Beer Fest Brings Out the Best

From left, Michelle Piegaro of Charlotte and Angela Jankowsky and Marlene Dailey of Cary have worn traditional German dirndl dresses to the beer festival in Durham for four years. Photo by Corey Lowenstein.

Written by Lynn Bonner for newsobserver.com

DURHAM — Local brews took their place beside some of the world’s best-known brands at an annual beer festival Saturday, with North Carolina crafters creating recipes they say will satisfy tastes for distinctive brews.

The state was barely a blip in the craft-beer universe when the first beer fest untapped in Durham 16 years ago. Now, festival goers can spend part of an afternoon sampling beer from the mountains to the Triangle and on to Down East and the shore.

Along with the samples, the festival at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park had much to offer the beer connoisseur. There were beer-can jewelry items for those who wanted to display their hoppy love around their necks, and seminars for geeks who wanted to know what goes best with chocolate desserts.

A consumer movement that puts a premium on locally grown food has helped bolster small brewers, said Mark Valeriani, a brewer at LoneRider Brewing Co. in Raleigh.

“The craft beer market is endless,” Valeriani said, as consumers look to support community businesses. “A lot of the people who bought these beers were looking to change the way they buy and where their money goes.”

Valeriani said beer drinkers are asking, “What’s local? What’s fresh? What’s going to go back into my local economy?”

A beer economy

No longer the “brewing backwater” it was 16 years ago, the state has developed a reputation for quality craft beers, said Julie Johnson, editor and co-owner of All About Beer magazine.

Johnson used to be The News & Observer’s beer columnist, and her magazine sponsors the festival.

The beer economy is reaching to the farm, she noted, with researchers at N.C. State University exploring whether state soils can produce hops in quantities and qualities brewers will want to use.

State laws also create a friendly climate for small breweries, which can have taverns on the premises. And five years ago, the state passed a law that raised the maximum allowable alcohol content in beer from 6 percent by volume to 15 percent.

Johnson, one of the leaders of the effort to change the law, said it has allowed craft brewers to flourish.

“Once the legal restrictions were lifted, our brewers stepped up and showed how they could brew beer in a full range of styles,” she said.

Eighteen North Carolina breweries, some as young as a few months, were among the 111 featured at the festival.

Sean Walsh opened Fullsteam in Durham two months ago with the idea of creating beer using local ingredients and brews that would go with regional recipes.

The brewery’s Carver Sweet Potato Lager uses state-grown potatoes, and the Hogwash Hickory-Smoked Porter is meant to go with barbecue. The brewery plans to expand its Southern-style line with rhubarb beer.

Walsh worked to pass the 2005 law that boosted beers’ allowable alcohol content. He wasn’t thinking about opening his own brewery back then, he said, but he liked the craft-beer community so much he decided to get in the business.

“North Carolina is a very craft-beer friendly state,” he said.