Brewers pour passion into N.C. Beer Month

Apr. 03, 2013 @ 09:26 PM

Hidden in the woods of Chatham County between churches and rolling farmland, down a long and winding dirt road, is North Carolina’s smallest commercial beer brewery.

Bear Creek Brews, which consists of a 15-gallon brewing station in Dave Peters’s backyard, is surrounded by artwork, some Jimmy Buffet memorabilia and a few wandering chickens. It’s decidedly informal — after all, it was only ever meant to be a way of turning a hobby into a small moneymaker for Peters, an irrigation, landscaping and construction contractor.

Despite its small size, Bear Creek Brews joins with the state’s large craft breweries — Red Oak, Carolina Brewery, Big Boss and more — in seeking publicity during April, which has been dubbed North Carolina Beer Month by the state’s tourism bureau. Chatham County has a number of bars and restaurants participating with various events and specials. Most are in Pittsboro, including City Tap, which carries some of Peters’s brews.

Lee County isn’t participating — there’s neither a local tourism bureau nor any locally brewed beer — but people who want to partake in the celebration can find nearby events in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Durham and Greensboro in addition to Chatham County. More information is available at www.ncbeermonth.com.

But just because Lee, Harnett and Moore counties aren’t involved in Beer Month doesn’t mean there aren’t craft beer fans in the area.

Mareise Weldon, who lives in Broadway just over the Harnett County line, is one of those enthusiasts. A 2006 graduate of Lee County High School who works at Pentair, Weldon, 24, is relatively new to the fad and is now planning his third batch. However, even in a short amount of time, he has faced criticism from locals.

“There is a social stigma with some people that you’re just trying to get drunk,” he said. “But if I wanted that, I would be spending my $70 and four hours of my weekend doing something else.”

He brews, he said, because it’s a creative outlet with a delicious byproduct, and he loves getting into the chemistry and food science aspects of the craft. Plus, he’s part German and lived there when he was young. He hasn’t had the chance to go back, but brewing, he said, is another way of connecting with those roots.

His setup is small, taking up one corner of a room: Two five-gallon buckets and a metal container for boiling malt extracts, plus various smaller pieces of equipment. In total, each batch costs him about $70 and yields enough beer to fill about 50 12-ounce bottles. He bottles the beer himself and serves it when friends come over.

Weldon said he’s not a huge fan of lagers — the style of every major domestic beer — and that he first realized there was more to the world of beer when he ordered a Blue Moon on tap several year ago and was pleasantly surprised by how flavorful the brew was. A little while later, he toured Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina and decided that brewing looked fun. And while many of his friends and co-workers still prefer mass-produced domestic lagers, Weldon said, he’s slowly converting some to the fuller range of ales, wheat beers and more. His current batch is a malty hefeweizen (a German wheat beer) with hints of clove and banana, and he’s planning to brew a cream ale and a raspberry IPA (India Pale Ale) in the near future.

But while Weldon said he’s not a huge lager fan, Peters said they’re actually his favorite — just not the mass-produced varieties. However, he doesn’t personally make a lot of lagers because doing so takes much longer than brewing an ale. The word lager is, after all, German for “storage.” Peters’ signature brew is a honey pale ale, which he said isn’t sweet but has a distinct honey aroma. He also makes two different blonde ales, a Scotch ale, an Irish red ale and a Belgian-style wheat beer.

Peters was born in Wisconsin, surrounded by breweries, and lived for many years in California, which also has a vibrant beer scene. He’s been in Bear Creek for close to a decade now and said that while North Carolina does have a decent brewing culture, state regulations can be onerous and people in rural areas aren’t always hospitable toward brewing operations.

However, bemoaning the previously slow growth of the U.S. beer industry — the number of breweries in the entire country just recently eclipsed how many there were before Prohibition, thanks in part to the legalization of home brewing in 1978 — Peters is glad to be doing his part to combat the spread of lite beers, which he said are barely more than fizzy colored water that’s “sometimes not even colored all that well.”

But while he might eventually expand to a slightly larger operation, he said, he has no intention of trying to grow his company into a major brewery. He said focusing on income rather than innovation would take all the fun out of it.

“I don’t want to be the next Sam Adams,” he said, referring to the hugely successful Boston brewery. “I like being able to change with the trends, to experiment. I’m fine selling to a half-dozen loyal customers who keep coming back for more.”