Carrot and cumin. Cocoa and coffee. Winter squash and coriander. In culinary circles, these ingredient combinations often appear together on the plate, but in Saxapahaw, they also shine in bottles of locally crafted beer.
The intrepid beer drinker can sip these flavors at Haw River Farmhouse Ales, where owner Ben Woodward brews beers like Beneath the Feet of Orion, a rye Saison made with carrot, ginger, and cumin; the dark and malty St. Benedict's Breakfast Dubbel, brewed with cacao nibs and locally roasted coffee beans; and Hiverna, a winter Saison starring slow-roasted pumpkin and squash spiced with coriander. The small craft brewery is housed on the ground floor of the old Dixie Yarns Cotton Mill in Saxapahaw, a town surrounded by sustainable farms. This is where Woodward concocts unique flavor profiles for Belgian-style beers that tell the story of the place he and his wife, Dawnya Bohager, have called home for nearly a decade.
"Our vision is to brew beer that reflects our local culture and community," Woodward says.
This means taking the extra time and money to source ingredients such as barley, wild yeast, honey, and fruit from within a hundred-mile radius of the brewery. And sometimes it means foraging ingredients that can't be found anywhere else. Since opening Haw River Farmhouse Ales in 2014, Woodward has highlighted North Carolina's edible bounty with each release, giving beer drinkers not only a one-of-a-kind, truly local brew, but a sense of place, too.
The greenish water of the Haw River spills over a small dam before weaving through rocky outcroppings by downtown Saxapahaw. Near the dam, a short walk upstream from the brewery, a patch of Virginia Pines grows. Their wavy needles are the star of a spring beer, Shortstraw, released in early April. Woodward boils the needles in water to dispel the more bitter flavors, then adds that "tea" to a basic white IPA, where the needles' tangy, citrusy taste mingles with wheat and hops.
The pine needles are not the only unique ingredients growing practically in the brewery's yard. Less than a mile away, on a road lined with rolling green hills and farmland, sits a small white farmhouse with a cow pasture in the front. But instead of grazing cattle, it's filled with the snarled, wickedly thorny branches of an exotic fruit tree known as the trifoliate orange, or the flying dragon fruit. Native to Korea and northern China, it's a cold-hardy breed that produces a furry, tennis-ball-like fruit late in the summer. When cracked open, the fruit's interior reveals seeds and pith surrounded by a sticky resin that tastes simultaneously sour and bitter.
Isaiah Allen, the executive chef at the Eddy Pub in Saxapahaw, came across the pasture several years ago on his way to work and noticed the trees laden with fruit. He knocked on the farmhouse door and a woman in her eighties answered. She told Allen that, about sixty years ago, her father planted what he thought were lemon seeds. Instead, he got trifoliate oranges. Lots of them.
The woman said she didn't use the fruits and that Allen could help himself, or even bulldoze the field if he felt like it. Instead, he collected milk crates full of the oranges to bring back to the kitchen. He shared his discovery with his downstairs neighbor, Woodward, and the two started experimenting. They found that, when cooked, the orange's juice separates into two layers: an oily top layer full of bitter tannins and a sour bottom layer. Allen uses the bottom layer to make jelly while Woodward prefers the top layer for brewing. The fruit's bitterness can stand in for or complement the bitterness of hops; Woodward has previously featured it in a seasonal sour beer called Funk the Flying Dragon.
"Every year, as I drive into town and start to see the fruit ripening, I will contact Ben," Allen says. "We figure out a time to go and collect the fruit for the year so we can have fun with it."
After the fun, Woodward relishes the opportunity to share beer brewed with Saxapahaw's special ingredients to all who visit the brewery's tasting room, travelers and neighbors alike. He'll also soon share his creations beyond the brewery's brick walls during Saturdays in Saxapahaw, the annual summer-long outdoor music and food festival that kicks off this Saturday.
Woodward is already working on new flavor profiles for summer, including one featuring local elderberries. He knows he could get mass-produced elderberry concentrate for half the price, but it would be missing the key element all Haw River Farmhouse Ales beers possess: a true sense of hyperlocal pride.