Beer culture in N.C.

Full disclosure, I love my job. As a sportswriter and part-time Swiss Army knife for the North State Journal, however, there are simply some stories that are more fun than others.In the case of covering the third annual Natural Selections event, I was living out a dream.The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences turned into a full-blown taproom with the best breweries from the area handing out beer samples like candy. In the process of learning about beer science, I drank a White Street Hoptimist in front of a Acrocanthosaurus, sipped a Big Boss Saints & Sinners sour under a massive sperm whale and even beer made from wasps and bees. Yeah, that’s my job.In the midst of all this “research,” I also got to talk to some experts in the beer industry. Here’s a look at three different ways suds and their ingredients are impacting the old north state.Beer Culture in NCOver the last decade, craft beer in North Carolina has gone from a relative unknown to one of the most booming industries in the state. The move to craft beer has been evident all over the country, but N.C. has produced some of the best and most creative brews.Whether it’s in Asheville, Raleigh, Charlotte or Winston-Salem, breweries are popping up all over the state. Even with some cities already housing double-digit breweries, the number of taprooms continue to grow.Raleigh Brewing Company’s head brewer Alex Smith said even with the high volume of breweries, he doesn’t see it slowing down anytime soon.”Oh, it’s enormous,” Smith said. “In the past four years alone we’ve probably added 70-plus breweries all across the state. We’re talking to other companies who are maybe six months out from opening their own place. While there’s been a ton of growth to this point, there’s still an exponential growth curve for the industry here.”Anne Madden, a microbiologist at NC State’s Dunn Lab creating rare yeasts, has seen the beer community welcome her with open arms.”What’s really cool about the beer community is that there’s no in-fighting amongst breweries,” Madden said. “Everyone wants to create and try great beers. You couldn’t ask for a better atmosphere.”As the demand for beer across the state grows, it has piqued the interest of smaller towns. Companies such as Red Oak (Whitsett) and Mother Earth (Kinston) have opened up shops in smaller towns to not only save on production, but also keep money in the community.More recently, companies like White Street Brewing has moved production from Wake Forest to Youngsville while Southern Pines Brewing is building a craft community in, well, Southern Pines.”I think people are starting to see how great this is for industry and the economy,” Smith said. “It creates jobs and keeps money in the cities where it’s brewed and distributed. … Having a taproom gives towns a sense of community you don’t get anywhere else. Bonding over homegrown beer with people from the area is a unique experience for any size town or city.”Despite the huge boom in breweries, the bubble will likely burst at some point. So what do breweries have to do to set themselves apart? Smith says the sustainability of any company relies solely on the quality of the beer they’re producing.”Quality is by far the key,” Smith said. “We’re definitely in a rampant growth phase and it’s possible for it to slow down. But what I think it’s going to come down to is breweries that aren’t making quality beer are going to fall by the wayside.”You can’t just be a local brewer putting out bad beer. Breweries that figure that out will be around for years to come.”High hopes for hopsNorth Carolina’s agricultural industry currently contributes an estimated $84 billion to the state’s economy. That’s more than 17 percent of the state’s yearly income that employs 17 percent of the work force.In the last few years, the beer industry has been getting in on the fun. Finding ways to grow and produce exceptional hops has been a tough task with the climate in North Carolina not being entirely conducive, but Smith has believes the state isn’t far off.”We’ve seen a growth in the hops in the state, but it’s not where it needs to be,” Smith explained. “The problem is it takes about 2-3 years for hops to take root and produce a high-quality product. With the craft industry still fairly new, I think that industry is lagging a little bit behind. “But when this state figures it out — and they will — local beer will have a completely different feel in N.C.”Thanks to its longer days and cool, wet climate, the Pacific Northwest is a perfect environment for hop growing. However, farmers and private organizations looking to grow hops can learn from Virginia’s recent move to take the next step forward.”They’re really small right now, but there’s so much potential,” Rita Welder, a sales representative for Big Boss, said. “Virginia actually has a ton of hop growers who are extremely organized and have purchased a pelletizer together. If you don’t have one, it’s really hard to sell your hops. If Virginia can do it, N.C. can get there.”Pelletizers can run anywhere from $2,000 for a small unit to $10,000 or more for a massive reproduction system. But as the beer industry continues to bolster itself through new breweries, types of beer and ingredients, N.C. farmers clearly have a chance to cash in on the growing crop.While hops in N.C. might be a few years away, the malt industry is a fledgling one. Companies such as Epiphany Craft Malt in Durham and Riverbend Malt House in Asheville are already cashing in on the growing product with the dark beer season nearing its peak.As porters and stouts make their comeback in the fall, Smith expects several to be brewed with local malt in the near future.”There are farmers that already grow barley and rye in this state, so malting is a natural transition to get into the beer market,” Smith said. “To me, it’s a logical next step, and it’s not far away.”Tobacco remained the top cash crop as of 2014, but the decline has been evident for more than a decade. N.C. state remains the largest producer of tobacco in the country, but there has been a significant decrease in the amount of farmers growing the crop.That leaves room for a unique crop like hops to make its way into the state’s farms.”Private companies are working their best to figure out, ‘What can I grow to get in on this?'” Tony Ferlotti, a purchasing agent at Atlantic Brew Supply, said. “It will grow better in North Carolina soil, but they have to find ways to make it work. It will eventually grow into a huge aspect of our agricultural economy. We just have to give it time.”Ferlotti worked with home brewers for years prior to joining Atlantic Brew Supply to help young companies grow into large breweries. Working alongside Raleigh Brewing, Ferlotti has high hopes for the agriculture industry with the potential for hops to take local beer in N.C. to the next level.”Why not North Carolina? We can’t deny the fact that we are proud of our agriculture,” Ferlotti said. “The pride alone of wanting to make local beer truly local should drive us to get there. There will be a true demand in coming years. It’s eventually going to get there and hopefully soon.”Bugs: The future of beerIn 2014, Anne Madden joined the Dunn Lab at NC State as a part-time post-doctoral researcher. After earning her PhD from Tufts University, she set out to find success with wild yeast strains in everyday life.She never realized it would be so easy. Just over one year later, Madden was producing yeast from bugs that could produce beer. Now she has a patent on the product after less than three years with the lab. So why get into the beer industry?”How could you not?” Madden said with a smile. “Beer is an exciting art and we’re really coming at it from both sides. When it comes to rediscovering the science of beer, it doesn’t get much cooler than making yeast from bugs!”Yeast can contribute as much as 50 percent of the flavor in beer, making it one of the most crucial components in the process. With a sweet flavor that comes from the yeast of bugs like wasps and bees, which are the two species the Dunn Lab has tested thus far, the entire “For the last 150 years of brewing beer, it’s been done with only a handful of yeasts,” Madden said. “They’re domesticated and yeasts we know well. They’re like our cats and dogs — they’re great and make great beers — but there’s about 997 other types of yeasts. It just took a few people saying, ‘Why not?’ and taking that leap. So far, it’s paid off.”Placing priority on finding new flavors and tastes to satisfy any beer drinker, Raleigh Brewing has certainly taken notice.”There’s definitely a market for new yeast and especially these kinds of indigenous strains,” Smith said. “Especially as the market becomes more competitive, you have to do more to stand out.”The Dunn Lab has already found success with two different types of yeasts from insects. After wasp beer was produced, Madden instantly turned her focus to yeast from bees. Both not only worked, but generated great tasting beer in the process.Wild yeasts typically can’t make beer, so the Dunn Lab uses domesticated strains of the insects to create a sour taste. Rather than focusing on rare insects, Madden said wasps and bees were chosen because they are commonly found year round.Before going into beer, the yeast is separated from the insect to ensure no bug parts are found in your favorite brew. What that process has produced is a slammable beer with sour notes perfect for a spring or summer night.”All we set out to do was to see if we could make a different type of beer,” Madden said. “But if you’ve tried these beers, you know it not only makes beer, it’s making really good beer. And with so many craft breweries moving to sours, this comes at the perfect time.”So what makes the wasp or bee yeast different from any other sour yeast? While other sour yeasts have to age over six months to a year or require bacteria, bee beer can be produced in the same amount of time as a lager.That’s what many in the beer industry are calling a game changer.”NC State is working on something we’ve dreamed of for years,” Ferlotti said. “We definitely have spoken with these groups working on new strains and new ideas. … Through that selective process, there’s also a great opportunity for education about ways to reinvent beer.”