Adventures in Beer
Photo by Jesse Kiser
I like beer — me and Tom T. Hall and about 150 million other Americans who just can’t get enough of that wonderful stuff. And there are as many kinds of beer as there are beer drinkers: American style, light and yellow, sucked from icy cans; crisp Mexican beers that work with chunks of lime; Englsh ales; Irish stouts; Belgian whites; African black beer and Asian beer made from rice. It ranks just behind tea and water on a list of the world’s most popular beverages, and it has been made, in one form or another, since roughly 3000 BC. Even here in North Carolina, a state with fairly strict alcohol regulation and six dry counties, we have a fairly thriving beer culture, a holdover, perhaps, from the days when moonshine dripped from stills out in the woods and its runners tore up country roads before organizing and competing on oval tracks in stock cars. Local craft beers abound right here in the Piedmont Triad, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a tavern that doesn’t stock at least a few brands of our regional brews. And on Saturday afternoon, at the Summertime Brews Fest, you’ll be able to try them all, along with almost 200 other beers from all over the world. Part I: Tradition Beerhas been made pretty much the same way for eons, a process that breaksdown grain and converts the starches into alcohol through fermentation.But within that basic scheme lay thousands of variables in ingredients,technique and process. You can make beer with corn or rice; you canintroduce hops in varying species and degrees for bitterness; you canartificially carbonate or tinker with alcohol content. These days,people even add flavors like fruit and spice to beer, hence all thatpumpkin gingerbread nonsense come holiday time. But the Germans set thetemplate for beermaking in 1516, when the Reinheitsgebot wasenacted in the duchy of Bavaria. At its heart it was consumerprotection law, regulating the price of beer within the city and thetrade of its ingredients, should they become scarce. But also itdictated what those ingredients could be. It reads: “[T]he onlyingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops andWater. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon thisordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscatingsuch barrels of beer, without fail.” This law, also known as the GermanPurity Law, was repealed in 1987 because, c’mon… wheat beer? But mostGerman breweries still adhere to them, as does the Red Oak Brewery,located just off Interstate 40/85 in Whitsett. The Red Oakcompany began as a Greensboro restaurant in 1979, has morphed into abrewpub by 1991 and now survives strictly as a brewing facility. Fromthe beginning its intent was to create only lagers, the most popularbeers in the world — and one of the most expensive to produce. “Lager” in German literally means “to store,” andlagers, which use slow-acting yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol,must ferment longer than ales, under cooler conditions, resulting in alight body and clean taste.
Brewmaster Chris Buckley, who wastrained and educated in Germany, also says the beers are unfiltered,unpasteurized and naturally carbonated.
“All the goodnessstays in the beer,” he says. “You can’t selectively filter a liquid.”He’s leading a tour through his brewery on the side of the highway, anultra-modern, ultra-clean facility dedicated to this ancient art. “Keepin mind,” an old codger in a Hawaiian shirt says, “beer is verynourishing.”
Indeed it is — with pretty much the sameingredients as bread, two pints of Red Oak contains no preservatives,no chemicals and a slew of B vitamins.
The signature beer, RedOak, is an old-style Munich lager made with malted barley and hopsimported from Germany. The barley is kilned, or heated, until it’sbarely toasted, aiding in its deep red hue. Yellow beers, like theHummin’bird, are made from barley that’s kilned just until it’s dry.Dark ones, like Battlefield Bock, use barley that’s dark-roasted likecoffee, though the roasting process removes all the sugar; the additionof lighter barley to the mash enables fermentation and ups the alcoholcontent.
Mash is simply malted barley and water, cooked at 145degrees and slowly raised to 170, converting the starches in the graininto fermentable sugars in a mash tank. In the lautering tun, liquid isseparated from solid.The wet barley goes to feed a herd of Black Angus cattle owned by thebrewery, and the liquid, known as wort, goes into a kettle to boil for90 minutes. At this juncture, hops — basically small, green flowers —are added for bitterness and as a natural preservative. Next themixture goes into a whirlpool where tangential force pushes residuesand proteins out of the beer, and then it’s into the fermentationtanks, where yeast is introduced and, eventually, the whole thingbecomes beer. Buckley says the brewery is concentrating on its threecore beers, with no plans for seasonal blends or high-octane brews inthe foreseeable future.
“These are session beers,” he says.“That’s what beer is meant to be — something you can use all night,socialize, relax. I don’t think brewers should be in competition withthe moonshine guys.”
Part II: I drink it up
Labontewalks past, causing my intern to jump in his barstool. My friend DonnieHeath occupies a barstool in front of a TV set, with a pint of Buckshotbefore him. It’s all he drinks here. “I tried it,” he says, “I loved itand I kept drinking it. I didn’t sample them all, I just chose well.”
Part III: The pro
Thelager tanks at Red Oak Brewery are racked horizontally, allowingdetritus to settle in the bottom as the beer goes through fermentation,explains Brewmaster Chris Buckley. (Photo by Brian Clarey)
“Hequickly became overwhelmed,” Bartholomaus says. “He had never worked ina brewery ever. “We figured it out together. I didn’t get paid, but Iwas there thirty hours a week. They paid me in beer.” At homeBartholomaus made batches of five or ten gallons. Here at Foothills, hemakes batches of 450 gallons, or 15 barrels, in a set-up cobbledtogether from auctions, failed breweries and internet sales. Fora newer brewery, Foothills makes a lot of beers. Their seven-item corebeer menu includes Torch Pilsner, earthy and spicy with German andCzech hops; Rainbow Trout ESP (that’s extra-special bitter); and SeeingDouble IPA, which boasts 9.5 percent alcohol by volume and astrong, malty taste. “I prefer making seasonal beers,” he says. “Thehigh gravity stuff, anything off the wall. My creative side kind ofgets off on it.” Like last year for Valentine’s Day, when he createdSexual Chocolate, a cocoa-infused imperial stout with flavors ofespresso, molasses and dark plum. A limited bottling of 500 units soldout, he says, in 49 minutes.
Tomorrow,he says, they break out the Foothills Oktoberfest beer. “It’s ready,”he says. “It has to age at least six weeks. I try to get eight weeks.” It’san old-school amber — a lot of German breweries now make yellow beerfor Oktoberfest, but it all used to be darker — following the 1516purity laws. Nine varieties of barley give it character; Hallertau,German Pearl and Northern German Brewer hops add the bite, and lastyear the beer made it to the second round of competition at the GreatAmerican Beer Fest. “It’s malty, not hoppy,” he says. “And I prefer alittle caramel sweetness.” He pinches out a taste for me, and I agree.
JeffZiemba’s home-brewing set-up came together over several years, and heconstantly makes tweaks to the hardware. It occupies an honored placein his Greensboro garage, where the Battleground Brewers home-brewingclub meets monthly. (photo by Brian Clarey)
Part IV: The hobbyists
On a recent Saturday morning, the members of the Battleground Brewers Club meet in the garage of Jeff Ziemba just offLake Jeannette Drive in Greensboro with the stated goal of tasting allthe beers — 17 of them — submitted for Saturday’s beer festival. “We’rea very active club,” says President Rick Cockcroft, a trace ofAfrikaans in his accent. “In this room there are at least four boardmembers.” Ziemba’s converted the garage into a brewingkitchen, with different barley strains in airtight containers, tworefrigerators, a cold keg box and another cold chest surrounding lawntools, bicycles and Boogie boards. On a wooden frame he’s installed hisbrewing apparatus made from sliced metal kegs and a goodly amount ofhardware. “It starts as a hobby,” he says. “This is an obsession. I’dmuch rather be here than out on the golf course.” The clubbegan in 2000, according to Mac Wylie, one of the founding brewers. “Istruggled with my beers for twelve years,” he says. Wylie and anotherfounder were members of the American Home Brewers Association,he says, “and we asked them, ‘Are there any other brewers around here?’We wanted to start a club. [Before then] I would send beers off tonational competitions and feed off the input from those judges, andthat was just once a year. Then I started this club, and talking withother guys, you get ideas. With a club you can get input every month.” Everymonth they get together share a meal and some beers and talk about… youknow… beer. “We have a theme every month,” says Phil Luzwick, anothermember, “whether it’s to discuss different hops varieties, grains… it’snot just drinking beer.”
Thereis, however, a good bit of beer drinking involved. In his garage,Ziemba’s serving a cream ale, knocked off from the Genesee Cream Ale hedrank as a youth in upstate New York.“It’s a light, crisp ale,” he says. “[It’s] cheap, easy to make, a goodsummer neighborhood favorite. I use corn, corn sugar… it’s not ahop-dominant beer. All you’re trying to do is balance out thesweetness.” He’s also crafted an American wheat, a raspberrywheat and a Gaelic brew, stored in soda-syrup cans and pumped into tinyplastic glasses. After a quick couple pops, the club’s judgesmake for the barroom Ziemba’s built in a front room of his house:hunting club green walls, tall tables, mirrors and shelves, a hugecollection of beer bottles and a slew of ribbons the club has won inbeer competitions. Cockcroft pops open a summer ale. “It’s allabout flavor rather than style,” he charges the judges. “We don’t carewhat the style is.” The summer brew is a winner. “This willmake a real good addition to it,” says judge Jim Smith after a taste.“People will like this. That’s got a taste in it that’s reallypleasant.” “Lemon zest,” Cockcroft says. “Lemon zest is good,”Smith says. Next comes another light brew, one of Ziemba’s redolent ofwatermelon. “I tried to put some Jolly Ranchers in a glass ofwater for flavor,” he says. “It didn’t work.” So he relied onwatermelon extract for the taste. “Are there any infections?Any funky flavors?” Cockcroft wants to know. Nope, and it is clearedfor the festival. And so it goes: A beer made with Mountain Dew, aBelgian brown that comes close to exclusion due to a bit of fink in thefinish; a boozy Old English ale. “We’re gonna test your tastebuds withthis one,” Cockcroft says as he pours a dark draft into tiny glasses. “Ittastes like a Mounds bar,” says Mike Andrews. “That’s what I wasshooting for,” Smith says of his toasted coconut porter. “We don’t haveto satisfy a million people,” says Wylie. “We just have to satisfyourselves.” The last beer is the creation of Derick Schuler: ajalape’o-tequila gold ale. “I used fresh jalape’os from the garden,soaked in tequila,” he says. “I used tequila to get the jalape’o flavorout.” The beer is crisp and light, with a muted, but very evident, biteof pepper at the finish. It sounds crazy, but the club judges agree itis absolutely fantastic. Last year the Battleground Brewerssent five beers to the festival. “Well,” Cockroft says, “that’sseventeen beers in our club, and every one is acceptable.” “Does this conclude the business portion of the meeting?” Ziemba asks. “Can we just drink beer now?”
To comment on this story e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.