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True brew in Charlotte 

Tap into the city's burgeoning craft beers scene

Forget the ever-so-cool Beer Town USA, Asheville — a nascent beer scene is blossoming in the Queen City, from its artsy fringe in NoDa to gritty, industrial west Charlotte. And more breweries are waiting in the wings. Charlotte and its suburban communities soon may be awash in local suds, and not just that meagerly flavored stuff that has defined American beer for generations. The dominant mega-brewers have been allowed to produce low-cost, low-taste beer for too long, but with the return of artisan brewers, beer is tasting great again.

Craft beers are all about freshness, since beer begins to lose its vibrancy as soon as it is bottled or canned. Imagine the taste difference between homemade spaghetti marinara and canned SpaghettiOs. The same is true for beer. Well-made craft beers may cost more, but they're worth it. As Todd Ford, owner of NoDa Brewing Company, notes, "Local microbreweries are to beer what Starbucks was to grocery store mass-marketed coffee. The fact that it is marginally more expensive for incredibly more flavor makes it a value as well."

So, why are there suddenly so many breweries in Charlotte? Is it all about flavor?

Not exactly. Until recently, there were legal impediments for craft brewers. When the microbrewery trend swept the nation in the 1980s, Dilworth Brewing opened at the corner of Kenilworth Avenue and East Boulevard, and then in 1995 the enormous SouthEnd Brewery (now a complex anchored by Icehouse and other businesses) became the place to go if you wanted to mingle with some Carolina Panthers. Both breweries benefitted from the 1985 change in North Carolina law allowing brewpubs to exist. Both spots have since closed.

Then, in 2005, the North Carolina Legislature increased the cap of alcohol from six percent to 15 percent for state producers. A higher percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) allows for more variety of aroma, flavor and mouth feel, much like wine, since alcohol is one thread that carries the flavor of beer. This higher ABV is needed for the popular West Coast-style India pale ale (IPA) craft beers. Alistair Williams, a Johnson & Wales University associate professor who teaches a brewing arts course at the Charlotte culinary institution, says the legislative change was critical for potential brewers since "most craft beers have very high ABV, which was illegal earlier."

Not everyone in the field agrees. Brett Taubman, assistant professor of chemistry, who teaches brewing science and analysis as part of the new Fermentation Sciences Program at Appalachian State University, says the legislative change in 2005 is "somewhat of a chicken or egg argument." He says the state changed the law because of industry pressure "to allow for greater variety [of beer styles] and make it easier for prospective business owners."

Another legislative change paved the path for small breweries as well. North Carolina has a three-tiered alcohol distribution system — a vestige left from the post-prohibition era — which requires a middle distributor. In other words, a brewer could not sell a keg to a neighboring bar or a growler (the glass jug it comes in) to the public from the tap room. But North Carolina made an exception for beer producers of less than 25,000 barrels — a level many start-up brewers are in.

Besides the removal of legal obstructions, perhaps the most obvious reason for Charlotte's wave of breweries is, as John Marrino, owner and brewer of The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, pointed out: Charlotte was the largest city in the nation without a local craft brewery.

In 2007, Four Friends Brewing was established. Within five years, five additional craft breweries opened: The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, NoDa Brewing Company, Birdsong Brewing Co., Triple C Brewing Co. and Heist Brewery. Owners of another brewery, Free Range Brewing, are currently scouting the Plaza Midwood area for a location.

Of the six Charlotte craft breweries, five have tap rooms. Three are in NoDa, an easy beer crawl. One is on a light-rail stop. Recently Four Friends, located in southwest Charlotte, closed its tap room.

Here's a rundown of area craft breweries, beginning with the newest:

Heist Brewery

2909 N. Davidson St. www.heistbrewery.com

Hours: Monday to Wednesday 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.; Thursday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Limited menu after 10 p.m.

Owner Kurt Hogan opened his expansive brewpub Heist — a nod to Charlotte's banking industry — in NoDa's Highland Mill on Aug. 31. On his menu are reminders of people responsible for major financial heists, from John Dillinger to Bernie Madoff. The interior is multi-leveled and expansive, with a sweeping rough-hewn granite counter fronting the glassed-in brewery and repurposed wood used in the architectural design.

Brewer Zach Hart studied brewing skills at the University of California at Davis and was the brewer at the Mash House in Fayetteville for 12 years. Of the craft beer movement, Hart says, "People are just ready for great, fresh beer. Like food, beer is evolving."

Heist has seven flagship beers and five seasonal beers. Flights of six beers are $6. Beers range from a light ale to an oatmeal stout. Of note is the I2PA, an intensively flavored, balanced, hop-forward imperial pale ale. Hoppy beers seem to cry out for food, and Chef Rob Masone has put together some compelling taste combinations. The kristalweizen, a filtered beer, is less yeasty and is an excellent choice with Masone's artisan flat breads. Another excellent pairing is the smoked duck with roasted peppers quesadilla with the IPA. Inspiration in beer and cuisine seems to strike here all the time.

Birdsong Brewing Co.

2315 N. Davidson St. www.birdsongbrewing.com

Taproom hours: Thursday and Friday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The smallest but most welcoming of the Charlotte taprooms is at Birdsong, which opened in 2011 with seven partners. Partner Chandra Torrence attributes the rise of craft breweries in Charlotte to the increasing popularity of "food trucks, independent restaurants, local farm-table CSA's [community-supported agriculture groups] and the arts in general."

Birdsong's tap room is sparse: Local art dots the walls, tables sport galvanized cans of peanuts, a small viewing area reveals the brewery while the small bar offers Jenga, and a loading dock is now a patio. The crew is perhaps the best informed in town, willing to spend time with customers and become involved in insightful conversations about beer.

The beers, all unfiltered, include Free Will Pale Ale; Lazy Bird Brown Ale; Higher Ground IPA, a West Coast-style beer; Up On the Sun Saison, a farmhouse ale; the jalapeño-infused Free Will Pale Ale (which has not yet been officially named); and Doing Thyme Witbier. The most remarkable of all Birdsong's beers is the Jalapeño, having the essence of chile without the heat, which brewer Conor Robinson, a Johnson & Wales Baking and Pastry program graduate, calls an accidental success that has now become a standard beer on the list.

Birdsong is on tap at more than 50 bars and restaurants in the Charlotte area.

NoDa Brewing Company

2229 N. Davidson St. www.nodabrewing.com

Taproom hours: Tuesday to Thursday 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Across the street from Birdsong is NoDa Brewing Company. Owner Todd Ford was a homebrewer for 16 years before opening, with his wife Suzie, their 15-barrel brewery in October 2011. Since then they have expanded. NoDa was the first of three breweries to open in this neighborhood. Todd Ford enjoys meeting his customers in the taproom and introducing his brews, which he describes as a "blend of two different beer love affairs: The great beers of Belgium and the innovative, hop-forward beers of the American West Coast."

NoDa has five standard beers and six to seven seasonal offerings. Two flights of four beers each will yield the variety offered at NoDa. One of its most popular beers is NoDaRyeZ'd, a hoppy beer with a whopping International Bitterness Unit of 90. IBUs range from 0 to the high of 100, with 5 for a typically light lager. India pale ales generally fall between 40 to 60. NoDa's Woody and Wilcox beer backs away from extreme hop to a balanced flavor with a thread of citrus notes. The most unusual is an infused beer, the NoDajito, a Witbier with mint, more like sweet tea than beer. This taproom, like Birdsong, does not have food, but at scheduled times (listed on Facebook) a food truck will make stops.

NoDa brews can be found in 135 spots around town, including the Bank of America Stadium. In addition, this fall NoDa will begin bottling two beers: Pacific Reign, an Imperial IPA; and a Belgian quad barrel-aged on cherries. Both will be available locally.

Triple C Brewing Co.

2900 Griffith St. www.triplecbrewing.com

Taproom hours: Tuesday to Thursday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Just a few blocks from the New Bern station Blue Rail stop is Triple C Brewing Co., which opened Aug. 25. The name comes from the owners' first names: Chris Harker, Chris Murphy and his wife Christina Murphy.

Triple C's taproom is spacious, featuring reclaimed wood and aged brick. A broad expanse of glass encases the brewery. Some tables are the long traditional ones; others are four-tops. Dogs are welcome here. Of note are the urban paintings by Harker's mom, Angie, who also designed the label for Triple C's Light Rail Pale Ale.

The company has five standard beers, all American ales, and expects to have some seasonal brews as well. One of its most appealing beers is the Smoked Amber. The other beers on the roster are Golden Boy; Greenway IPA, a classic West Coast-style IPA; and a barrel-aged Baby Maker Double IPA. Brewer Scott Kimball previously made beer at the Eddyline brewery in Colorado, as well as Old Dominion and Fordham breweries in Delaware.

The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery

215 Southside Drive. www.oldemeckbrew.com

Taproom hours: Tuesday to Thursday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Live music Friday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Free brewery tours on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.

"The first person I make beer for is myself," says owner and brewer John Marrino. "And I love beer."

Five years ago Marrino began his journey to brewing. He realized that people around the world appreciate premium, fresh beer, and during his stint in Germany with a water purification company, he found his love for classic German beer. Three other things — his degree in mechanical engineering, his expertise in water (the main ingredient in beer) and his fortunate, dead-on palate — helped him to create a local brewery of national note.

The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery is German-style beer. For beer aficionados, Germany has always proved perplexing: Since each town brews a unique beer, how can they all be tasted?

Marrino only brews three beers: the ever-so-smooth Copper, a Düsseldorf-style Altbier; Captain Jack Pilsner, and a seasonal. Currently, the seasonal beer is the fine Mecktoberfest Maerzen-style amber lager, but OMB's Dunkel, a seasonal dark, Munich-style lager, could make you wish for winter.

The taproom has a Teutonic air, with weathered beer-hall tables, darkened wainscoting, chandeliers and German regional flags. Food is here: hot pretzels and excellent bratwurst with even better sauerkraut. The only drawback is the lack of enough television screens to catch a game (the one over the bar isn't directed toward the hall). However, OMB does pay attention to its beer, which can be found at more than 200 bars, restaurants and retailers in the Charlotte area.

Four Friends Brewing

10913 Office Park Drive. www.fourfriendsbrewing.com

Taproom currently closed.

Four Friends Brewing is in industrial west Charlotte. Owners Mark Kaminsky and Jonathan Fulcher, who met in elementary school, established a brewery in 2007 with their wives Allison Kaminsky and Beth Fulcher. It was the first of the current crop of regional craft brewers that Jon Fulcher describes as a "refreshing collection of mad scientists, artisans, patriots and hippies."

Recently, the demand for Four Friends' draught product has required them to close the taproom and focus on production. Their goal, Fulcher says, "is to develop beers patrons can enjoy at their favorite restaurants and bars, with the eventual goal of packaging our products to allow consumers to enjoy it in their homes." To do this, Four Friends has leased the neighboring real estate, doubling the size of the business. Part of that new space will be dedicated to a taproom, which the Friends' intend to reopen.

The brewery offers one seasonal beer and two core beers: I77, a hop-forward IPA; and Queen City Red, an Irish Red Ale. Currently, the seasonal beer is Uptown Brown. "Presentation, aroma, initial flavor and post-drinking impression is what a craft beer should always give to a consumer," Fulcher notes, "and we strive to make our beers memorable in those areas."

Currently, Four Friends is found in more than 50 area restaurants and bars.

Corporate Chains

Charlotte has two corporate breweries. Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery (401 N. Tryon St.) is a Louisville, Colo.-based group with more than 100 locations. Beer flights cost $6 for six beers. Five beers is standard with several seasonal and specialty beers. Hours: Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. The second corporate brewery is Hops Grill (9950 E. Independence Blvd., Matthews), which began as a microbrewery in Clearwater, Fla., in 1988. Today, Hops has four locations in three states. Its five-beer sampler is $3.79.

Up the Road

Ass Clown Brewing Company

10620 Bailey Road, Cornelius. www.assclownbrewery.com

Taproom hours: Thursday 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Owner and brewer Matt Glidden grew up on a Vermont dairy farm, which strengthened his commitment to using the best organic ingredients possible­ — so much so that he grows his own hops. Glidden opened Ass Clown in 2009. All of his beers are unfiltered. The Orange Spice, Vanilla Brown Ale and Dark Chocolate Stout are Ass Clown's standards, while the seasonal beers include Buttered Apple Pie, Ancho Pepper Pumpkin, Pumpkin IPA and Red Rye Weck IPA. Ass Clown can be found at Baja Soul and Brixx in Huntersville, the Galway Hooker in Cornelius and VBGB Beer Hall.

In the Works

Free Range Brewing

www.freerangebrewing.com

Owners and brothers Jason and Jeff Alexander are scouting Plaza Midwood for a spot to open their Free Range Brewing, a brewpub blending "farmhouse tradition, modern sustainability and an industrial flair." Jason Alexander, the brewer, says he will pair his brews with farm-to-fork dishes.

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