On a recent Wednesday evening at Steel String, a craft brewery and taproom in Carrboro, people and dogs press around outdoor tables, while inside, conversations ricochet off distressed brick walls. Nearby in a glass room, several large, silver-colored tanks brew beer destined for Steel String taps.
Steel String is owned by four men in their late 20s who style themselves as "czars," at odds with their laidback college-guy personalities and homespun aspirations. The "financial czar" is Cody Maltais, whose surname preordained him for a career in beer. "Brew czar" Will Isley has been in the beer business about four years. "Logistics czar" Andrew Scharfenberg and "hoopla czar" Eric Knight round out the ownership team.
Maltais and Isley played bluegrass together in college, a gateway into the world of craft beer. They had a weekly gig at Milltown in 2007, Maltais explains, and "at the time we were drinking a lot of cheap beer—college stuff." As part of the gig, Milltown gave the duo two craft beers each week, which sparked their interest in brews beyond Budweiser. That Christmas, Isley got a brewing kit from his parents. "Every time I'd come home from the military, there would be new beer, and it kept getting better," Maltais says. "I was like 'Man, how fun would it be if we all owned a bar together?'"
While Isley worked on the sophistication and scale of his modest home-brewing process, Maltais, then in the Marine Corps, served in Iraq for a year. He returned in April 2012, and a year later Steel String opened in the space formerly occupied by The Trading Post. The name pays tribute to the owners' musical tastes, which are reflected in the taproom's live music bookings—a bluegrass brunch, jazz evenings—and the brew czar's philosophy. "We like more rustic beers," Maltais says, "and we like anything funky."
Isley brings five small glasses of beer to the table, their colors varying from pale gold to chocolate brown. Steel String has two beers that are available year-round, but it will feature more than two dozen seasonals and special brews throughout the year. "We're almost like a farm-to-table restaurant, where you don't come for a specific beer so much as to see what the chef is doing that night," Maltais says.
The year-round beers are the Rubber Room Session Ale and the Big Mon IPA. "These two go hand-in-hand," Isley explains, "because the Session Ale incubates all the yeast for the IPA." A pale ale with pronounced hops smoothed out by grassy mellowness, it tastes like a light IPA, especially next to the Big Mon, which has a citrus sweetness lurking behind its bold, dirty bitterness.
"We're not a typical brewpub where you have a lot of beers that vary on their malt bills," Isley offers, referring to the blends of malted grains that differentiate a porter from an amber. "We're more interested in our hop and yeast profiles. We like a lot of bitterness and citrus—skunkier hop flavors. The yeast can be earthy to banana-y to having pear, apple and pineapple aromas."
Instead of the more common California or English ale yeasts, many Steel String beers use a French saison that Isley says has "more wine characteristics. The saisons are perfect for summer beers because they're really dry." A Little Tenderness Honeysuckle Saison, which indeed includes honeysuckle hand-gathered by the brew czar, has the crisp, fleeting taste of a witbier but is more acrid and floral, while the rustic Maggie's Farmhouse Ale balances sweetness and spice.
Most memorable is Sue Black Saison, an IPA infused with cold-brewed coffee from Carrboro Coffee Co. across the street—the kind of local connections Steel String hopes to foster. "N.C. agriculture has realized what's going on with craft breweries," Maltais says, "so they're starting to make more malt and hops, but it's not quite there yet." (Read mroe about North Carolina's hops industry.)
The Session Ale is made with 40 percent Riverbend malt, grown in Salisbury and malted in Asheville, and the brewers are working with the fledgling company Piedmont Hops. "The plan," Isley says, "is to [eventually] use all-N.C. hops and grains for our flagship beer."
Steel String generally keeps its beer on-premises, though it has a tap at the Beer Study bottle shop down the street. "Our biggest goal for the future is to stay small," Maltais says. "Right now, local means 'made in N.C.,' but that circle is getting smaller, where local means made next door by someone you know.
"More young people are getting into it," Maltais continues, "more women are getting into it. We're as craft as craft gets: Four guys who started a bar in our hometown. We make enough beer to support our brewery, and it only travels 20 yards its whole life before it hits your glass."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Growing smaller."