By Will Doran
It’s not by chance that so many of the up-and-coming breweries around the Triangle started with somebody brewing beer in a garage and deciding to take a stab at doing it professionally.
That may seem obvious. But what other professions have such a large base of people who start out doing it at home for free? Aspiring bankers don’t give loans to friends as practice.
It helps that homebrewing is a cheap hobby. It costs $100 to $200 to get all the equipment and ingredients you need to brew your first five-gallon batch, and a fraction of that for each subsequent batch you brew.
It’s a growing hobby, too. Atlantic Brew Supply in Raleigh recently gave away wort. The sugary liquid, a byproduct of grain, is a key ingredient. They had enough for about 100 people and ran out with plenty of homebrewers still in line.
And there are more and more showcases for homebrewers who love competition or want feedback before going pro. Opening a brewery isn’t cheap, but it’s at least cheaper than opening a golf course, winery or ski lodge, to name other hobbies people dream of doing professionally.
So for you dreamers out there, I talked to some people who are making names for themselves despite only recently transitioning from homebrewer to brewer.
Craft beer in North Carolina is competitive, with more than 170 breweries. If you’re going to join the fray, you need to know you’ll be good.
Take Southern Peak Brewery in Apex. It had only been open three months when it won two silver medals at the U.S. Open Beer Championship in July.
The only breweries that beat Southern Peak in the altbier and Baltic porter categories were longtime Portland, Ore., brewery Widmer Brothers Brewing and California phenom Ballast Point, which sold for $1 billion last year.
“I texted the other guys and was like, ‘Holy (smokes), what?’ ” Southern Peak co-owner Nathan Poissant said, of his reaction when he heard the results.
The brand-new brewery’s quality is less surprising when you learn Poissant has been homebrewing for more than a decade. But still. They brew their beer in small seven-barrel tanks, in a space tinier than the bar’s sitting area.
The fact that the small guys will always be able to compete with the biggest brewers is one of the coolest aspects of the beer business. Anyone can make a good beer.
That’s not to say that everyone makes a good beer, though. And there’s a reason, at least according to two newcomers.
“Brewing can be really scientific,” Poissant said. “People won’t just seek you out because you’re ‘craft’ anymore,” he added. “That doesn’t automatically mean you’re good. You have to prove quality and consistency.”
Whit Baker agrees. He’s a co-owner of Bond Brothers Beer Co. in Cary, which also opened this spring. Most beers, Baker said, “are 95 percent science, 5 percent art.”
Bond Brothers is another up-and-coming brewery that has been drawing big crowds despite having been open a few months.
Baker and the Bond twins were active in local homebrew circles long before their breweries opened. So it made sense that for months leading up to it, he and Jay and Jeremy Bond could be found at any event in Cary that would let them give out free beer to potential customers.
Baker is a former high school chemistry teacher who is about to start teaching brewing classes at Wake Technical Community College. He can talk your ear off about yeasts or phenols or bacteria, or more likely all of the above. “I like drinking beer, but I like brewing it more,” he said.
You have to really love brewing to open a brewery, though. Success means turning your attention to marketing, staffing, distribution and all manner of legal, logistical and bureaucratic hurdles.
Poissant said before Southern Peak opened, he spent 16 months dealing with everything but beer: “You’re thinking about permitting. You’re thinking about inspections. You’re thinking about electrical, plumbing, gas.”
And now, with those darn awards and the crowds, Southern Peak is short on supply and might soon have to cross one or two beers off the menu, at least for a few days. They weren’t expecting to be so busy so early.
Just one more problem, but at least its answer is brewing more beer.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran
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