with Uli Bennewitz
Weeping Radish Farm Brewery
Nearly two decades ago, as he took up a job as an agricultural consultant in Manteo, NC, Uli Bennewitz was persuaded by his brother back in Bavaria that a restaurant that brewed its own beer—a brewpub—would be a sure winner in his new home in America. The brewing equipment was en route to North Carolina before this newcomer discovered two unfortunate legal obstacles: brewpubs were illegal in North Carolina, and Manteo itself was located in a dry county.
Bennewitz managed to get brewpubs legalized in North Carolina (without the aid of a lobbyist, he’s proud to tell you), navigated the local dry laws, and in 1986 opened the Weeping Radish, named for the large Bavarian radishes that accompany a good beer back in Munich.
Now, the new Weeping Radish Farm Brewery in Currituck integrates all of Bennewitz’ diverse passions about food, health and community in one enterprise.
Uli Bennewitz: In 1986, I started the brewery. Like so many times in my life, I did not do my homework, so I bought the brewery without knowing what the legalities were.
Specifically, that what you were about to do was not legal.
This is correct. I found myself in a dry county with an illegal project.
Your brother in Bavaria thought this was a great idea.
Yes, he had a friend with a small brewery in Bavaria, and it wasn’t profitable. In Bavaria it’s very tough to do small brewpubs because the average quality of the beer is so high. Every little town has a brewery anyway, so the charm of a brewpub is much less obvious than it is in this country. In 1986, when we had so few breweries in this country, it made far more sense to open something here.
And you set out to at that point to create a proper Bavarian beer garden here.
Again, I didn’t do my homework. All I would have had to do is look in the phonebook under German or Bavarian restaurants. I would have realized that nobody had such a thing and there might have been a good reason—which was that probably nobody wanted one. But it took me a while to figure that out.
A couple of years ago, you speculated that one problem beer has in North Carolina—that wine has overcome—is that it hasn’t stressed its connection to agriculture.
True. If you look at wine in North Carolina, a brewer is absolutely envious. The Department of Agriculture supplies wineries with funds, billboards, brochures; they even have a right for every winery to have an interstate signpost, with their own logo. Can you imagine a brewery with a signpost on the interstate? Wow.
The reason I passed this brewpub law so easily—well, fairly easily—was because the Biltmore got the wine law passed in ‘84. Before that, the winery was not allowed to sell wine on premises. The Biltmore had lots of money and political connections, so they passed the wine law [allowing producers to sell wine]. My strategy with the ABC [Alcohol Beverage Control] was, whatever’s good for wine is good for beer. Without Biltmore, there wouldn’t have been a brewpub law in ‘86, that’s for sure.
In fact, wine and beer, we are both craft industries, we are very similar, we both go back thousands of years.
Your latest project brings all of this full circle.
It really does. Being in the farming business, which I still am, and the beer business, I saw more and more parallels The reason why microbrewed beer is so much better than conventional beer—it’s an issue of the food chain.
The best beer you ever see is perhaps at Oktoberfest in Munich. They make it, they age it for six months, they haul it across town and serve it in the beer tents they same day they tap it from the brewery. You’d have to be brain dead not to serve decent beer, if you do it like that.
This is the issue of the food chain. If you can control the distribution, and the temperature and the pressure from the brewery to the tent all in the same day, you get quality.
Small-scale farming is the same way. The farmers’ markets are superior in their products. Why? Because the farmer digs the vegetables the night before and hauls it to the farmers’ market.
There is a direct parallel. Both are perishable commodities that decrease in quality over time. And both—if they are consumed in moderation—are health beneficial.
But all our food was produced that way, once.
Yes. The change in American manufacturing all goes back to 1943 when the Americans came to Germany and saw the autobahns. They were absolutely amazed. The autobahns led to the U.S. interstate system, and that was the basis of the true American revolution, because it allowed producers to create massive production facilities. Much more efficient—and with cheap gas, they could distribute all over the country.
The problem is, they applied that same efficiency not just to manufactured products, but to food and beverage, and that led to the manufacturing of beer and the processing of food. In 2008, we have the most efficient food distribution system in the world. We also have the most polluted food chain in the world, because in order to do that, you have to take a perishable food and turn it into a non-perishable commodity.
If there’s a problem, you can source it in a small system, but it’s harder in a large system.
Now you’re talking. If you want to talk national security, that is a real issue. If I wanted to hurt this country, I’m not going to take a bomb, thank you very much. Go to one of those big food-manufacturing facilities and sprinkle a can on the conveyor belt. You could poison half the east coast in one afternoon, very simple.
I decided the diversification of the food chain as the best thing we can do, not just from a health point of view, but also from a national security point of view.
And now we’re getting into the next political hot potato, which is health care reform. You can’t solve health care without solving the food chain issue. If you poison your body, and then expect the health care system to pick up the pieces, well…It’s either pay now or pay later. That’s what we’re doing: now, the way we live is pay later. Cheaper, cheaper, cheaper food.
I deal with farm tenants all my life. I’ve seen them go out to work in the morning, to sit on that $170,000 shiny tractor. And what do they take with them? Five cans of coke, and a bag of snacks from the snack machine. That’s a classic example of something they’ll have to pay for down the road.
Our mission as a little business is to reduce the food chain from 2,000 miles to 200. If you do that, now you have natural food and natural beer. With vegetables, it’s fairly straightforward: you have a farmers’ market, and it works.
The problem is meat. You can’t just take a little cow, chop it up and take it to market. It doesn’t work: there is another skill level involved. And that is the craft or master butcher. Again, the parallels to brewing are amazing. The butcher is not a meat hacker. He is a qualified craftsman, just like the brewer.
Our concept is the celebration of craft: the craft of brewing, the craft of butchering, the craft of farming, and the culinary craft. And the other two crafts that are critical to a community are arts and music. We have an upstairs for those, where we can have festivals and events. Then you can bring all the crafts and the community together.
So this is Weeping Radish Farm Brewery in Currituck?
This is in Currituck. It’s a 15,000 square foot building. We have a 14-acre organic farm in the back. Its divided between an organic farm, and a butchery which is a joint venture with a fifth generation German master butcher.
The next level is this: we went to Johnson and Wales, the culinary school in Charlotte, to set up an internship program.
The culinary trade in this country is menu-driven, which means every chef—or food corporation—designs a menu, and the menu drives the purchase of food. We’re trying to turn this upside down: the farm and the butchery drive the menu. What we want to do with Johnson and Wales is to create a internship program that allows culinary students to come to Currituck, live on the farm, work on the farm, work in the butchery, work in the kitchen, and then spend three months in Germany to truly understand the craft of butchery. Once you combine a knowledge of farming with the knowledge of culinary and butchery, now you have truly created an integrated food chain all the way through.
What does the master butcher do?
It’s amazing. We buy animals from local farms only, guaranteed hormone-free and free-range. Then we have it slaughtered. Normally, the slaughterhouse chops up the animal and sends it to you in boxes. Our butchers have been horrified, because they just cut this thing into squares and put it in a box. So the first step is that our butcher goes and cuts up the meat himself.
Then it comes to us. The butcher sorts out what’s what, the steaks and high end go out to retail; the lower end goes out as roasts. Then the lower end still goes to sausages. The next part is spices. If you go to a slaughterhouse, there are no spices: it’s either steak or hamburger. Spices are essential for the butcher. We have to import ours from Canada and Europe, because we don’t have that kind of spices any more. All we have is what the culinary people use, but that’s different from what the butchers use.
We also have a smoke house. When you hear about “liquid smoke,” that is nothing but a 55-gallon drum of chemicals. I would never touch it. We have hickory chips from North Carolina; we’re trying to get applewood chips from the mountains, and then we’ll have applewood-smoked bacon.
Everyone talks about maintaining small farms. That works when you have vegetables, but not if you have animals. No business can survive that buys inputs retail and sells outputs wholesale. It doesn’t work. That’s the problem with small breweries, too, so that’s the attraction of the brewpub. Small producers are striving for a balance between wholesaling of beer where you get your volume, and retailing, where you get your margin.
Meat is no different, it’s exactly the same story. What we’re trying to do is to create a system where we buy whole animals from farmers, bring the meat to our facility, make brats, ham, prosciutto, pastrami, package and label it, and give it back to the farmers. Then the farmer can go to the farmers’ markets in the Triangle, and have professionally crafted products, not chunks of meat in a plastic bag. We’re trying to create a higher value-added product to the individual meat-producer.
Are you going to revolutionize the meat business, too?
Our goal in the butchery is not to be organic. What we want is that every piece of meat you buy from us or from our farmers will have the name of the local farm the meat came from on the package. That, to me, means a lot more than organic beer from Peru, places where, if they have organic standards, we have no way of checking them.
The whole concept of importing food is to me a disaster. We’re regulating our small farmers to death while the importers can bring it in by the semi—that’s a real problem. So, will I revolutionize the meat industry? Absolutely not.
What is the interaction between the brewery, the farm and the butchery?
All three are working together: we did a barbecue in the butchery that used Black Radish beer; we have a liverwurst that is really a liver pâté made with 40% sweet potato content—it’s extraordinary. And the smokehouse will smoke malt for rauchbiers. So you see, we’re integrating the natural beer, the natural meat and the natural vegetables all into a group.
Our goal locally is to create a single-source distribution system for the Outer Banks, so if a restaurants wants beer, meat and vegetables, it all comes fresh on one truck. People say we can’t do that. Why? Because we’re brainwashed into believing that a beer distributor has to distribute the beer. But there’s an exemption that allows us to pierce that monopoly
We want to take it to the next stage, which is the waste cycle. Right now, our waste from Dare County travels 113 miles to a regional land fill. This was designed when fuel was less than two dollars a gallon; now it’s five dollars a gallon. There is a huge hoopla about the cost of maintaining landfills. Our goal is to go to the community and say, “Whatever is compostable, you pay us the same rate you pay that commercial guy, and we’ll pick it up. We’ll take our meat, our beer, our vegetables to your store and we’ll pick up compostables on the same trip, take it back to the farm and it becomes fertilizer on the farm. And spent grain, of course. What fool throws that away?
We have all these loops, why aren’t we using them in the food chain, with natural food going one way and waste management going the other way.
So, I picture your Johnson and Wales-trained chef who has interned with you, who then gets a prime position in a restaurant, calling you and asking what have you got? And you say, we have spring lamb, and this is our spring seasonal beer, and here’s what’s fresh from the garden.
That is the rethinking process that will take place. It’s back to the old system, where the menu is driven by what the farm produces. The first thing I did in the new building is a huge wall chart that shows every vegetable grown in North Carolina and when you can expect it in the market. The point is that if you say you will have strawberries on the menu, they must be in season and fresh.
There’s a direct correlation between food chain, quality of food and flavor. The further you go, the less flavor you have left. Beer, meat, vegetables: it’s the same story
As of January this year, North Carolina, very progressively, has mandated the recycling of glass. I attended by first ALE meeting this year with the restaurant association, and they were all up in arms about it. I couldn’t understand—I’d been recycling for 20 years—and it took me an hour or two to understand that for those 20 years, they’ve been throwing every bar bottle they had and threw it into the trash. It blew my mind.
Now, if you want an ABC license, you have to submit a form to say how you will recycle glass.
The story, however, is different. Glass has only two ingredients: sand and energy. If you recycle glass, what have you done? You have saved a pile of sand. The only way is to save the energy, not to recycle, but to reuse. That’s where you really save. We’ve reused our fliptop bottles for 20 years.
I despise six-packs. When we got our brewery going, we changed to the half-liter bottle. The reason was economic and philosophical. If you have a small brewery and you have six packs, you have to print a bottle label, a neck label, a six-pack carrier and a six-pack case. That works for Budweiser, it doesn’t work for a small brewery. You end up with $10,000 worth of packaging for one brand. That’s a disaster. We went for the 16.9 oz—the half liter bottle—for each beer. We print one label per beer, and we have one cardboard box. Thirteen labels per box. One label per bottle, one label per box.
We import these half liter bottles, and they now cost us 37 cents per bottle. My point is very simple: why do we pay the Germans 37 cents a bottle, when I would rather give that to our consumer if he gives us a bottle and we reuse it? I think we’re the only brewery that has a 100% glass reuse policy. Every bottle we sell you, we promise we’ll take it back and we’ll use it again.
That brings that loop back again.
This is not anti-corporate speech—the efficiency of the big corporations is phenomenal, I love it. If they stick to plastics, it’s great. But the problem is, when you talk about food and health and apply the same efficiency principals, it gets really scary. It doesn’t work any more.
What you’re doing is very progressive, but it’s also very old fashioned, back to basics.
When I opened the brewery in Manteo, I wanted to have a wooden paddle. I didn’t want a red light or an electric switch, wooden everything—and I was dead wrong. The technology of craft is phenomenal. We have a high tech smokehouse that is fully computerized, up to 99 programs, 14 steps per program. Just because it’s craft, doesn’t mean it’s not high tech, that it’s dungarees and straw hats and going back in time.
If I came to visit today, what would I find?
Our sausages, which are wonderful. A menu that varies by the day and the week, seasonal beers, and music. There’s your village.