Friday, September 2, 2011

(We recently sat down to speak with Charles Sanville, a beer blogger here in North Carolina who publishes through the website What follows is probably the most complete collection of public details on our upcoming brewery we've had the chance to get "on paper" so far, so we hope you enjoy it. And thanks again to Charles for the effort. Make sure to check out his blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, et al, when you get the chance. — Ben)

At a recent Girls Pint Out event (yes I was at a Girls Pint Out event), I met Ben from Haw River Farmhouse Ales. I didn’t realize that he was the man behind Haw River Ales. First let me say that Ben is a really nice guy, and knows a TON about beer. I guess you would expect that from a brewer. We chatted up a bit, and he gave me some test batch beers to try. To be honest, I felt super cool getting a sneak peak batch of beers.

I set up a tasting event with some of my good beer friends. We enjoyed the tasting, and as Ben asked, wrote some reviews for him. That spurred some questions that I wanted to ask Ben, about his brewery, beer tastes, and about himself.

Top Secret test batch of Haw River's beer
What was your initial inspiration for starting Haw River Farmhouse Ales? 
I’ve always been fascinated by creating things, and the artistic and technical craft that goes into creating a beer is a challenging and rewarding endeavor. There are so many fine details that go into choosing the ingredients, selecting the methods, tweaking the process and then wrapping it all up in a package that the beer drinker will appreciate and enjoy as a final step in the process… that’s something special. The history and culture of Belgian beer has always fascinated me as well. I thought it’d be fun to explore a style the local scene has only touched upon so far, and maybe add a little twist to make it a true North Carolina brewery. 
You're in the test stages now. How have your beers been received?
Pretty well, even from folks who don’t know us on a personal level (which accounts for something, in my mind). We’ve had a few “not hoppy enough” comments, and a few “too sour” comments on some of our wild beers, but our goal is to craft a range of enjoyable beers that will be approachable to your everyday beer drinker, but still appreciated by the craft beer lover.
That said, we’re working on some recipes that really try to push some boundaries with sour beers and hybrid styles for the area. There are a few North Carolina breweries that are getting into some barrel-aging and sour brewing, and we want to forge ahead with similar goals, hopefully working in tandem with a few of them and helping to create a “southern brand” for the North Carolina craft beer scene.
When did you start brewing?
I brewed my first batch a few years ago (a sweet stout in a 3-gallon pressure cooker pot my mom lent me), but didn’t start really ramping up my craft until last year, to be honest. Since we had an inkling of potentially turning this into a business, I’ve been brewing two or three times a week, trying variations on some of our favorite recipes so they fit in with the goals for the brewery, and working on balancing certain local ingredients for some interesting flavor profiles. Brewing so often is a great way to perfect the craft from a technical standpoint — the only downside is you end up with a LOT of beer. Let’s just say the good folks of Saxapahaw have been a great avenue to help “dispose of” a lot of extra beer that we’ve found ourselves with lately.
When did you know it was time to take the next step from home brewing to more of a micro brewery?
I like to jump head-first into just about everything I attempt, so I figured if I dug brewing beer, it made sense to make a business out of it , so we can bring other people into the circle to enjoy what we’re doing (and yeah, I can hear all the brewery owners out there laughing now, since it’s fairly well-known that the last thing you should do is open a brewery if you actually enjoy, you know, BREWING beer). Plus, I’d spent a decade sitting behind a computer as a graphic designer, so after I sold my company to my former business partners last year, I figured this was the right time to jump. 
Why farmhouse ales?
A couple of reasons: First, they’ve always been a personal favorite of mine. The best versions you can find are a delicate balance between the peppery fruit and a clean crispness on the palate, with just a little touch of musty funk mixed in for good measure. Both brewing them and drinking them has always been a great experience for me — when I walk into a brewpub for the first time, the first beer I search their list for is some sort of saison (farmhouse ale).
The second reason is that we call the beautiful town of Saxapahaw, North Carolina our home. If you haven’t driven out to Sax or through Alamance County lately, head on out. A farmhouse brewery seemed to make perfect sense near our hometown, and it’ll allow us to use some fantastic locally-grown ingredients in our beer for what we hope will be a unique experience.
And third, the term “farmhouse ale” is accepted to be a pretty open-ended definition within the craft beer community, so it’ll allow us to do some interesting and engaging things with our beers in the future. Let’s just say the test batches we’ve sent out so far are samples of our flagship beers we’ll brew year round and have on tap around the clock… we’ve got a ton of ideas for side-projects, one-offs and collaborations planned that should push a few boundaries, hopefully.
Where do you get ingredients from? 
The honey used in our Farmhouse Saison comes from a few beekeepers close to home in Alamance and Orange Counties (depending on which batch we’re brewing). We’re also talking with a few NC-based farmers and gardeners to find out to what capacity we can source local ingredients, once we’re up and running. One idea we have for our monthly brewery tour is to eventually take folks by bus to all the farms and locations we partner with to grow and prepare our ingredients, so they can get a good look at what a field of barley looks like, how hop cones feel growing on the bine and what it takes to get honey from a beehive. After the tour, we’ll all head back to the Haw River taproom to try samples of the resulting beers, made from the raw ingredients everyone just witnessed. That’s what I call local — I think folks might appreciate that and get something new out of it they’ll remember. Hell, even the cotton used by TS Designs in Burlington, NC to make our “Drink Southern” t-shirts was grown here in North Carolina. We dig local.
What is your vision for Haw River? Small and local? More of a tap house? Distribution only? Kegs and bottles?
We definitely want to stay relatively small, probably within state lines, for the most part. I could talk for an hour about my assumptions on the craft beer industry as a whole, how it seems to be moving incredibly local (incredibly fast, in my opinion) recently, but I’ll save that for another day. We’ll have a taphouse/brewpub eventually (we’ve got some great ideas), but we’ll probably start with a small production facility here near homebase, so we can start getting our beer out there in and in folks’ glasses as soon as possible. And we’re planning plenty of draft accounts for now, so our beers should be available at your local favorite beer bar starting around the middle of next year.
In addition, we’re planning to package and bottle-condition each of our four flagship beers for sale in local bottle shops and a few grocery stores, so our fans can try a slightly different version of their favorite Haw River Farmhouse Ales they usually get on tap. In addition, we have some really innovative ideas for a side-project series or two that celebrate North Carolina history and culture, and help raise some awareness for some great causes; these efforts we plan to package in traditional corked & caged 750ml bottles, and should be available in your local bottle shop late next year.
Is there anyone else that is involved with Haw River Brewing?
We have a few people built into the business plan, but they’ve all still got real jobs, so I have to be careful about what we let out of the bag just yet. Just know that we’re working on surrounding ourselves with smart folks who know all the things I don’t (which I’ve found is an aggressively mutating list). I’ve got thick skin, and I ain’t too proud to bring someone in to handle a task if they’re better at it than I. Had to learn that the hard way with my last company, so I’m making sure we do this one right. 
What role are they playing?
One of the shortcomings I personally have is that I don’t have much hands-on experience in a full-size production brewery setting — that’s one of the first details we’re working to establish with our setup. I’m an idea guy, not an engineer, so I want to make sure my time is better spent every day than trying to figure out why the motor on a pump pushing wort into a fermenter isn’t working correctly. We’re also working on putting a fairly informal Advisory Board to meet twice a year to review our progress and make suggestions on where we are and what we have planned. And we have a friend in the business who may serve as our sustainability consultant, offering insight into greywater systems, alternative energy sources and how they might integrate with our daily process, and reducing our waste and carbon footprint. 
What is your current favorite beer? Yours or otherwise
This one’s always a stumper. There are just too many to pick one. Even if you don’t like every beer out there, they still can be appreciated for what they are. Of the beers Haw River brews, the Belgian-style IPA is my “go-to”, probably. The last one I remember stopping me in my tracks (literally) was Duck Rabbit’s End of Reason (on cask at The Thirsty Monk earlier this year… man, if I could go back in time…). According to Untappd, it’s a tie between Terrapin’s Rye Pale and Fullsteam’s Rocket Science IPA, which are both remarkably delicious beers to me. Not much of a beer geek answer, I guess… Those are just a couple of damned good beers. 
Is there 1 beer that made you want to brew your own?
My first sour was a Monk’s Cafe Flemish Red, and it’s arguably the catalyst that led to what we’re doing today with Haw River Farmhouse Ales. That beer (and just about every wild or sour beer afterward) amazed me with its myriad layers of complexity and depth. I always liked to take things apart and build them back together when I was a kid (I once collected bones from the family dinner table for several weeks in an attempt to glue back together a complete chicken skeleton…), so I guess it goes back to trying to figure out that Monk’s sour. I wanted to find out how to build something for myself as complex as a well-crafted sour beer.
Any crazy beer stories? That you want to share anyway?
There’s always the possibility that my mother will read this, so let me skip a few from my earlier days…. This one’s certainly not the craziest thing in my resume that involves beer, but this past spring, my girlfriend Dawnya and I took two weeks off from life and drove 3500 miles throughout the northeast US to visit about 3 dozen breweries, brewpubs, farms and bottle shops, starting at Fullsteam in Durham and ending up at Three Floyds in Chicago (by way of Philly, Cooperstown and Grand Rapids, MI). Our goal was to meet as many beer folks as possible and try as many new beers as we could, and we had an awesome time and learned tons from all kinds of really awesome, really humble people, most of which will influence at least some small part of Haw River Farmhouse Ales along the way, I’m sure. (You can read about our trip in more detail elsewhere on our blog, if you'd like. ^Ben)
When can we expect to see Haw River in stores, bars?
We’re aiming for a grand opening party on Memorial Day weekend next year, but it’s important we do everything right, so there’s no huge rush on our end — we’re considering Memorial Day 2012 our floating target. Between then and now, we’re discussing with a number of bars and bottle shops eventual plans to carry our beer, so as soon as we know when they’ll hit shelves and taps, you guys will know. 
I gotta ask, who designed your logo. I LOVE it!
Ha. My former life was as a graphic designer, so that was one of the first things I knocked out once we decided on the name. The farmer illustrations, however, come from the talented Mr. Nathan Golub, an old friend I was lucky enough to bring on to projects every once in awhile at my old company. Nathan’s on staff at the Independent Weekly in Raleigh, so if you’re lucky, you can catch some of his work gracing the cover of the Indy from time to time. Guy’s got mad talent… can’t wait to see what he does once we have actual labels and brand needs when we’re up and running.
Anything else you want your fans to know?
North Carolina has been my home for almost 35 years, and I love how the craft beer industry has evolved and matured over the past few. I hope whatever we bring to the table with Haw River Farmhouse Ales helps to elevate North Carolina’s place in the craft beer world, and provides our friends and neighbors with a memorable experience every day.
Like I said, this logo is cool.

Thanks, Ben, for some great insight on what Haw River Farmhouse Ales is all about. Be sure to follow Ben and everything Haw Rives Farmhouse Ales:
Oh, and check out his “Drink Southern” T-shirts! Post it up, if you have any questions for Ben.
— Charles (