“When are you going to tour local brew pubs for encore?” Jock dropped his not-so-well concealed hint … yet again.
With the mushroom effect of new breweries appearing in the area in the last couple of years, it seemed a pertinent Live Local story. There were only a couple of small problems: 1) I needed an official taste-tester, because I have never actually finished an entire pint of beer in my life; and 2) like many busy couples, it can be hard for us to make time to do things.
Jock very generously volunteered his 50-plus years of experience drinking beer to provide a framework for my column (which also would allow me to remember some of the evening—and, when combined with a tape recorder, it gave me a fighting chance of writing something about it, “In the name of journalism, you understand,” he made sure to clarify.
Scheduling just gets away from us: Jock is always in and out of the country; I have myriad bookstore, theatre and encore obligations. By the time we get finished with all of them, another week has gone by with no brewpub tour.
“I think you need to make it a priority—this week. I mean, you don’t want to disappoint your editor, do you?” Jock asked innocently a few weeks ago.
So, with a little advance planning, we sallied forth one Monday evening to find out more about the brew pub phenomenon in Wilmington. Though there are currently breweries in Carolina Beach, Southport and the central part and north parts of Wilmington, for safety purposes, we focused downtown so we could walk point to point. (If we get organized and find transportation, we will try to hit all the other breweries, too.)
Three locations and 17 beers is a lot for two old fogies in one night. I remember all the excitement behind the large pieces of plywood that blocked the entrance to 9 Front Street in 1994—and then the amazing reveal when the plywood came down and the beautiful front windows were filled with copper brewing tanks. Front Street Brewery immediately became a buzz of activity downtown. Even my parents, who were not social creatures, wanted to make a pilgrimage to try the beer sampler. Since Front Street Brewry is the flagship that got all the excitement growing here, it seemed a fitting place to start.
“Of course, the first beer of the evening is the one you like the best,” Jock joked, as the bartender set down a tray with five sample glasses of beer in front of us. Even on a Monday night, Front Street Brewery was packed: We could barely hear the bartender as she moved her finger in a guiding direction of a “Z” along the tray to correlate with the lamented information sheet: “German classic from Cologne…” I began to read the description of the Kolsch aloud as Jock sipped the first beer.
Around us activity swelled: Waitstaff rushed past, the kitchen clanged, and more people entered, looking for seats. It reminded me of the comment in “The Great Gatsby,” about finding intimacy at big parties. I had to lean in close to Jock for him to hear me, and we were in a bubble of the two of us, the tape recorder and five small glasses of beer.
The Dram Tree Scottish Ale was my favorite, though I happily finished the Raspberry Wheat after Jock made a face trying to swallow it. Fruity beers are not his thing. The Kolsch was the clear winner for him, but he added, “It’s who you drink with that makes the beer taste good.”
We headed over to Ironclad Brewery on Second Street for part two of our endeavor. The beautiful, recently renovated, former automotive building has 10,000 square feet of space and four bars on two floors. We claimed a spot at the first bar near the door and watched an event wind up at the far end of the room. People wandered out and held an assortment of items; my favorite was a chaffing dish. There’s never a dull moment in downtown Wilmington.
“This is an American Style IPA; we add orange peel to it…” Ethan Hall, head brewer at Ironclad, introduced each of the beers to me. Jock had “stepped out to the heads” and left me to order.
After chatting with Ethan, it seemed irresistible not to try every beer, so I got one of everything—10 in all. Lagers, stouts, chocolate, IPAs—it was a beautiful sight to behold, all lined up, carefully on the placemat next to each name. We added to the list of beer Jock doesn’t like: pumpkin ale. By the time we got to that one, he had enough beer in him to wax poetic on the subject of unfair treatment of squash and other well-meaning vegetables.
“Pumpkin abuse, I tell you!” he pointedly remarked.
Mind you, he also insulted Ethan at this point over a distaste for fruit-flavored beer. But the IPAs and stouts kept him happy. The Teach’s Chocolate Stout by far was my favorite (what a great idea: combining chocolate and beer).
Ethan took his time with us, carefully walking us through each stage of the process for developing each beer. It was like talking with an uncle about his favorite hobby: His knowledge and patience were both limitless, and his pride in his work was visible (and palatable!). Jock regaled people with the standard film technician hobby: “Stories of famous people I have drunk beer with in harrowing circumstances…”
On my right, two charming gentlemen made the mistake of letting me talk about two topics upon which I can wax poetic: film incentives and Shakespeare. (Luckily for them, I had yet to see Cumberbatch’s “Hamlet,” or they would have been cornered until closing time). Out of 10 beers, we divvied up the glasses and no beer was wasted—all of it was wonderful and hit the spot on an autumn evening.
But we had one more stop to make: Flytrap Brewing on North Fourth Street. A lot of friends have chatted about it, but we just hadn’t had the chance to make it into the door. So, it was nice to be greeted by one of my favorite literati, Zach Tooman, behind the bar. I mean, anyone who has David Foster Wallace tattoos and is willing to endure me rambling about Steinbeck after three shots of whisky, has to be a favorite, right? If you haven’t met Zach, he is truly a lovely person who can endure a lot of craziness with a smile. He also is very proud of what Flytrap is doing—you can hear it in his voice.
When I asked for a sampler, he hemmed a bit and answered that they were down to two beers brewed in house. “It’s like 14 hours of work to produce one keg of beer,” he pointed out.
That very weekend would be their one-year anniversary and the brewer/owner, Mike Barlas, was staying busy by getting beer ready for their huge party. Consequently, he gave us two beers to try: a Rehder’s Red and a Saison. Unlike our previous two stops Flytrap is not trying to provide a broad range of beers. They specialize in Belgian-influenced beers and they are perfecting the craft in an Old World style. The Rehder’s Red was the winner for Jock—though I liked the lightness of the saison.
“Named for Henry?” I asked about the Red.
“Stanley,” Zach answered.
Flytrap named their brewery after the local known as “The Flytrap Man.” Rehder was a local horticulturist who cultivated locally indigineous flesh-eating plants, and helped pass legislation for their protection. Barlas has donated a portion of the proceeds of the Red Rehder to the NC Coastal Land Trust. Of course, my book mind just went to “Growing a Beautiful Garden” by Henry Rehder, a book I shelve about once a month.
Jock rambled about something involving light opera, and I knew he was comfortably drunk. Zach filled us in on the beer-making process and pointed out they were producing in small batches, so they were not able to sell growlers. “None of it is walking out of this room,” he grinned.
It’s great to see people so pleased.
“Will you take me home?” Jock asked.
“Mmmmmm…” I considered. “Will you let me have my way with you?”
He gave it serious thought before nodding ascent and asked, “So which beer was your favorite?”
“You know, sweetheart, you were right. You can taste the difference in micro-brewed beer, but the best ingredient is who you share it with.”