In the Raleigh-Durham Area, a Craft Brewing Explosion

A new wave of Triangle breweries are creating inventive ales and earning national recognition.

Enjoy craft beers? Step into the Triangle, where craft brewers have taken experimentation to new heights, and beer lovers are lapping up their award-winning creations in taprooms, pubs and restaurants.

“There’s a lot of quality beer being produced in this region, and it’s not only quality, but it’s also really creative,” says Margo Knight Metzger, executive director of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild. “Maybe it has something to do with the academic and scientific prowess that already exists in these communities, but you have brewers here who are really pushing the boundaries of what a beer can be.”

Fun With Wild Experiments

Gizmo Brew Works in Raleigh is one Triangle brewery serving up unique concoctions to visitors. On a hot August day, as owner Bryan Williams was getting ready to celebrate National India Pale Ale Day and showcase his brewery’s 20 beers on tap, he focused on a new blend popular with his patrons.

“One of the fun beers we’ve been experimenting with lately that was a really big success is the Gose style beer, a lower gravity beer that is actually brewed with sea salt and … strawberries. We did one batch about a month ago, and it sold out really, really quickly, so we’ve got another batch in the works right now.”

Gizmo Brew Works constantly experiments with new styles and flavors.

Gizmo features year-round, seasonal beers and a monthly high-alcohol beer, but Williams says producing the multitude of small batch test beers he makes and sells in the tap room “are where we have a lot of fun.” Some of these beers have to be savored in the moment as they may not be back. In 2014, for example, Gizmo produced Wild Wasp, a craft brew made with a yeast strain that wasps had picked up naturally in the wild, and which the brewery obtained through a collaborative effort with North Carolina State University researchers.

“The result was a very interesting beer that was very different from using the regular yeast strain that we normally do,” Williams says. “It was a wild characteristic, almost tasted like grapefruit juice. We made one batch of it and it sold out very quickly. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a chance to repeat it since then.”

Beers With a Scientific Bent

Founded by brothers Matt Corregan, a biochemist, and Bruce Corregan, the head brewer, and two others, Nickelpoint Brewing Co. in Raleigh also draws on science to make old-fashioned European beer using a high-end tools including spectrophotometers and microscopes with hemocytometers to ensure consistency in color, alcohol by volume and bitterness.

Matt Corregan prepares a sample in the lab to be analyzed for bitterness.

A testament to the power of invention, the Triangle is now home to more than 40 craft breweries, each seeking its own unique flavors. Triangle breweries, like Crank Arm Brewing, Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough, Lynnwood Brewing Concern in Raleigh, Fortnight Brewing Company in Cary, Southern Peak Brewery in Apex and Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, all won awards at the summer 2016 U.S. Beer Open Championship.

N.C. Farm Fresh Flavors

Fullsteam draws on Southern food and farm traditions for its inspiration, billing its beers as “plow to pint.” The brewery’s indoor tavern offers a range of beers, from traditional to experimental beers, often made with local produce and botanicals. Patrons can choose from year-round to seasonal to ephemera  to collaborative brews that are created in partnership with chefs from local restaurants and businesses.

Runners quench their thirst on Wednesdays in the summer.

Two of Fullsteam’s interesting collaborative efforts are Cack-a-lacky, a North Carolina ginger-flavored pale ale; and Beasley’s Honey White, brewed with North Carolina honey, oats and Tellicherry black pepper. Year-round brews include Carver—a lager made with North Carolina sweet potatoes—and El Toro, a cream ale made with North Carolina barley and corn. In the summer, Southern Basil ale offers a taste of local basil and North Carolina wheat, while in the winter, First Frost is brewed with local persimmons.

Fullsteam's Southern Basil beer ale draws on local basil.

For those hankering for classic beer, Durham-based Bull City Burger and Brewery,  which features routine tasting and tours, is a “wonderful” place to go, say Sam Poley, director of PR and Communications with the Durham Convention and Visitor Bureau with the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Their objective is to make beers truest representation of their style,” he says. “And they have taken that devotion to beer another step. They have now started to create their own Durham style of beer.”

Bull City Burger and Brewery welcomes families for a casual meal.

The Durhamer Ale—made with Durham water from the county’s Lake Michie reservoir, local malt from Durham’s Epiphany Malting, North Carolina-grown hops and ale yeast—is available when brewers decide to make it. The beer’s chestnut brown “Burley” color is a nod to the city’s tobacco history, while its taste recalls Southern biscuits flavored with a hint of the sweet, Southern iced tea.

The Durhamer Ale aims for a distinct Durham flavor.

So far the ale has been brewed by Bull City, Fullsteam Brewery and Bull Durham Beer Co., says Seth Gross, who owns Bull City and holds degrees in microbiology from the University of Florida and the Culinary Institute of America. The brewers responded to his friendly challenge earlier this year to brew their own versions of the Durhamer.

What’s Old is New

Sour beers—a new trend in beers that are not only fermented but also cultured—have found a home in the Triangle because they require “a really good handle on the science of brewing,” Metzger says. You can sample sour beers at Trophy Brewing Co., a small brewery in Raleigh that is revitalizing old German styles of beer such as Gose and Berliner Weisse. These styles take off in the summertime because they are light, refreshing and low in alcohol but are gaining popularity year-round, she says.

A play on the word, “Durham,” Durty Bull Brewing Co, opened in spring 2016 in Durham. It also uses old-world brewing techniques to craft barrel-aged, sour beers and other unconventional brews that can be savored in its taproom.

Beyond beer tasting, the taproom can provide an interesting path into a new locale, Metzger says. “For people who are new to craft beer, a visit with friends, or even a visit on their own to a local tap room can really hook you in to the vibe and flavor of that local neighborhood … It’s a great way to get to know locals and get other recommendations about other fun things to do in the area.”

Locals are part of the reason craft breweries are growing so quickly in the Triangle. “There’s lot of natural curiosity among the people who live here and work here, Metzger says. “There are a lot of really interesting entrepreneurs, academics, students, people who are interested in trying new things.”