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At Liberty with a North Carolina brewmaster

by Rich Lewis

@richlewis4ink

Beer. Over the last couple of thousand years, the concoction has been one of the cornerstones of civilization – a drink to lift the spirits, a foodstuff for pyramid builders, a safe alternative to water from the town well. And, if you haven’t been paying attention over the last decade, it’s a craft now, too.

We’re not talking about something being brewed up in someone’s basement as a hobby, but as a cheerfully scientific enterprise that has grown well beyond cottage industry status. New breweries are popping up everywhere and being a modern brewmaster has gone a long way past just knowing how the brewing giants make their age-old brands.

North Carolina is firmly in the middle of the American beer renaissance with local and regional brands making names for themselves. And in High Point, there’s a guy that’s not just one of the leading brewmasters, but is also helping to shape NC’s beer future.

Todd Isbell is the brewmaster at High Point’s Liberty Brewery & Grill. He’s also one of the fermentation science instructors at Rockingham Community College. A graduate of the master brewers program at the University of California at Davis, he brings a wealth of knowledge to the field and a ton of experience as well.

“After graduating from Clarkson University with a degree in environmental science, I spent three years in Germany with the US Army,” Isbell said, explaining how he started out. “And I spent a lot of time touring the museums, castles and breweries of Germany, which is a wonderful way to learn about the place.”

While he had done some home brewing during college, exposure to the German beer culture and techniques really got him interested in a career. He came back home and did an internship with Empire Brewing in Syracuse, NY and that started the ball rolling. He went on to UC Davis for his degree and then headed to Colorado, where his brother was getting his PhD in Music, and began working with Ironworks Brewery.

“At Ironworks, we never had the same recipes on tap from one time to the next,” Isbell said. “We were always rotating what we offered and we experimented a lot.”

That was quite a learning experience, giving Isbell the chance to not just learn to brew many different styles and flavor profiles of beer, but to also learn how important it is to provide a good experience to your clientele. A bit of variety is important, but developing some tried and true local favorites is the route to longterm success.

“Right now, at Liberty,” he said, “we always have seven of our beers on tap and as many of three of those can be seasonals. We’ll always have our Miss Liberty Lager, plus IPAs (India Pale Ales), wheats, porters, and stouts. We try to have something for everyone.”

What makes a good beer, though? In Isbell’s formulary, it comes down to the local water profile (High Point has soft water which is good for the brewing process, but still goes through a catalytic carbon filtering process), the quality of the hops and barley, and the wheat source is very important.

“We contract our malt with suppliers from Wisconsin and get our hops from the Pacific Northwest, England and the Czech Republic. The yeast we use right now is American-based for the ales and we also use a Czech lager yeast.”

While there could be some microsourcing of ingredients locally, Isbell said that consistency of product relies upon consistency of the ingredients. While it is great to tinker around and experiment, an off batch is a lot of time and money wasted.

“Experience has shown me that if you make a beer much to idiosyncratic, you’ll have 300 gallons of brew that’s hard to move,” he said. “You’ve got to consider the local demographics.”

So what does an actual brewmaster prefer to drink when he orders beer?

“When I go into a new brewery, I like to get a sampler to try everything,” he answered. “I really try to go for the lighter lagers, though. A brewer’s techniques can hide behind the heavy flavors of the darker beers, but it’s hard to hide anything in something light. That’s how I gage a brewery.”

Breaking out of the basic beer mold is a great thing, though, he explained. “If I have someone come in and want to learn about beers, but they are afraid of trying something too different, I tell them not to concentrate just on the bitterness, but to try and figure out what that bitterness tastes like. Does it taste life grapefruit rind or has a molasses hint to it. I encourage them to find the flavors in a way that they can relate to and that helps them to better enjoy the experience.”

One of his brews at Liberty, an awardwinning Blackberry wheat, features 80 pounds of blackberry puree` (seeds removed) in the brewing process. The tartness they provide, plus a distinct blackberry aroma, has created a following. The brew has won four silver and one bronze medal in the Carolinas Championship of Beer over the years.

Local breweries are here to stay, and they are popping up everywhere. “When I started here, there were only 20 professional breweries in the state,” he continued. “Now we’re at 180 in North Carolina alone.”

Programs like the one at Rockingham Community College, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and Blue Ridge Community College will be working to make sure that this becomes a steady and growing industry in the state.

If you’d like to try Isbell’s brews, hop on over to Liberty Brewery & Grill at Oak Hollow Mall in High Point. You can check out their menu and brew offerings online at www.hghhosp.com. !

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