Years ago, Maryanne was a frequent business traveler to North Carolina. Having a rental car on the company’s dime resulted in many invitations to favorite faraway lunch spots. The food was always delicious: barbecue, piled high and served with hush puppies and endless pitchers of iced tea. Sitting on picnic tables, in buildings that sometimes looked like a garage in the hills, our meal was a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of downtown Manhattan with its three-martini lunches.
Cubicles in the office building were filled with ACC bumper stickers, hats and even basketballs. The most interesting, or so it seemed at the time, included: “God May Be a Tar Heel, but Sampson is a Cavalier” and “If God Isn’t a Tar Heel, Why is the Sky Carolina Blue?”
On one visit, someone pointed out the lunch routine was changing this week. It was ACC tournament time, you see. The local bars filled long before tipoff. As I sat down at a long table underneath a TV, the person next to me poured me a glass of beer. I have no idea when I left. It was after the last game was over, sometime well into the next shift.
The hospitality was infectious and the friendships developed over barbecue and basketball have lasted a lifetime. Unfortunately, the beer, as it was in most places back then, was forgettable.
So it was with fond memories of Southern hospitality, and after many of our own attempts to smoke barbecue at home, that we returned to North Carolina last fall. Despite Mother Nature’s attempt to drown us in a hurricane, we meandered throughout the state for several days. This time, however, the beer was worth remembering.
The North Carolina legislature recently passed a bill nicknamed “Pop the Cap,” allowing breweries to produce beer over 6% ABV and legalizing sales of it as well. Local brewers were ready to prove they could compete with out-of-state rivals in all styles. And that they did.
Not long ago, downtown Greensboro was a step away from becoming a ghost town. We’re happy to report that an anchor in its revitalization is Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Co. (345 South Elm Street). It’s only a couple of blocks south of the site of the historic Woolworth’s where students sat in at the lunch counter to desegregate it.
As we walked down the street, we smelled the mash and knew we had our target in sight when we spotted the grain silo. When you enter the converted storefront with its large picture windows, you’ll immediately notice the mural on the dining room wall depicting Elm Street during horse-and-buggy days. The bar and seven-barrel Criveller brew house are beyond the dining room and marked by a large wrought-iron chandelier hanging from the exposed wooden ceiling.
Brewmaster Scott Christophel keeps five beers plus a seasonal on tap. The lineup includes Guilford Golden Ale, a light-bodied golden ale brewed with English malt and hops; Buckshot Amber Ale; Natty Greene’s Pale Ale; General Stout, an Irish-style dry stout; Old Town Brown, an English-style brown ale with a hint of baker’s chocolate; and Scott’s Honest Ale, a name given to the rotating seasonals.
The Old Town Brown caught our fancy, as did the large outdoor seating area. Natty Greene’s describes its food menu as “Southern-Styled, High Quality Fare” and offers blackboard specials daily.
Nearby Winston-Salem is home to the Foothills Brewing Co. (638 West 4th Street). The brewery, which opened in 2004, is located right downtown. Metered parking is available outside the front door. As you enter, the sleek modern-looking, blonde wood bar catches your eye, and the brick walls provide an interesting backdrop to the poster-size labels of the house beer. Together with the 15-barrel E-Z Flo brew system, they remind customers that “beer is brewed here.”
Brewer Jamie Bartholomous makes six standard beers, along with four seasonals. The menu beers are Salem Gold, a light golden ale with wheat and pale malt, the lightest in the lineup; Pilot Mountain Pale Ale, an American pale ale aggressively hopped with Perle hops (and yes, we couldn’t resist asking if it was the “Mount Pilot” referred to on the Andy Griffith show); Torch Pilsner, a Czech-style pilsner with 5.3% ABV and Saaz hops; Total Eclipse Stout, a full-bodied stout with 5.75% ABV; Rainbow Trout ESB, made with all English ingredients; and Kind Ale IPA, which features organic American malts. Also on the menu when we visited was an altbier—one of the best we’ve ever tasted.
Much of the food on the menu incorporates the house beer. In addition to good home-style Southern-fare, the menu includes a wild-game sampler, with venison, quail, ostrich, wild boar, and your choice of duck or rabbit, and bacon-wrapped North Carolina rainbow trout. There is even a smoked buffalo pizza, as well as a South Dakota buffalo burger.
Of course, no trip to North Carolina is complete without a visit to Chapel Hill, where we quaffed at both Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery and Carolina Brewery. Both are downtown. While we drove between the two, we could have easily hoofed it if it weren’t for the buckets of rain inundating Chapel Hill that afternoon.
Top of the Hill (100 East Franklin Street), which opened in 1996, is on a busy corner near campus. Owner Scott Maitland went to law school at UNC and decided the town deserved something better than chain restaurants.
Unless you’re Michael Jordan, you’ll need to ride the elevator to the third floor, where in addition to a restaurant and brewery, you’ll find the South’s first “microcannery.” The brewing vessels and canning equipment, made by Cask Systems of Calgary, greet you as you enter.
The patio has an outstanding view of the historic downtown and you’re guarded by gargoyles. Can you find the one holding a basketball? Members of UNC sports teams have been known to pose for photos among the gargoyles too, so go ahead. They won’t tell.
The brewer is John Withey and his beer is gosh-darned good. He came here after stints at Shepherd Neame and Whitbread in England, which accounts for a darker, maltier, less-hoppy IPA than one usually finds in the U.S.
The beer menu includes Top of the Hill’s Leaderboard Trophy Lager (golf is another favorite pastime in these parts); Big Bertha Brown Ale; Ram’s Head IPA; Frank Graham Porter (politics junkies will recognize the play on an obscure NC senator’s name), a rich smooth creamy beer with dry espresso flavors and hints of chocolate and hops; Chuck Stone Black and Tan, which is an IPA layered with porter; and Pop the Cap Barleywine. The beers have won 16 medals in World Beer Championships. The slogan for one style was “My other beer is a water hazard.”
The food menu is eclectic, with everything from smoked barbecue chicken and shrimp cocktail pizzas, to a turkey pretzel po’boy, to a Kobe beef burger. Don’t forget to check out the collection of historic Chapel Hill photographs before you leave.
From there it’s only about half a mile to the Carolina Brewery (460 West Franklin Street), our next stop. The word-count police are watching, however, so you’ll have to join us again in the next issue when we cover “Beer in College Towns.”
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.