The Triangle is one of the hottest craft beer markets in the country, so much so that breweries in other regions leapfrog over intervening states to bring their beer here.
Even so, we've supported a fairly small number of local breweries, relative to the popularity of specialty beer styles. Chapel Hill has been the friendliest to brewpubs, its residents patronizing both the Carolina Brewery and Top of the Hill since the mid-'90s—support that allowed the former to open a new branch in Pittsboro in 2007 and the latter to contemplate a microdistillery.
Raleigh hasn't been as kind. The brewery formerly known as Tomcat, then Rock Creek, Chesapeake Bay, and Edenton brewing companies, is enjoying stable ownership and healthy sales under the name Big Boss. But, meanwhile, pioneer brewpub Greenshields closed forever after a fire and Southend folded as well.
Things may be turning around. In Durham, where one brewpub after another has died, Triangle Brewing Co. just celebrated its first anniversary. Though it is a distributing brewery rather than a brewpub, Triangle's owners Rick Tufts and Andy Miller are turning it into a gathering place for new music alongside bold beers. And plans are under way for Fullsteam Brewing, where well-known good-beer booster Sean Wilson promises some envelope-expanding beers later this year.
And in Raleigh, beer lovers can look forward to two new brewery openings within the month.
Boylan Bridge Brewpub helps solve a problem for architect Andrew Leager. His cabinet-making company, Special Projects, occupies the lower level of a beautifully situated building in the Boylan Heights neighborhood of Raleigh, next to the railroad, with a view of the cityscape. Leager's challenge was to come up with a use for the rest of the building that he could feel as excited about as he does his design work. "I had to sort of ask the building what it wanted to be," he explained.
The answer was to draw upon his years of amateur homebrewing and his construction experience with local bars to create a brewpub with a great neighborhood feel. The layout is intended to foster an atmosphere meant to encourage conversation and socializing, both in its bright interior and on the outdoor deck with a historic post-and-beam pergola. The deck offers more seating than the indoors, the better to act as a community gathering point. Leager has also incorporated details saved from the old art deco S & W Cafeteria.
Leager has a clear picture of the kind of destination he wants to create for visitors. "We want them to have the classic Portand, Ore., brewpub experience. We won't have any music, we won't have any TV. It will be the corner bar for people to come and discuss community issues."
The beer selection fits into this idea: The eight or so on draft won't be strange or experimental, but well-crafted and "sessionable." All in the ale tradition, the beers should be able to be enjoyed through a long evening of conversation.
From their highly technical jobs with Quintiles and Cisco, Sumit Vohra and his future business partners dreamed up LoneRider Brewery, also opening this month. LoneRider's renegade imagery and beer names conjure the Old West, yet Vohra insists the spirit is universal. "When I think of a lone rider, I think of people creating something where nothing of value existed before. It transcends not only state lines; it transcends countries."
At the brewery, located off U.S. 70 near the Angus Barn, Steve Kramling and David Leeds will oversee the brewing, beginning with one year-round beer and one seasonal to start, "kind of like learning to crawl before you try to run," says Vohra. "We wanted to give a persona to each of our beers, not just a great beer, but also a great character to make it memorable to our drinkers."
The first year-round, Shotgun Betty, is a traditional German-style hefeweizen, a bold choice for the flagship beer. Unlike rather unchallenging American-style wheat beers, a faithful hefeweizen should feature notes of banana and clove accenting a citrusy, quenching beer. Looking at the market, Vohra realized "There are not a lot of true German hefeweizens out there, and we think people will enjoy it." If Betty's aim is true, Triangle beer lovers may discover what Bavarians know so well: There are few beers lovelier than a fresh hefeweizen.
Turning to England for the next source of inspiration, the debut seasonal beer will be Deadeye Jack Porter. Vohra promises it will be malt- and chocolate-accented, without the heavy hop bitterness or higher alcohol some American brewers have toyed with in porters.
This brings up an important point for Vohra. "Too many people have started equating really high alcohol content with really good beer," he says. "Beer is about flavor, what you sit and enjoy with friends, and want to pair with your food. It's not about me putting 11 percent alcohol beers out there—not that we won't be doing those, but that's not the main criteria in creating a beer."
"It's like your favorite song," he continued. "You remember it not just because of the song itself, but because of what was happening when you heard it. It's the same with beer, to me. You want to remember what a good time you had around it, not the fact that it was so bitter and so high in alcohol. We want to be creative, but we want to be mindful of the flavor and the people we cater to."
These two new sources of beer both make an important point about beer, conviviality and community.
Editor's note: Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, which is based in Durham. "Beer Hopping" appears the first Wednesday of each month. Reach Johnson at email@example.com.