Tucked into a 19,000-square-foot warehouse along Hillsborough Street, near the front gate of Meredith College, Raleigh Brewing Co. is comfortably worn and welcoming, more like an old familiar haunt than a room that's only been open for three months.
Outside, a banner advertising the bar's companion business, Atlantic Brew Supply, hangs from a black safety railing, its bottom badly tattered and faded. A colony of picnic tables form a haphazard outdoor bar on top of black asphalt, left in the sort of disarray that implies that's how the regulars like them to be. Inside, secondhand chairs with images of steaming coffee cups carved into their backs—salvaged, it seems, from some surplus or bankruptcy sale—sit in irregular clusters, while the black rubber mats beneath a wall of dart boards have begun to gray and break into pieces.
Perched at one end of the long wooden bar, her cell phone resting on a mountain of paperwork and memos and invoices, Kristie Nystedt has the tired eyes endemic to the president of a new small business. She has just finished a meeting, and she's tending bar this afternoon before working a special event early in the evening.
"There were a lot of sleepless nights," says Nystedt of the rush to open the combination bar, brewery and brew-supply store in early March. Before becoming the first female owner of a North Carolina brewery, Nystedt worked as the director of finance at a health care company during a period of incessant mergers. The detail-oriented nature of her previous job prepared her for this new task of constant questions, decisions and evaluations. "It was the first time running our brewery system, first time collaborating and putting all of our operational processes in place."
Nystedt and her husband of 20 years, Patrik, discussed opening a brewery for nearly a decade. Many years ago, Patrik, a pilot with American Eagle, accompanied a neighbor to a homebrewing emporium and fell for the craft of making one's own beer. Suddenly, as Nystedt puts it with a laugh, "Every week we had an investment going to the brew-supply store."
Many of the nine beers available within Raleigh Brewing's red-walled tap room stem in part from experiments in home-brewing: the blooming golden ale known as Hell Yes Ma'am and the aggressive and full House of Clay Rye IPA. And each week, a few of the business' nine employees brew two experimental beers, bringing a true homebrewer's trial-by-taste enthusiasm into a real bar.
In a crowded field of upstart breweries and clever concepts, Nystedt hopes that something aside from the beer—the team of employees she has assembled over the last six months—can help distinguish their products from those of the competition. She calls her bartenders "beer-tenders," and she often references creating a fun environment at Raleigh Brewing, one that rewards both beer lovers who spend money there and the ones who should make money there.
The simple décor is meant to emphasize the beer, not some extraneous image, she says. Raleigh Brewing hosts a steady stream of food trucks outside, with brewery tours on Saturdays. Soon, the company will open a classroom to educate beginners about the spectrum of craft beers and, of course, how to make your own.
Indeed, on a walking tour of the facility, Nystedt is quick to make employee introductions, sharing a dossier of each person's experience with beer before stepping away to let the conversation continue. John Federal, for instance, is craning his neck and torso inside a massive metal tank, shoveling hot malt between vessels. Nystedt admits that Federal, a longtime brewing instructor, is a key force behind her current menu; when she asks him about the process behind their rich, full, coffee-augmented porter, he puts down the shovel and, for the next five minutes, shouts about filtration and separation over the rock 'n' roll booming nearby. "It's pretty simple, actually," he shrugs by way of conclusion.
Nystedt talks often about being Raleigh's brewery, about serving and educating the community on which they ultimately depend. Employee Michael McAdoo, an N.C. State graduate who's lived in Raleigh more than a decade, embraces that idea. "We want to be Raleigh's brewery. We even named ourselves that," he says, smiling in front of a cooler of refrigerated hops.
In March, McAdoo became the first to unveil his own employee tap, offering a short-lived Belgian dubbel. On July 16, he'll take another turn at the tap, and nearly six weeks from the date, McAdoo—a gently prosaic sort with a bright, triangular grin—is giddy at the prospect, in part because it's so locally rooted.
His upcoming brew will be the historic swill known as Kentucky Common, a pre-Prohibition favorite in which, according to a Food Republic piece about the form's fringe resurgence, "grains and water are boiled to create nutrient-rich mash that's blended with a bit of acidic spent mash that's chockfull of live yeast."
To get that effect for his own Kentucky Common variation, McAdoo will use corn ground at Yates Mill, a mid-18th-century gristmill just south of Raleigh's beltline. Of the 70 or so mills Wake County once claimed, it's the only one that's still standing, let alone grinding corn. Raleigh Brewing will donate $1 of each of McAdoo's beer they sell to the Yates Mill Associates, the organization that protects and promotes the old structure.
Describing the process for making the beer, McAdoo reaches into the cooler, grabs a pack of the "historic hops" he'll use, cuts them open and shoves them toward his nose. He smiles widely and extends the silver pouch of hops like a frosty pint glass, suited for sampling.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Experiments on tap."