf that came from several states away. You know it’s been made fresh … and craft beer has personality. That’s what makes it craft—you can taste the background, taste the story. That makes it more of a full experience to drink.
Kimball: The No. 1 thing is freshness. You can’t beat coming to our brewery and having a beer that was kegged a week ago. We have a pretty strict three-month guideline with our kegs to make sure nothing has been out there too long. Also, we’re using the finest ingredients … whereas your mass produced beers don’t provide that kind of flavor.
Robinson: I think that we have good reason to drink local now more than we ever had before. We have so much variety in the Charlotte craft beer market that almost any kind of beer that you like is being brewed at a local brewery. … We have craft beer bars and bottle shops opening all over the place and the existing ones are expanding and becoming even better.
Hart: I think brewers here locally are understanding what the local people like to drink. And that’s what we want to make and do a good job at it. Local is also incredible because it’s fresh. The born-on date, we don’t even need that because the beer is gone so quick. It’s like good food—do you want a steak that’s been in your fridge for four days and already been cooked, or put a fresh one on the grill?
Even though there are a number of Charlotte breweries, it never seems like it’s a competition between everyone, but more of a camaraderie. Why is that?
Henderson: I tell a lot of people, what syncs people into craft beer isn’t just the beer—it’s the community of the industry itself. People who support it are such a good community of friends and are so helpful. Even though on paper, black and white—yes, we make the same product and sell to the same bars—but our competition is Bud, Miller, or Coors. If we can knock off a “Big 3” tap handle, that’s success for us. If one of us does well, it helps the others out. There’s plenty of tap space in the Charlotte area for the breweries we have and others to come.
Kimball: I would say we’re good friends with all the other breweries. We’re one of the newest on the block and everyone has been super friendly, and I hope that I’ve been able to come in here and help with my brewing experience. We also own our little niche and style, so there’s not really direct competition.
Robinson: I actually don’t see this as being a local phenomenon, but more of a national one. This is something we figured out very quickly in doing research for the brewery. Everyone was willing to share information about how they do things. … I just don’t think there is any reason for us not to be friendly, especially when you have a brewery right across the street. We both do each other favors and try to collaborate as much as possible because we can only benefit from it.
Hart: We’re all on the same team. The craft beer market relies on each other because we’re only a small percentage of beer sales. If we all have good beer, it’s going to bring the regulars who drink Miller, Bud, and Coors saying, “Hey, that wasn’t that bad.” So at least they’re trying it, and hopefully they’ll try someone else’s beer.
Why do you think Charlotte has developed as a strong market for local breweries?
Henderson: Everyone has a different reason they want to attribute it to, but I think it’s really just been the right timing in Charlotte. … The palates here have changed and evolved, and another reason is that you have an influx of people from so many other areas, where they come from established beer-centric places.
Kimball: I think a lot of it, at least coming from other parts of the country, it seems that the economy is doing a little better in Charlotte. People here can not only afford but also want to drink better beer. North Carolina is such a good craft beer state but Charlotte was a little behind the times, and that’s definitely one of the main reasons I moved here from my brewing job in Colorado—because it was such a good opportunity.
Robinson: I am somewhat surprised that the Charlotte craft beer scene has taken so long to ignite since it is one of the more progressive cities in the state (but) on the other hand I am not considering that the NASCAR presence in this city promotes more macro beer sales. I think that there are a lot of factors that led to the growth of the Charlotte craft beer scene, but I think they are all centered around education. Places like Duckworth’s, Brawley’s, Vintner, Common Market, and Mac’s have done a lot to promote the Charlotte beer scene over the years … if there is anyone to thank, it is definitely them.
Hart: I think the main question I had when I visited in the ‘90s was, “How can Charlotte not be a player?” And I can’t give you an answer to that, but I’m glad it’s happening now (laughs). I think people now know what they want and are after the bigger and better beers.
In your opinion, what is the future of Charlotte’s brewery scene?
Henderson: I think it’s only going to grow. Like every business, there’s going to be a plateau—it’s inevitable. But we’ve got a ways to climb and hopefully when we reach that plateau, we’ll have reached a brewing content and quality that won’t negatively affect everybody. The breweries that are here are on solid ground and I see 2013 as a major growth year for us and all the breweries in the Charlotte area.
Kimball: I’m a big fan of canning, so for us at Triple C, I’d hope that’s somewhere down the road. It’s better for the environment; it’s better for the beer because you can take it anywhere, which you can’t always do with glass. And the craft beer movement in general is getting so exciting with more incorporation of local ingredients and people making bigger, better beers.
Robinson: I think the future for breweries in Charlotte is going to be big. I think there is definitely room for growth among the existing breweries as well as for the addition of new breweries. It seems like every day I hear of someone else looking to start a brewery here. Having just returned from Denver for the Great American Beer Festival and seeing how many breweries were in such a small area, I have no doubt that Charlotte can do the same.
Hart: Hopefully, there will be several more breweries and brewpubs opening up here and I hope that it drives people to come out and try Heist, NoDa, Birdsong, Olde Meck. Things are only looking up here, and I like that.