Jan 14, 2010

Alehouse Heroes: Fullsteam Brewery (NC)

In this internet age, it is really easy for hype to completely lap quality.  We've all got pages to fill, news to scoop, and emoticons to express.  But once in a while something being mercilessly hyped by whatever culture it is a part of actually makes me interested and I have to learn more.  Such is the case with Fullsteam Brewery.  The tricky thing about Fullsteam Brewery is that, um, the brewery isn't built yet.  Right now, it is a couple guys making beer and holding tastings in the NC area to a burgeoning horde of fans while the brewery is being built.  There's founder Sean Wilson, brewer Chris Davis, and according to their website, operations manager Brooks Hamaker, who was formerly the head brewer for Abita, one of my favorite breweries in the universe.

All this sounds great.  But why would I (and everyone else who likes beer) write about them?  Well, I'm all about the beer and food.  The growing "Plow to Pint" movement, as well as craft beer's natural friendship with slow food, is something which I am endlessly fascinated.  If you want to know why I don't write about THAT more, it is because I am broke . . . . I don't have a joke there.  Anyway, what is so special about Fullsteam is their allegiance to the agricultural riches of the South.  Using ingredients like scuppernong grapes, hickory, rhubarb, and sweet potatoes, Fullsteam is taking local brewing to what should be its natural conclusion.

I will (hopefully!) be lucky enough to grab a beer with Sean Wilson tonight (!), as he will be in NYC.  But just to be safe, I interviewed him a few weeks back and kept the interview in me tight little pocket for just such an occasion.  Without further ado, Sean Wilson, founder and president of Fullsteam Brewery.
T1D: What was the moment you fell in love with beer?  What was it like?
SW:I had a relatively late “ah-ha” craft beer moment that took place when I was around 30. A friend of mine from business school took me to a bar that had some leftover beer from a private party. He told me, “you’ve probably never had these beers before.” It’s true: I had lived in North Carolina since turning 21 and, because of the state’s long-standing 6 percent cap on alcohol by volume on beer, I had never heard of barleywine, double IPA, or Belgian ales. These high-end, higher-alcohol styles were out of sight, out of mind.

JP proceeded to open up a 750ml of a double IPA with “Batch 1” handwritten on it. I honestly don’t remember where the beer came from. The whole evening was such an epiphany – it was more about these beer styles I had never experienced; not as much about the specific breweries.

It sort of irked me that these beers were illegal to brew or sell in North Carolina.  

(Sub-story: Many states have or have recently had absurd fucking laws governing the maximum alcohol contents of beers.  So you CAN drink 40 PBR's, but you CAN'T purchas one 9% beer.  Oddly enough, many of these states are Southern.  Huh.  Who would've thought?  Anyway, Mr. Wilson was one of the main figures spearheading the repeal of this completely retarded law in North Carolina.  Good lookin' out.)

T1D: Run through a little bit about how you and your partner got started at this.

SW: Quick clarification: Chris is Fullsteam’s brewer, but not a partner. (ed. note - Sorry!)

I had been researching and thinking about this brewery for some time, but I’m not a brewer by training. I knew I needed someone who was passionate about the science of brewing – the technician whose dream job was to be responsible for brewing top-notch beer. I knew my role would be more business-related.

So I started asking around and interviewing a few people. Chris was the first person whom I really clicked with – who had both the technical chops and a keen interest in this concept of Southern-influenced beer. I knew from the get-go that he was the guy.

T1D: You are very literally the intersection of local food and craft beer.  What is it about craft beer and so-called "slow food" that make them such natural partners?

SW: The Slow Food movement celebrates “intentional” and local eating: knowing where your food comes from and eating in-season. Enjoying local hand-crafted beer is slow food in liquid form. American society is breaking away from the monolithic, mass-produced and embracing local and regional specialties. Befriending a brewer is no different than knowing your local cheese maker or baker.

In fact, I’m working on a new project called Know Your Brewer that seeks to highlight and celebrate the people who brew your beer. The site is a bit of flux right now, as our brewer interviews were centered around North Carolina beer (and the content was moved over the NCbeer.org website). But a friend of mine and I are launching Know Your Brewer as a national platform for beer bloggers and professional writers to interview American craft brewers. Look for the relaunch to be ready by the beginning of 2010 (Other ed. note - Put me on.  For serious.)

T1D: Your beers seem destined to be paired.  Have you found any exceptional, or possibly atrocious, food pairings with your beers?

SW: I really enjoy the pairing of Hogwash! with North Carolina barbecue. Style-wise, Hogwash! is a smoked brown porter. We smoke the malted barley over hickory wood, which imparts a slightly sweet smoky flavor to the beer.

Taste-wise, what makes the beer so fun is the interplay between the slight smokiness of the beer with the traditional subtle smoke of North Carolina 'cue. The smokiness lingers on the palate, flitting among the smoke of the meat and the smoke of the beer, interrupted ever so briefly by a bite of slaw. It sort of makes me hungry thinking about it.

Atrocious pairings? We haven’t had a bad beer-and-food pairing yet. We did have a few misfires in our plow-to-pint brewing: an early miso ginger stout was a drain pour, as was a more recent local fig and honey farmhouse ale. A miscalculation on the beer’s attenuation resulted in a cidery mess. But now’s our time to experiment…before we’re set up on the big system. Oscar Wilde put it pretty well: “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

T1D: You've been getting interviewed a bit lately, but your brewery isn't even open yet.  How does the increased spotlight on craft beer affect your perception of your beers?  Is it more difficult to stay true to your vision? 

SW: We consider ourselves really lucky for the exposure and recognition we’ve received to date. I think it actually helps us refine our vision. I tend to have a lot of ideas, and often times they’re all over the place. Writers and publications tend to want focus: to hone in on a core concept or main theme. These conversations help us stay focused. Not necessarily more “true to our vision,” because we’re really passionate about this concept of developing a Southern-style beer.

Also, I should point out that we’re getting a lot of feedback from locals: both beer enthusiasts and people new to craft beer. Over the past year, we’ve served our beer (for free) at about twenty or so events and venues. It’s been incredibly valuable to watch people’s ordering and decision-making process. To know what works and what needs improvement…what gets people excited and what gets overlooked.

T1D: There is some debate over craft beer's marketing right now.  Your beers are clearly earthy, yet very much concerned with refined craft.  Do you feel that craft beer has gotten too haughty in some circles?

SW: I don’t know if that’s for me to judge. Haughtiness is relative. I was out last night enjoying an Allagash Hugh Malone, which is served in a delicate tulip glass. A guy at the bar might think my beer is haughty – that I am a beer snob -- just because I’m not drinking beer out of a bottle. So who am I to judge?

I never want people to lose sight of what’s most important: that no matter the type of beer one drinks, we should be enjoying ourselves. I think there’s a faction of craft beer enthusiasts who are perhaps too consumed with the pursuit and less with the moment. A friend of mine in the industry calls them “unicorn chasers.” Don’t get me wrong – a rare beer is a special treat – but I wonder if sometimes it’s more about the chase than the beer.

My friend Julie Johnson of All About Beer Magazine once wrote something that has stuck with me since I first read it several years ago: “When I sample a beer, I’m also going to ask myself whether this is a beverage I’d enjoy having by the pint with a couple of friends.” Though we at Fullsteam will be making a lot of unusual one-offs, I want nothing more than our beers to be the type of beers Julie is talking about…delighting in a full pint in the full company of friends.

T1D: One thing I've learned from talking to people for this blog is how hard it is to start a brewery.  Obviously there are many difficult aspects, but do you have one or two particular stories or struggles that people thinking about starting a brewery should know about?

SW: I don’t really have a particular story, but I’d say vet the building quickly. Figure out what your business is and find the building to make it work. Quickly eliminate sites that are too complex or cumbersome to take on. A brewery is a very difficult venture to pull off – full of pitfalls and “reasons to say no.” In Durham we pursued two sites that were problematic: the first has structural issues and the second one needed tons of upfit. We settled on a utilitarian building that’s not the most magical site, but it allows us to grow a brewery true to our vision. We would have quickly hit a wall with our other two locations.

I’m not saying that an aspiring brewer needs to find a utilitarian location. It’s just that a basic big ol’ warehouse is just what we needed. Figure out the ideal site and get it. Eliminate distractions. In this real estate market and in this economy, the right location is out there.

If this guy's beer is as good as his attitude, we are all in for a big treat when these cats BLOW.  UP.  Which hopefully they will.  And hopefully, I will be able to cop some free samples.


To read more about the dopeness that is Fullsteam, check out a local NC article on them here or check out a slightly less well-conducted interview than mine with Sean at Serious Eats.   

1 comment:

  1. I'm a little hurt by your comment about the Serious Eats post, but you did a nice interview here, and I'm glad Fullsteam is getting some press!