If anyone needed more evidence that North Carolina is transforming itself from a brewing backwater into the most promising beer destination in the South, here it is: Four of our craft breweries won awards at the largest beer competition in the world last month.
Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills, Olde Hickory Brewery in Hickory and Foothills Brewing Co. in Winston-Salem won silver, while Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in Farmville captured a gold.
These latest accolades indicate that the state's brewers are growing in skill as they grow in numbers. North Carolina now boasts more than 30 breweries, where we once had four or five. Asheville has more breweries per capita than any town in the country. And our tastes are keeping pace. Changes in state law mean that beer enthusiasts can now enjoy a full range of beer styles. The beer selection on retail shelves is impressive. Importers and brewers in other states know that North Carolina is now one of the hottest markets for craft beer—and they leapfrog over other states to get here.
North Carolina beers competed in the biannual World Beer Cup against more than 3,000 other beers from 19 countries. At this year's event, hosted in Chicago by the Brewers Association, the trade association for specialty breweries, judges gave 268 gold, silver and bronze medals to beers in 90 style categories.
One hundred and seventy-nine judges from 26 countries—all professionals in the industry, most of them brewers—spent days sequestered in the conference hotel, while a military-like operation delivered beer samples to them for blind evaluation. On Saturday night, tuxedo-clad luminaries from the beer field (not usually a tuxedo-prone bunch) announced the awards.
Outer Banks Brewing Station took home a silver medal in the category Herb and Spice Beer or Chocolate Beer for their Lemon Grass Wheat Ale. The category, with its catchall nature, was the second-most entered, making this one of the most competitive classes.
The beer gained domestic recognition with an award at the Great American Beer Festival a few years ago. At that time, the brewers waited until the local lemon grass harvest to brew the beer and stuff fresh-cut lemon grass into the kettle. The beer, though delicious, had a drawback: The next batch had to wait for the next year's crop. Now the wheat beer, brewed to a German-style hefeweien base, is flavored with organic essential oil of lemon grass, which allows more frequent brewing, as well as greater consistency. The beer is still a rarity, though. It is likely to be available into midsummer on draft at the brewery and in bottles—painstakingly filled by hand—in shops in the Outer Banks.
Also taking a silver medal, this time in the Old Ale category, was Olde Hickory Brewery's Irish Walker, an English-style barley wine. The "English" in the label distinguishes this strong, elegant, malt-accented sipping beer from more highly hopped versions in the American mold. Irish Walker does have hop character, however. It is dry-hopped, meaning a final dose of hops are added at the very end of the brewing process, when they add spicy aroma and character, rather than bitterness.
Made in Hickory, Olde Hickory's draft and bottled beers are available as far east as Greensboro. Rare bottles of Irish Walker may still be found in Hickory, but once they're gone, fans will have to wait until next year.
North Carolina's third silver medal went to yet another beer with limited seasonal and geographic availability: the much sought-after Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout from Foothills Brewing Co. in Winston-Salem. This gigantic cocoa-infused stout is opaque black, with notes of chocolate, espresso and dark fruit. It is brewed once a year for special release in February—the brewery's only bottled beer—and the annual release party has become a beer geek pilgrimage. The beer also appears on draft over a wider area in the spring, and if you're very lucky, you'll happen on a precious keg the brewery saves to serve at festivals. Hurry, they don't last long.
Happily for all of us, the state's fourth winner, and gold medal-winning beer, is brewed year-round. Beer lovers in other states go to extremes to barter or trade for the milk stout from Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in Farmville, but here at home it is widely available on draft and in bottle. Milk stout is named for the milk sugar, lactose, which is added to the brew. Since this sugar isn't fermentable, it gives the beer added sweetness and contributes a velvety thickness to the beer's texture.
If this is the only one of our winners you can locate, you're still fortunate. Pair it with rich meat dishes, authoritative cheeses or decadent desserts. Then wait until the seasons turn and seek out our other award winners. Slowly, our brewers are putting North Carolina on the map.