A beer enthusiast sips, learns and shares his notes
by Jason Fyre
photography by Gus Samarco
I thought I knew Raleigh’s beer scene pretty well. After all, I live in nearby Wilmington, write about travel, beer and food here in North Carolina as my job, so I figured I knew it from top to bottom, grain to glass. But when my brother-in-law, a Raleighite, told me about yet another new brewery as we sipped a Lonerider Shotgun Betty after dinner, I realized I didn’t know Triangle beer nearly as well as I should. I told my wife it was time for a quick road trip, called up Raleigh Brews Cruise and booked a date.
Like you, dear reader, I have my ideal IPA and my preferred porter, my every-time-I’m-in-Raleigh brewery and my favorite cans (see: Brewery Bhavana’s simple, elegant designs or Burial’s psychedelic tarot-card art). But when you have friends visiting and it’s time for the hometown beer tour, who picks the route? And who plays designated driver? The answer: Leave it to the pros. Raleigh Brews Cruise co-owners Tonya Baskerville and Chris Morris gather thirsty beer lovers to traverse the Triangle in a quest to teach a bit about brewing, find a new favorite draught and safely enjoy an afternoon of sampling suds. In the course of a single Saturday afternoon, you’ll visit three or four breweries (the schedule is posted on their website) for drinks and conversation, often with the brewer. Even more often you’ll be tasting as you tour the brewhouse and even sampling a few unreleased beers.
On our tour, we hopped on the Brews Cruise Bus and visited Fortnight Brewing, Bond Brothers Beer Company and Raleigh’s Clouds Brewing (there’s another location in Durham). Baskerville and Morris tailor tours to the group’s level of beer knowledge, making it an ideal tour for beer novices, budding brewers or folks studying to become a Cicerone alike.
“Our cruisers love that the breweries are engaged,” says Morris. “Breweries are extremely busy these days, so our cruisers love it when owners, brewers and bartenders take the time to share their passion, show off their brewhouse and even share a pint or game of cornhole with us.”
So what did I learn? What did we taste? How was our tour? I’ve studied my notes (they were more legible at the start of the tour, naturally) and came up with these bits to share about Raleigh beer:
Where you can cruise
“Anywhere in the Triangle and beyond—within reason,” says Morris. Their Saturday tours visit three or four breweries and your typical private tours add a couple more, but Raleigh Brews Cruise has taken groups as far as Richmond, Virginia for bottle releases at The Veil Brewing Co. and Morris says they “are game for anything within driving distance.” Most tours stick within the Triangle area: Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Knightdale, Holly Springs and Saxapahaw are in frequent rotation.
So. Much. Local. Beer.
The Raleigh Brews Cruise doesn’t visit every brewery in the Triangle, but in 2019, Chris says, “we’ll visit 29 different breweries, one cidery and two distilleries.” Toss in the handful of places brewing or serving kombucha and you’ve got quite a range of drinks available.
What to look for in 2019
Look for experimental brews. “We’re fortunate to have a lot of the [experimental] ‘players’ in our area. Gizmo Brew Works has their Prototype series; Fullsteam has their Squabbit Series and Farmer’s Edge,” says Baskerville. As we went to the brewhouses and met brewers, we saw the same spirit, for example:
Fortnight is looking at a spring release from their sour program and has a rack of bourbon barrels filled with beer sitting in a corner, waiting to be declared finished.
Bond Brothers has a different food truck every night and is expanding their event schedule (in January El-Voto served tacos; February had a trio of sweets from Sliced Pie Company), including a monthly Yoga and Beer session.
Clouds keeps pushing the boundaries of its German roots by ignoring the Reinheitsgebot and going wild with their ingredients. Their stout, Midnight Delight—a nitro stout that delivers a big chocolate punch thanks to chocolate malt, cacao nibs and lactose sugars—arguably challenges cult favorite Foothills Brewing’s Sexual Chocolate for the best chocolate stout you’ll ever taste.
In 1516, Germany passed the Reinheitsgebot, a law all about beer. It dictates what can go into beer (water, barley and hops; no yeast because they didn’t know it existed yet), the price of barley and what you can charge for a Mass or Kopf of beer. No one sells beer by the Mass or Kopf anymore, but many breweries follow the rest of the Reinheitsgebot (nearby brewery Red Oak, for example) as a point of pride and a matter of tradition. Under the Reinheitsgebot, you can’t add carbonation to beer, meaning everything is carbonated by the natural action of the yeast in the beer, resulting in a flatter brew. So when Clouds Brewing dares to add CO₂ to a brew, for example, they’re out of compliance with the old law—so why not get wild and throw in some cacao nibs or a fruit puree? Clouds’ head brewer and co-owner John Oldendorf says, “We get more room to play without following the 1516 law.” I’ll hoist a Mass of Midnight Delight to that.
If you want old-fashioned…
Want to try one of these naturally-carbonated brews? Head to Fortnight, where they keep a few beers in casks, ready to be drawn into your glass via something called a beer engine (picture a hand pump crossed with a tap handle—not a car engine running on beer). Cask beers are typically delicate and flavor packed, and they get what little carbonation they have from a secondary fermentation that happens when the beer goes into the cask. Here, the living yeast devours the last of the sugars, creating the carbon dioxide bubbles we love. Fortnight’s Ghost of Christmas Future is a personal favorite you’ll find on cask.
More than beer
More and more, breweries will offer alternatives for non-beer-drinkers. A few offer wine, and many taprooms have at least one tap dedicated to cider (a gluten-free drink gaining popularity of late as newer ciders are brut—dry—rather than sickly-sweet) or kombucha, the fermented tea. They’ve also mixed it up: Fortnight joined forces with Tribucha to create a pair of Kombucha beer on draft, and those are some interesting brews: Lucid Dreamer is only slightly sour but flavorful thanks to the turmeric, cayenne and ginger in the base, and Light Worker is just that: light and drinkable, mildly sour with a sweeter finish.
Speaking of sours…
Why all the sour beers? Snarky answer: because they’re good. Real answer: Beer drinkers are getting more sophisticated and open to exploring styles, flavors and ingredients in new and interesting ways.
I’m personally a sour fan and I get accused of being a “beer snob” or liking sours “only because they show off how much you know about beer.” Neither is true. I happen to love sour beers because they’re complex and interesting in a way I find IPAs are not. I encourage you to pick up a sour and try the tasting strategy on the previous page. You’ll see that sours can be sweet or tart, more like vinegar or tangy like a tropical fruit. These beers get these flavors from bacteria and yeasts that find their way into open vats of wort (called spontaneous fermentation, a risky brewery practice) or added to the wort in the kettle (called kettle souring, a more cost-efficient process with reliable results), and are often barrel-aged and blended to smooth out the flavor across a batch. “Bond Brothers’ Sorcery Beers are a good place to start with sours as the recipe changes frequently, giving you a chance to home in on what you like about the style,” says Baskerville. “Another great option is the Streamside Series from Neuse River.”
It’s OK to be a repeat offender
That’s what the Brews Cruise team calls folks who keep coming back or go out drinking with any of the other Brews Cruise locations (there are a dozen to date, with Asheville and Charlotte on offer here in N.C.). Go on three and HQ will even send you a box of beer swag!
Visit brewscruise.com/raleigh to learn more.