Food & Drink

The cult of craft beer grows in Charlotte

More than 120 people showed up for an 8 a.m. Saturday beer breakfast and bottle shop at Olde Mecklenburg Brewing Co. As appetites for craft brewing continues to grow, so do the number of self-proclaimed “beer nerds” who love to talk...and taste.
More than 120 people showed up for an 8 a.m. Saturday beer breakfast and bottle shop at Olde Mecklenburg Brewing Co. As appetites for craft brewing continues to grow, so do the number of self-proclaimed “beer nerds” who love to talk...and taste. OMB

For most of us, 8 a.m. is a little too early to crack open a beer, but it was the perfect time for the 128 people who gathered at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery on a recent Saturday morning to tuck into plates of eggs and sausage and sip their way through bottles saved for a special occasion.

While craft beers continue to stream into everyday bars, restaurants and grocery shelves across the Charlotte region, a class of super aficionados savors every malty moment far beyond the average drinker.

They’ve been called beer snobs by some – a title they reject.

“That crosses a line,” says Ryan Self, OMB’s sales manager. “Calling us beer ‘nerds’ is fine, but ‘snobs’ conveys an elitism that just doesn’t describe this group. We’re inclusive. We want to educate people about craft beer.”

Such gatherings are becoming more common across the region as the brewing scene grows and tastes become more sophisticated.

“I can remember just a few short years ago when there were three breweries in Charlotte,” said Margo Knight Metzger, executive director of the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild. “Olde Mecklenburg was the first one, and they’re just six years old. Now, there are more than 20. And it’s not just the number. They’re doing some really unique things.”

North Carolina has the most craft breweries in the South with 151 – triple what the state had in 2010. And from 2014 to 2015, North Carolina went from producing 500,000 barrels to 700,000 barrels. (A large portion of that comes from Sierra Nevada in Asheville, but there’s impressive output from smaller breweries, too.)

Tasting is the thing

This particular crew of devoted craft beer drinkers gathered outside on a cold, but sunny, day to share bottles of rare beer they’d been saving, discuss the flavor profiles and enjoy the limited release of OMB’s bourbon-barrel-aged Fat Boy, a Baltic porter. (Otherwise known as a BBA Fat Boy.)

But no one’s drinking that much on this Saturday morning. This event is all about sampling, and lingering over a tasty glass. A 3-ounce pour might last some a half hour.

“Some beers are strong and bombastic,” said James Sapienza of Pineville. “You wouldn’t want to drink them on a regular basis, but you enjoy trying them.”

Zac Blum, Sapienza’s friend, likes the complexity of one beer he’s sipping from a small tasting glass. “There are notes of chocolate, coffee and some pepper.”

Blum says craft beer lovers are a generous lot: “We don’t hoard. These events are about cracking open a great beer and sharing it with complete strangers.”

And there is a lot Self and his fellow beer fans want to share. For starters, there’s a beer vocabulary that goes along with being part of this group. Self describes the BBA Fat Boy in terms not typically used to describe, say, a Miller Lite.

“There’s vanilla and a little char from the wood,” he says. “It’s clean, but nuanced. It has depth to it. And like bourbon, it’s warming.”

The members of this friendly cult seriously want you to appreciate a good beer. Daniel Hartis, a local beer expert and columnist for The Observer, says no beverage offers a greater range of flavors than beer, and that there is a beer for everyone. He encourages newcomers to the craft beer world to order flights – typically a 5-glass set of 4-ounce pours – to get a small taste of a wide variety.

Wes Scott loves beer so much, he and his friend Anthony Proctor have a show on YouTube about it. “That Beer Show” offers short snippets of Scott and Proctor waxing poetic and comedic about beers they love – and those they hate. (Don’t get them started on pumpkin ales.)

Scott, who says the craft beer craze is a natural outgrowth of the local food movement, looks for “beer-flavored beer.” He means: Simpler is better.

He sees some craft breweries aiming for weird in their latest brews. “You hear people saying, ‘Wow, they made beer out of cayenne pepper and chicken wings.’ And when you ask if it’s any good, they’ll say, ‘You can only drink half of one, but it’s so creative.’ 

Creative shouldn’t be the only goal, Scott argues. Beer should taste like beer.

Move over, wine cellar

OMB’s Ryan Self began his love of craft beer in college in the late 1990s – at an age when a lot of people were concerned with the cheapest buzz. When he and his roommate bought beer, they’d buy one six-pack of something they liked and one six-pack of a beer they’d never tried. Self still buys beer that way.

Today, he’s fully immersed in the culture. He’s converted a closet in his home into a beer cellar. (Yes, there is such a thing.)

“It doesn’t have to be subterranean,” he says. “Any dark place with a constant temperature will work. Drastic temperature changes hurt beer.”

His cellar currently has about 130 bottles of “special occasion” beer. He may wait as long as seven years to enjoy one of those bottles. “Some beers, with 10, 12 and even 20 percent alcohol, are too sharp and boozy to drink right away.”

If you’re interested in cellaring your beer but don’t have a suitable space, Duckworth’s uptown may have the answer. Serious beer lovers can rent (for $240 a year) a locker that will hold 16 bottles (which must be purchased from Duckworth’s). The beers are kept at a constant 55 degrees, which Hartis says is optimal for aging beers.

Like everyone else at the OMB Bottle Swap, Bob Carter said the welcoming culture is part of the appeal. “You’ve got blue-collar workers here with lawyers and bankers,” he says. “Everyone checks their occupation at the door.”

That’s something Self loves about this culture, too. “Everyone’s approachable,” he says. “Newcomers should not be shy about asking questions. We want to educate people.”

With craft beer lovers, drinking isn’t an adjunct that goes well with playing pool or watching football. Beer is the event.

Beer 101

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Know your beer vocabulary basics

Barrel-aged beer is starting to appear on more beer lists. The barrel imparts a flavor, whether it’s oak, bourbon, wine or even tequila.

Body; mouthfeel describes the way a beer feels in your mouth. Dark beer doesn’t necessarily have to be heavy-bodied, says beer expert Daniel Hartis (who writes a column for The Observer). Guinness, one of the world’s most famous dark stouts, is actually pretty light-bodied, low in alcohol and easy-drinking, he says.

“Hoppy” is a broad term often used to describe beer. Wes Scott of “That Beer Show” says just because beer is made with hops doesn’t mean it has to taste like hops. “Hoppy” beers have a spiciness – some say a “bitterness” – to them.

India Pale Ale (IPA) is one of the most popular styles of beer. It’s a style meant to showcase hops: It generally has a bitter, citrusy presence.

Lager is a style with more of a malt focus than a hops focus. Lager drinkers may notice caramel notes and a toasted, nutty flavor.

“Malty” is another term – like “hoppy” – that gets tossed around liberally. Malted cereal grains give beer its color. Whatever sweetness (be it caramel or molasses or burned sugar) a beer has comes from malt.

Sour beer is a popular style now. It can range from mildly tart to lip-puckering.

Two warnings

Read the label’s fine print. Some brewers make a flavorless beer base and add flavoring afterward, Wes Scott says. That’s what connoisseurs try to avoid. Serious beer fans are probably not going to drink a “malt beverage.” NoDa Brewing Co. is a brewery Scott says is doing it right: “Their Coco Loco is a porter with roasted coconut mixed in during the brewing process.”

Another ingredient Scott doesn’t want to see in the fine print: corn. “Beer should have malt, barley, water and hops,” he says of the sacred recipe. “Corn isn’t on that list,” he says. “But a lot of American beer makers will replace barley with cheap corn.”