with Jamie Bartholomaus
Foothills Brewing Co. Winston-Salem, NC
Besides being the brewmaster at Foothills, you’re the president of the North Carolina Brewers’ Guild. What do you see in the future for NC breweries?
I think therewill continue to be an awakening of spirit in the state’s breweries as people gain confidence. They’ll push the envelope of brewing styles and business plans will develop, and hopefully lead to some larger microbreweries. The largest guys here in North Carolina and the South―barring Sweetwater―are pretty tiny compared with the rest of the country.
Hopefully we’ll increase collaborations among brewers here in the state as the guild develops. We can reach out to each other for innovation and to do business together.
You’re involved in a collaboration brew right now.
Yes, that’s a perfect example. It’s collaboration between Olde Hickory Brewery, Duck-Rabbit and Foothills. Basically, me and one of my guys drove to Kentucky and bought a bunch of special bourbon barrels, a very nice bourbon in particular. It’s our philosophy that the barrel is what makes the beer better. There are two philosophies: one, people say that the freshest barrel is better; and other people say that the best bourbon is better. I go for the better liquor, versus the absolute freshness of the barrel.
All three breweries made an imperial stout. For Paul [Philippon] at Duck-Rabbit, it’s his Rabid Duck. Ours was our Sexual Chocolate, and Olde Hickory made an imperial stout just for this project. We’re going to blend them, and―after several steps required for federal label approval―we’ll hopefully be selling the bottles on November 21. It’ll be called Olde Rabbit’s Foot.
How much will you make?
Seven hundred bottles, approximately. We’re actually bottling it at Olde Hickory Brewery: as part of the collaboration, we’re splitting up the duties. The Duck-Rabbit guys are going to put in a lot of the labor for bottling and labeling, and we’re going to sell it here. We think we have the best vehicle for the release of the bottles, based on our geography and our success with the Sexual Chocolate release.
How long has that been going on? It’s become quite an event for beer lovers.
Just two years. We’ve made Sexual Chocolate for three years. After the first year, I started getting e-mails from people asking me how I’d recommend hand-bottling it from the growler. One guy said he wasn’t even a homebrewer, and he was wondering how to sanitize and hand-fill bottles. And I said “My recommendation is that you don’t do that. In fact, please don’t. It could mess up the beer.”
So, as a reaction, that day we cut off growler sales of the beer. The next year, we started bottling it ourselves so it could get out to people and we could control the quality and make sure it was going out as we wanted it.
The first year we made one batch; the second year, two; the third year, three; and this year we’ll probably make four batches, which will be about 60 barrels. Last year we had to turn away about 80 people who got no bottles, and we may try to change some of the rules to try to accommodate more people. We’ll bottle some more, but since we’re still basically hand-bottling, we don’t want to do a whole lot more.
Is that the only beer you bottle?
Yes. It’s worth it, just to get it out there. We hand-number each bottle.
I’m a great admirer of your label art. Is the same artist doing the label for Olde Rabbit’s Foot?
Yeah, the three of us talked about it, and decided that Dave Shapiro, our guy, would be the one to do the label. He also did the logo for the brewers’ guild. It’s been interesting to work with him on these projects, and come up with a new identity, because I certainly don’t want people to feel like this is something like the Foothills Club. We made a real effort to make sure that the image and feel is different: the Brewers’ Guild is 25 North Carolina breweries; it’s not us. The same’s with Olde Rabbit’s Foot. It needs to show the three breweries working together.
November 21 will come up fast, with label approval still to go through. The first step is the SOP―the statement of process―on how the beer’s made, and I just got my approval for our part. We had to get an SOP to put cocoa in the beer. Then we needed an SOP to put the cocoa beer in barrels. I just got that approval. Paul’s still waiting on his, Then once Paul and I get ours, Stephen can get his, referencing our SOPs as ingredients
Since we’re bottling the beer at Olde Hickory, according to the TTB it’s an Old Hickory beer. So he has to reference the ingredients, which include our beers and his own, then he can get federal label approval, followed by state approval. We’re all a little worried that it will be hard to hit our deadline.
You’ve said you’d like this to be an in-state phenomenon.
I’d be happy if all the bottles of Olde Rabbit’s Foot stayed in North Carolina―even though they won’t. I’m hoping this will lead to other brewers in the state being maybe a little envious of attention and that will spark other breweries to do similar things together.
You are one of our most visible brewers on the national scene, at SAVOR in DC, the GABF, and a couple of Beer Advocate events.
In the long run, hopefully it will bring us more business. But in the short-to-medium term, we’re really trying to get exposure and knowledge that our state has great beer, that it can be a beer destination. I met with a guy just this week who’s spending a week touring the state.
We want North Carolina to be seen as a great beer state, certainly one of the better ones in the South, if not the country. But to do that, you’ve got to get out there and let people know what you’re doing. And the only way to do that is to expose beer lovers to the beer.
We’ll be at the GABF, and we’ve been invited to the Rare Beer Tasting in Denver. We’re really happy about that: in a place where 500 breweries congregate, to be in a group of 20 is a good thing. We’re happy to be part of something special, in the circle of breweries involved.
We like to be associated with our North Carolina peers, but we also want to be associated with some of the great breweries on the national level. Getting mentioned in the same sentence with some of the big guys kind of propels you forward.
By my calculation, you opened Foothills just before the Pop The Cap legislation [raising North Carolina’s alcohol-by-volume limit from six to 15 percent] went through.
That’s right, St. Patrick’s Day of 2005.
How’d you get into brewing in the first place?
I started reading Charlie Papazian’s New Complete Joy of Brewing after my freshman year in college, and was pumped up about brewing beer. My sophomore year, I had an apartment instead of a dorm room, so I was able to get into it. There was just one guy in Athens, GA who was selling raw materials for homebrewing, John Gayer. He didn’t have a homebrew shop, so he delivered. You’d call him up and tell him what you wanted, and he’d bring it over. It was neat, because you could show him all your homebrew stuff and he’d give some tips.
When the first brewery in Athens opened up, Blind Man Ales, John became the brewmaster, and pretty immediately he asked if I’d be interested in helping out. Before long, I was volunteering about 30 hours a week. The process fascinated me.
I worked there most of the way through college. It was a 17-barrel homebrewery, basically, and none of the tanks that were pressurized or sealable. No temperature control. No pressure control, so all the beer we did was bottle- or keg-conditioned. It led to a lot of inconsistency, because we couldn’t control anything. It was a good way to learn what not to do. Our distributor would show up and have to wait two hours for the kegs to fill. Not the ideal situation.
I graduated in archaeology, and got a job in Columbia SC at Vista Brewing. It was an up-scale martini bar with a French chef and sous-chef. that happened to have a brewery. It was great place to experiment, I had pretty much free reign in what I wanted to do. Different raw materials, hops, yeast strains―it didn’t really matter, as long as there was beer and we kept the same names and a similar theme.
While I was still working there, I moved to Asheville, but I continued working at Vista and working on archaeological teams, wherever that took me. I did a big stint north of Fayetteville for about 10 months. And I kind of decided that beer was more my calling than archaeology, which is a sort of gypsy life, moving around, and ultimately your work gets put into a report that no one ever looks at.
I was trying to get a job in Asheville, at Jack in the Wood or Highland, but there weren’t opportunities. So I heard that Olde Hickory was looking for someone, so interviewed there and got the job. I moved off the mountain down to Hickory. My dad used to joke when I moved to Asheville, “Son, you’ve gone straight from college to retirement. You can’t live there, you work two hours away and five hours away.” Ultimately he was right.
I worked at Olde Hickory almost five years. I had to work at night in the little brewpub. There were three rooms where the brewery was, and the kitchen was right in the middle, so you couldn’t work while the place was open. So I came in at 11 when the kitchen closed, and worked through to seven in the morning.
Steve [Lyerly] and Jason [Yates, Olde Hickory owners] bought a bigger system from Middlesex Brewing Co. in Boston, so we went up there and dismantled the system, then spent the next 18 months building the new brewery. By the time we opened the production facility, I’d learned a lot about the infrastructure of a brewery operation. We ran the glycol lines, the water lines, a lot of the electrical stuff, it was very hands-on, as much as we could.
That experience helped me build Foothills. From the time we bought the building until when we opened was about 15 months, and we’d rehabbed the entire building. You run into some unforeseen things as you do demolition and rebuild, then it’s ”Oh, look the trusses are sagging 21 inches in the middle and the roof is about to collapse” and you buy $20,000 worth of steel to support the roof. That’s the fun of remodeling.
We’re [business partner Matt Maston] really excited about growing the business. There’s a bottling line in our future, probably in a new facility, but that’s a couple of years away, when we’re projected to max out this place. But right now, draft is growing steadily, so there’s no point yet.
What’s your barrelage?
We’re hoping for 4,000 barrels. Last year, we did 2,900. There are four of us brewing, we work seven days a week in the brewery. My opinion is that breweries work best when there’s always someone in there keeping track of stuff. Take two and a half days off for the weekend, and something’s bound to be off by Monday morning.
So you’re happy not to be a field archaeologist?
Making beer is a lot more satisfying, very fulfilling. It’s also somewhat addictive. I love hearing people say they love my beer, but I also love hearing people say they hate my beers because it gives me a chance for reflection, you can always make it better. If it’s constructive, I love it. It can be hard, but you’ve gotta hear it.
That’s one reason I go to beer festivals out of state. I don’t have the allegiance of the local people. If you go to Boston, there’s nothing stopping them from crushing your beers, you get more unbiased feedback. A lot of the beer geeks here in North Carolina I’ve befriended, so it’s harder for them to say if they don’t like my beer.
You reserve some of your most limited beers for festivals?
Yeah, our barrel-aged beer, for example, we don’t sell, we just give it away at beer festivals, get it out to the maximum number of people. If we don’t make enough and you sell it to one guy, bars two, three and four aren’t happy. But they can’t get upset if you just give it away.