Friday, June 17, 2011

Our Beer Tour/Research Trip: Days One & Two

My business partner Dawnya and I recently took a little vacation (ahem… research excursion) throughout the northeast US in an effort to visit as many breweries, beer bars, hops farms and bottle shops as possible, to talk to folks in the industry, gather as much information as we could and then return with some ideas and concepts for Haw River Farmhouse Ales, the small craft brewery we plan to open Memorial Day 2012. Before we left, I shot emails to most of the places on our list, so we didn't just end up popping in unannounced. Most folks got back in touch before we split, and we ended up getting the chance to talk to a range of talented, fascinating people over our two-week travels.

One happy traveler.
Over the next couple weeks, I'll be posting daily summaries of our trip, including the places we stopped by, the great people we spoke with and the fantastic beers we tried, and then reiterating some of the aspects of the businesses that impressed us, including ideas we had that may work well for what we have planned with Haw River Farmhouse Ales. This will hopefully give you, our newest fans, a better idea of what we're planning for the brewery next year when we open.

Enjoy the ride... I know we did. 

. . .

Saturday, May 21st

Impromptu jam session out front
of Fullsteam in Durham, NC.
We started our trip a day early (our original plan was to leave early Sunday morning to hit our first destination around lunchtime), since a friend of ours invited us to a private party at none other than Durham's own Fullsteam Brewery (by the way, congrat's to Nathan and Amy on their recent nuptials!). Fullsteam Brewery opened almost a year ago in the "do-it-yourself" district of downtown Durham, NC, and if you have yet to try one of their beers, you're really missing out. Founder and self-proclaimed "Chief Executive Optimist" Sean Lilly Wilson played a key role in getting the legal ABV-limit raised a few years ago in the state (visit for details), and he's continued forging ahead with some pretty innovative and unconventional takes on traditional styles of beer. Case in point: we had the chance to sample a very limited edition of something they called "Sullivan's Non-Sequitur", a farmhouse saison brewed with Cheerwine. Yep, that Cheerwine. (It was delicious, by the way, and tasted nothing like the sweet soda, since the yeast pretty much eats all that sugar).

After we left Fullsteam, we ran into some friends and popped by Durham's newest brewing establishment, Bull City Burger & Brewery. These guys just opened their doors a month or so ago, and we've been itching to get by to try some of their beer. When you go, don't miss out on Zach's Bowl of Pickled Stuff, the contents of which change daily based on whatever chef Zach Faulisi finds locally available he wants to pickle in-house. Pure brilliance.

Fullsteam Brewery | Durham, NC
Brew of Note: Summer Basil Farmhouse Ale
What We Brought Back: Fullsteam's motto is "plow-to-pint", which is a great verbal manifestation of a concept, and although they're in our own backyard, we're planning on using local, farm-grown ingredients in a lot of our beers as well ('course, that makes sense for a "farmhouse" brewery, no?). Their mission is also to "develop a Southern craft beer identity", which is at the top of our list as well (my personal assumption is that over the next decade, the beer market is going to shift away from the Big 3 and much more locally in a big, big way). Keep an eye out for the guys at Fullsteam... they're going places.
On the Web:

Bull City Burger & Brewery | Durham, NC
Brew of Note: Honorable Bell's Big Brown Ale
What We Brought Back: Once again, BCBB uses mostly locally-sourced ingredients in their food. Although they're definitely more of a food-centric restaurant that brews their own beer (it's not "Brewery & Burger", after all), the beers we tried all stood on their own. Locally-sourced food available to the patrons that visit our brewpub is definitely one of the aspects of our trip we encountered every day and one we brought back with us (and we have ideas for making it a bit unique—stay tuned!)
On the Web:

. . .

Sunday, May 22nd
Off to a good start (with a couple of mild headaches left over from our unplanned festivities Saturday night), we hit the road and headed west an hour, to Foothills Brewing in Winston Salem, NC. There, we met a few friends of ours from the area for lunch and tried a few beers we'd not had the chance to try before (oddly enough, neither Dawnya nor I had actually ever visited the Foothills brewpub, even though it's only an hour away... I know, I know, I'm ashamed too). Dawnya ordered a flight and I couldn't resist the Barrel Aged Peoples' Porter (Peoples' Porter itself is such a great beer, but aged in an oak bourbon barrel? Please take my money, kind sir.)

No, we didn't find any secret stash of
Sexual Chocolate anywhere, so stop asking.

Heading north into Virginia after visiting Foothills, we noticed Pilot Mountain on the horizon. Again, although growing up in North Carolina and living only two hours away most of my life, I'm ashamed to say I never actually knew there was a Pilot Mountain, after which Foothills' Pilot Mountain Pale Ale is named. It was actually pretty cool.

I don't really see the face (must be the back of his head, I guess).

Our next stop was Blacksburg, VA. Pulling into town, you start to notice things. Turkeys, in fact. A lot of turkeys (or statues of big cartoon-y turkeys, at least). Plus, everything's painted red and orange (yeah, red and orange). For those not really into college sports, Blacksburg is home to the Virginia Tech Hokies, which, according to some folks I've asked, is apparently some sort of castrated turkey (or, according to my mother, it's from some arbitrary line in a cheer... as an ECU graduate, I'll choose to believe the former).

Standouts at Bull & Bones were
the witbier, the dopplebock
and the dry stout.
Bull & Bones Brewery was our next destination, which is located in a strip mall of sorts. Walking in, you notice a definite "sports bar" vibe (there are TVs everywhere); there's a super-polished sheen over everything that personally didn't appeal to us (don't get me wrong, it's a nice place; I just tend to lean toward more rustic, hand-crafted breweries). Actually, let me rephrase that, in an attempt at fairness: If I lived close to Bull & Bones, I could see myself coming here rather often. It just wasn't what I was looking for on our trip. That said, they sported a number of very solid beers, from their Sun Lit Wit to their St. Maeve's Stout, which was a little thinner than I like my stouts, but tasty nonetheless. Their Dopplebock was outstanding as well.

We headed up the Appalachian Mountains to the Wintergreen area, where we found Blue Mountain Brewery & Hop Farm. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, Dawnya and I started noticing details of what we might like to incorporate in our own brewery. "Look, they have hop bines along trellises in the front." "Hey that's cool, there's a branded grain silo in the back." "I dig the 'winery/vineyard' feel to this place." We quickly found Blue Mountain to be an extremely family-friendly place, and we decided to sit outside to take advantage of the nice weather (we'd soon find out storms can plow through town pretty quickly up there). Although we weren't able to get a few of the beers I'd heard were good (for seasonal reasons), we ended up with a couple flights and tried a delicious Weizenbock (it may have actually been a Kristalweizen... I left my notebook in the car at Blue Mountain) and a really good Altbier, which you can't find in too many places these days.

We also decided to bring home a six-pack of their canned flagship Full Nelson Pale Ale and a 750mL bottle of their bottle-conditioned Belgian Tripel called Mandolin, rather gracefully designed and packaged with a cork and cage, that's residing on our beer shelf, begging to be opened soon.

Blue Mountain Brewery was awesome. Looked like
a great place to bring your family on a weekend afternoon.

Toward the end of the night, clouds started building and we wanted to make sure we made it to Devil's Backbone before the sky opened up (plus we were sitting outside at Blue Mountain). Making it south to Roseland just in time (man, you guys get some insane thunderstorms up there), we slid into the front door of the Devil's Backbone brewpub to be greeted with a couple of smiling hostesses, a whole lot of shiny woodgrain and a dozen or so stuffed animals (as in "taxidermied", not "Fozzie Bear").

Devil's Backbone was like home.
But with delicious pints of beer.
And a stuffed moose.
I'm not sure if it was because of the Shakespearean storm outside or because we were exhausted after our first full day on the road, but Devil's Backbone had a rustic charm to it unlike any other location on our trip. As would become our norm, we ordered a flight of their mainstays and sampled some really delicious beer. Their Eight Point IPA was a standout (I ordered a pint or two after the flight), as was their take on a farmhouse Saison, called Inspirado. We ended up staying a little later than we intended in order to let the rain die back down, and had the chance to meet a few locals and try some additional brews before we hit the road to Charlottesville to find our hotel (got a little lost on the way, pulled into a parking lot to turn around, and happened upon the coolest vehicle I've ever seen: The Wahooptie Tailgater... yes, those are tap faucets on the side).

Too bad the place was closed. I would have
traded in my VW in a skinny minute.
After waking up Monday morning, we headed east into Maryland and ended up a little off-centered for the day... (to be continued)

Foothills Brewing | Winston-Salem, NC
Brew of Note: Barrel Aged Peoples' Porter
What We Brought Back: Foothills has amazing beer, but they also have some damn sharp branding. Each of their products has its own distinct brand, and they share a familial look & feel across the board. As a trained and schooled graphic designer, I can appreciate this brand continuity between product lines (and you'd be surprised how many of the places we stopped on our trip didn't quite grasp this concept).
On the Web:

Bull & Bones | Blacksburg, VA
Brew of Note: Dopplebock
What We Brought Back: Our visit to Bull & Bones gave us some great ideas as to what we don't want to do with our brewery (no offense to Bull & Bones, which did have some really great beer... it just had a lot of things that weren't on par with what we're looking to do with our own place, and that's sort of the point of this little section of the blog entry). They had this strip of frosted ice running down the bar that was pretty cool (although I'm not a big fan of the "frosted glass", so take that for what it's worth).
On the Web:

Blue Mountain Brewery & Hopfarm | Afton, VA
Brew of Note: Full Nelson Virginia Pale Ale

What We Brought Back: Just as Blue Mountain centers their place around family gatherings, so we plan to do as well. Our idea at this point is to have a split pub area (half inside, half outside) with a few long communal tables, so folks can bring their families and friends and stay awhile (assuming we can get clearance, we'll even invite the canine members of your family to the outside half!). We also dug the fact that Blue Mountain grew some of their own hops (Cascade and Centennial, for those wondering). Climate permitting (we're testing a few rhizomes now, so we'll see what we can grow and how it jibes with what we have planned), we'll have a few bines on the farm, the flowers from which will hopefully end up in special small batches of either our Autumn Harvest Saison or something else we're considering brewing...
On the Web:

Devil's Backbone Brewing | Roseland, VA
Brew of Note: Inspirado
What We Brought Back: This was a very cozy, very friendly-feeling place. A lot of polished, exposed wood, high ceilings and comfy corner nooks. Luckily, the beer held up as well—their saison was one of the best we tried on our trip. We got some great ideas from the general look of Devil's Backbone, and were able to confirm some of the concepts we have for the brewpub area we'll want in our own brewery. Because we're planning a farmhouse brewpub in semi-rural North Carolina, it makes sense to use reclaimed wood (for aesthetic reasons, as well as sustainability ones) and leave exposed a few structural components.
On the Web:

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