When Scottish immigrants settled in the Appalachians at the end of the 18th century, they adapted their barley-based recipes to the more abundant corn crop, creating a distinctly American whiskey. During the Civil War, Southerners turned to substitutes and extenders to stretch their dwindling supplies of coffee. People must have grown partial to the chicory; it’s still included in brands such as Café du Monde and Luzianne.
A group of homebrewers in the Uwharries is showing a similar self-reliance and creativity with local ingredients. Eddie Bernard, newly elected to the Star town board, has been brewing beer for 20 years. He lost his equipment during Hurricane Katrina, but after moving his business from New Orleans to Star, he decided it was time to start brewing again. Some of his employees at Wet Dog Glass, including Nick Fruin, Suzie Ririe and Phil Przybylski, also had an interest or experience in brewing, as did Adam Landman, project manager at STARworks.
There are different approaches to brewing beer. The Germans have historically kept their brewers on a short leash. In an attempt to improve quality and safety, the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 decreed that beer be made from only three ingredients: water, hops and barley. (Yeast was later approved.) This is what sets their beer apart from mass-produced American counterparts brewed with rice and corn, ingredients that lower the cost at the expense of flavor. German pilsners are the alcoholic embodiment of the Japanese haiku – proof that strict limitations can still allow for transcendent results.
Many people believe the best beer in the world is brewed by Belgian monks. Like the Germans, they’ve been perfecting their recipes for hundreds of years, but despite their life of devout confinement, they’ve been a little more open to experimentation. Belgian beer often includes spices, fruits and unmalted grains. Their lambics allow for spontaneous fermentation, taking advantage of unique wild yeasts instead of killing them off and adding a controlled amount of brewer’s yeast.
The homebrewers in Star work in the Belgian tradition. It all began with an especially prolific pepper plant. Bernard had more hot Thai peppers than he cared to eat, so he thought, Let’s put them in beer. They decided a rich, dark porter would be the perfect foil. They also added some cardamom Nick had hand-picked in India. The results were inspiring. When the blueberries went wild, they were added to a brown ale. They’ve also used local peaches, cherries, strawberries, muscadines, blackberries and pears, as well as herbs such as hyssop, borage, rosemary, milk thistle, sage and thyme. Obviously, this ain’t your daddy’s Bud.
Bernard has even grown his own hops in Star. I didn’t know it was possible. Prized hops generally come from regions with weather that’s very different from ours – Germany (Hallertau), the United Kingdom (Golding) or the Pacific Northwest (Cascade, Centennial and Willamette). Hops add the appealing bitterness to beer. Depending on the variety, they can impart a range of flavors – hints of citrus, flowers, grass or pine. He tried several varieties and has had the most success with Cascade, Chinook and Mt. Hood. Growing his own allows him to “wet hop” his beer – fresh hops are added to the wort soon after they’re picked, when they’re most flavorful.
Efforts are also afoot to grow barley a little closer to home. The 2-row barley traditionally used in beer comes from Europe or the western United States, but the climate in the South is better suited to 6-row barley, which is higher in protein and generally used for animal feed. The owners of the Riverbend Malt House in Asheville are determined to change that. They’re working with the Hoffner family, owners of an organic farm in Rowan County, to grow a variety of 6-row barley that will lend itself to craft beers. (The LandTrust for Central North Carolina acquired a permanent conservation easement on 261 acres of the Hoffner farm last fall.)
Bernard said they haven’t done much foraging for wild ingredients because they’re blessed with such an abundance of local produce. He does credit nature for one key ingredient – he has brewed a batch of beer with rainwater. He gives the rain a chance to flush the gutters then stands at the downspout with a bucket. During a heavy rain, he can collect enough water in less than a minute. The only challenge is timing. He can’t let the water sit too long before brewing, and he has to be available – at home and awake – during the perfect storm.
He’s also had success with meads, an alcoholic beverage brewed with honey that can be carbonated, sparkling or still. Bernard recalls having a critic in Seattle praise the first mead he ever made. Since he hadn’t done anything special, he credits a local apiary’s exceptional honey. He has also made varieties of mead called melomels, which contain fruit, and metheglins, which include spices and herbs. He notes that these beverages can be made exclusively with local ingredients.
In the past, it was difficult and expensive to procure ingredients from around the world. People had to be creative with what was at hand. Today, with the internet and a vast transportation network in place, we have almost unlimited choices. But with rising fuel costs and widespread crop failures – like the worrisome shortage of hops a few years back – we might see a day where costs become prohibitive once again. Because of all the equipment and labor involved, homebrewing is often a group effort, a way to connect with our neighbors. Using local ingredients allows us to reduce our carbon footprint, value our landscape, support our economy and create a sense of community. With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, it’s a great opportunity to rethink the term “green beer.”
Homebrewing classes are being offered at Montgomery Community College this spring. A six-week introductory class begins April 3, and a seven-week intermediate class begins March 24. For more information, go to https://www.montgomery.edu/index.php/personal-enrichment.
Supplies can be found locally at Star Beer and Wine Supplies (http://starbeerandwinesupplies.com).
Books Recommended by Eddie Bernard
The Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian
The Homebrewer’s Garden by Joe Fisher
Homegrown Hops by David R. Beach
Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher
Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World by Christopher Mark O’Brien
Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation by Stephen Harrod Buhner
For more information on efforts to produce barley and hops in the Piedmont, check out the following websites: