Farmers get hopping

Beer fans know that hops are crucial. The dried plant acts as a preservative and adds bitterness to balance the flavor of sweeter malts. In the U.S., the Pacific Northwest is hop-growing country. But, thanks to the growing craft beer movement here,  farmers in North Carolina are experimenting with growing the plants.

The N.C. Cooperative Extension Service is offering the Second Annual Hops Farm Tour on July 31, which will include visits to two farms in the Asheville, N.C. area (and, of course, a beer tasting afterward at French Broad Brewing Company). To sign up for the tour or get more information, call (828) 255.5522.

N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C. is working to see just how well hops will do in the state’s climate. The plant is not easy to grow, although it is drought resistant and could become a profitable crop as interest in microbreweries – and using local products – continues to increase. Hops have to be grown on 20-foot trellises or wires, and apparently wiring them up isn’t a lot of fun. For a good explanation of the process and challenges, visit here.

Beer Run: Boylan Bridge Brewpub

beer tasting flight at Boylan Bridge Brewpub

beer tasting flight at Boylan Bridge Brewpub

On a windy, warm Saturday afternoon, you could feel like you’re at the beach on the outdoor deck of Boylan Bridge Brewpub in downtown Raleigh, N.C. Except that the roar you hear is a passing train, not waves. Before long, there may be a view of Kudzu Jesus to admire. I felt a little guilty having to drive to this spot, since it’s such a great walking destination for residents of nearby Boylan Heights and other downtown denizens.

Owner Andrew Leager, a cabinetmaker who has a business in the basement of the brewpub, offers a list of beers and rotating seasonal brews. Boylan Bridge is also a restaurant, so you can order salads and sandwiches.

My husband and I ordered the tasting flight of all six beers currently offered: Public Transportation Pale Ale, Gantlet Golden Ale,  Trainspotter Scottish Ale, Southbound Stout, Pullman Porter and Sidetrack Summer Ale. The flights came on a conveniently labeled placemat that made it easy to keep the beers straight. I’ve learned in our “beerventure” so far that I do not like the bitterness of heavy hops flavor. The Pale Ale had a lot of hops and the Gantlet Golden Ale, even more. I felt like all I could taste was hops. The Pullman Porter had a more complex flavor, a fascinating blend of roasty-toasty tastes and coffee that seemed to change with each sip. This would be an interesting beer to cook with. (Barbecue sauce or chocolate cake? And why doesn’t the brewpub kitchen cook with the beers?) The weather was a little warm for me to appreciate the Southbound Stout, but it had a thick, creamy head.

The Scottish Ale, with its sweet, slightly roasted flavor, was my husband’s favorite. Maybe it was the day and longing for the beach, but I liked the Sidetrack Summer Ale. It was light in flavor, not too bitter, and just a nice beverage for the day.

Beer Run: A flight to Aviator

beer tasting at Aviator Brewing Co.

beer tasting at Aviator Brewing Co.

For our second “beerventure” on Saturday, my husband and I attended the first of a two-part beer class/tasting at Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. Mark Doble started the brewery in 2008 in the hangar next to his plane, hence the name. Last fall, he opened a tap room in downtown Fuquay because so many people were visiting the brewery during the limited hours it was open for tastings. Only one beer is bottled – a stout – and the rest are sold by keg to bars and restaurants or via growler to thirsty visitors.

The beers offered change with the season and the fluctuations of Doble’s creative mind, but 18 are part of the repertoire (not all offered at the same time). The six of us in the class sampled a flight of four beers, progressing from lightest to darkest: Gremlin’s Golden, Devil’s Tramping Ground Tripel, Old Bulldog ESB and BoneHead IPA. When we started, he placed a pint of the Gremlin’s outside in the sun – more on that later.

As in wine tastings, we were encouraged to note the aroma and color of the beers as well as the flavor and compared our perceptions. The Gremlin’s, classified as a blonde ale on the beer family tree handout I received, had a light grain flavor, an overall clean taste and light mouthfeel. It had the lowest alcohol content of the four at 5.5 percent. The beers we tasted ranged in alcohol up to 9.2 percent (the tripel).

Doble offered a geeky explanation of alcohol, carbohydrates and sugar that, frankly, went a little over my head (they guy’s an electrical engineer in his day job, after all). I’ve never been clear on why different beers vary in alcohol percentages, so I called Daniel Bradford at All About Beer magazine in Durham, N.C. Bradford offered two explanations. One is that certain alcohol percentages are traditional for certain classic styles of beer. Before refrigeration was available, alcohol (and hops) served as preservatives. So, Russian imperial stouts, which were shipped across the large country in the days of the czars, are traditionally higher in alcohol. Or, as beer experts term it, “higher gravity.” Alcohol also adds calories, so dopplebock, originally brewed for monks’ nourishment during Lent, are higher gravity. The second explanation is the experimental nature of modern craft brewers, “just seeing what you can do, how far you can stretch it,” Bradford said. As with hot sauces, there are some people who care about the flavor and others who just want to make something so fiery it blows off the top of your head. But the best craft brewers, Bradford said, are interested in the flavor, not just potency.

Glad I cleared that up. Now, at the Aviator tasting, the Devil’s Tramping Ground was smooth and sweet, with little bitterness and a rich amber color. Doble named the beer after the legendary spot in North Carolina where the devil is said to pace about – he said it’s traditional to name tripels after the devil. The Old Bulldog ESB (Extra Special Bitter) was a surprise to me. It smelled like toffee but had a roasty-toasty flavor in the aftertaste. Despite the name, not a lot of bitterness. Fascinating. Doble said that his goal for the BoneHead IPA (India Pale Ale) was to create a beer that screamed “hops,” and it did. It was my least favorite because of that heavy hops bitterness.

After about 30 minutes, he retrieved the pint left on the deck and passed it around. “This is what a light-struck beer tastes like, and it’s going to smell and taste like a beer that’s very familiar to you,” he said, smirking. The group agreed that it smelled like Corona and tasted like Heineken. Yuk. That’s what happens when you have to ship a mass-produced beer many, many miles. Better to stick close to home.

Beer here

After having a great time at Carolina Brewing Company in Holly Springs, N.C. last Saturday, my husband and I are continuing our beer adventures. This Saturday, we’re taking a beer class at Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. We’ve always wondered what the differences are between a tripel and a dubbel. I assume it has nothing to do with baseball. More on what we find out next week.

Durham, N.C.’s Fullsteam Brewing will be selling beer at the Carrboro Farmers Market’s Wednesday market starting in June, according to News & Observer food editor Andrea Weigl’s blog, Mouthful.

And I’m glad I still have some of that Spring Bock from Carolina Brewing Company. It’s easing the pain of my beloved Heels’ early demise in the ACC Tournament. Guess I’ll have to say….Go Pack!

Beer Run: Carolina Brewing Company

My husband and I have taken up a new spring hobby: visiting breweries. There are so many in the Triangle area

carolina brewing company spring bock pint glass

carolina brewing company spring bock pint glass

now, and they’re producing interesting and delightful beers. And it’s a lot more fun than scrapbooking. This past Saturday, we started with one of the oldest local breweries, Carolina Brewing Company in Holly Springs, N.C. It’s been operating for 15 years.

I was astonished at the size of the crowd for the tasting and tour – there must have been at least 100 people packed in around the steel brewing vats. It was the first tasting after CBC’s release of its Spring Bock on March 5, and that’s probably what packed the room. There’s also a liberal definition of the word “tasting.” Unlike tastings I’ve had when visiting wineries, the staff hands you a pint glass and opens the taps.

We sampled the Spring Bock, a seasonal beer that the company will produce for only three months. A pale lager, it had a smooth, fresh flavor with no bitterness – and a 6.5 percent alcohol content. We also tasted the Pale Ale and Nut Brown Ale, which my husband thought was a little sweet. We both avoided the India Pale Ale because we’re not fans of heavily hopped beers (although I like a little more hops than he does). Why do IPAs have so much hop flavor? It’s in the beer’s history. Hops serve as a preservative as well as adding flavor, so when Britain sent beer to its outposts in India, more hops were used to keep it fresh.

We purchased some Spring Bock along with some of the remaining stock of my husband’s favorite, the Winter Porter, a roasty-tasting dark ale. Carolina Brewing Company sells its seasonal beers only at the brewery. For more about Carolina Brewing Company, visit here.

The folks at CBC said that the growth in local breweries has not affected sales, which have held steady even during the recession.

Watch this space for our next brewery visit. We’re too old to do more than one in an afternoon.