Touring the Durham Beer Scene
Tickets are now available for the 21st annual World Beer Festival Durham, held at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Saturday, Oct. 15.
In early September, while joining Hillary Clinton on campaign stops through North Carolina, Bill Clinton made a beer run at the Durham Co-op Market. For two minutes, a store employee showed him cooler shelving full of beer from across the state and country.
Of the dozens of choices in front of him, Clinton’s eyes lingered on a white can with a unique logo: half horse, half dinosaur. He picked that one, a Scottish ale made by Durham’s Ponysaurus Brewing Co.
“That was a strange experience, that’s for sure,” said Keil Jansen, co-founder and brewmaster at Ponysaurus, who saw a video of Clinton making his pick after it happened. “We’re only distributing within 20 miles of our brewery. It never entered my mind that something like that would ever happen to us.”
The exchange was a fitting situation for the North Carolina beer scene. Among a fast-growing beer market led by cities like Asheville, Charlotte and Raleigh, Durham’s breweries are creating their own niche by taking on aspects of the city’s personality, long highlighted by a phrase plastered on bumper stickers seen across the Bull City: “keep it dirty.”
It’s about staying true to the colorful people and places found in Durham.
“I’d like to get Durham up there for being funky and weird,” said Matt Pennisi, manager and one of four brewers at Durty Bull Brewing Co. “Our beer like our city.”
Durham may not be bursting with breweries like some other North Carolina cities, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up in character.
For visitors to Durham, the best part of checking out the city’s beer scene is the ease of visiting the four production breweries (soon to be five), all spread out within a couple miles of each other in downtown. Walking a route to visit them all is easy, but rideshare options can shorten the effort. The best place to start is at Ponysaurus, just on the edge of downtown.
The first thing you notice when you arrive at Ponysaurus (219 Hood St.) is all the seating options, a big step up from its initial opening when it had a home at a local culinary incubator, producing beers that were served at the space’s bar. Wooden picnic tables are scattered across an outdoor lawn and on a balcony, making it easy to enjoy North Carolina’s lingering summer weather, which keeps early October a perfect temperature for shorts and a T-shirt.
Inside, a collection of up to 10 varying Ponysaurus beers are on tap—along with a guest option or two, including cider—a callback to Jansen’s days as an active homebrewer in the Durham scene. Of course there’s an IPA, but visitors can also choose between multiple pale ales, including the Rye Pale Ale, Belgian Pale Ale and a rotating single hop series that most recently featured a newly released variety known as Loral.
Just don’t forget about about the Bière De Garde, with flavors of vanilla and almond.
“Having a great IPA is just table stakes these days,” Jansen says, “so if you could know only one thing about us, it would be that beer.”
Likewise, the most important thing to know after a short half-mile walk to Bull City Burger and Brewery (107 East Parrish St.) is you’ll arrive at a haven of classic beers.
“From the moment we opened, we wanted to be champions of style,” said owner Seth Gross. “We’re about teaching people balance. Extreme gets notoriety, but it isn’t what you want to drink every time. Beer should be fun, not about taking a sip and contemplating the meaning of life.”
The brewpub always has eight house beers on tap, led by best-selling Parrish Street Pale Ale, which drinks with more balance than typical American versions of the style with a distinct grapefruit character. Other popular choices include the Bryant Bridge Gateway Golden Ale and a constantly changing experimental beer, Bountiful Backyard Ale, which uses hops and peppers grown behind the downtown business.
The brewery’s signature beer is known as “The Durhamer,” Gross’ attempt to create a style unique to Durham. The beer features filtered but untreated Durham water, locally sourced malt and hops as available and ale yeast. Its color matches air-cured burley tobacco, a historically important crop for Durham, and brings a light sweetness to honor the South’s love for sweet tea.
“If you go to Pilsen (Czech Republic), you don’t go out seeking an oatmeal stout, you’re going to drink pilsner,” Gross said. “I want it to be that way when you come to Durham.”
Heading down to the neighborhood locally known as the “DIY District,” beer lovers will find two breweries within two blocks of each other.
At Durty Bull Brewing Co., Matt Pennisi is focusing on two things: wood and what’s weird. Armed with two foeders and a growing number of wine and bourbon barrels, the goal of the brewery is to offer a go-to spot for adventurous drinkers well east of North Carolina’s beer capitol in Asheville.
“There’s a niche that needs to be filled here,” Pennisi said. “There’s definitely experimental beer drinkers who can’t get enough of Wicked Weed [Brewing in Asheville], but want something more local.”
Aside from a Dortmunder-inspired lager, the goal of all other beers served at Durty Bull is to incorporate barrel-aging and play with different brewing techniques. A Brettanomyces IPA is found alongside a dry-hopped Brettanomyces Belgian table beer and rhubarb Berliner-style weisse, while new takes come from the brewery’s “Your Turn Series,” which gives each of Durty Bull’s four brewers the chance to make whatever they’d like. A recent invention: rice IPA, which can’t help but conjure up thoughts of sake.
“If it’s barrel-aged, funky or weird in some way, we’re going to brew it because it keeps us different,” Pennisi said. “We don’t try to focus on getting a beer into a single style category as much as we’re worried about taste.”
A stop at Durty Bull is just the first half of a perfect pairing for a beer drinker’s eclectic tastes. To really round out any Durham brewery experience, Fullsteam Brewery (726 Rigsbee Ave.) is a common—and must—visit.
Based on the motto of “plow to pint,” Fullsteam’s focus is on celebrating the connection between the agricultural tradition of the South and beer, creating a “Southern beer economy.” Fullsteam regularly partners with local farmers and foragers for ingredients like basil, spruce tips, persimmon, paw paw and more.
As many as 20 taps are filled with Fullsteam creations, from a cream ale with corn grits from Spindale, to a sweet potato lager with potatoes from farmers across Nash and Wilson counties. Partnerships with local businesses also bring about new ideas. Recent releases include an ESB made with apples from The Fearrington House Inn in Pittsboro and an imperial stout made with cocoa nibs and vanilla beans, inspired by Durham’s Duke Lemur Center.
“It becomes a virtuous cycle in that people want new things, they want a sense of community and we want to give back to the community,” said Sean Lilly Wilson of Fullsteam. “We often think about how we can further embed ourselves, whether that’s purchasing foraged ingredients or giving money back in support of a worthy cause.”
Durham’s four breweries offer enough to fill an afternoon, but local visitors will soon have a new option this fall. After being solely located inside the Durham Bulls Athletic Park at the American Tobacco Campus, Bull Durham Beer Co. will open its own standalone taproom around the corner from the ballpark at 359 Blackwell St., suite 135.
As the country’s first operational brewery inside a minor league baseball stadium, Bull Durham will stretch its legs at its new location, where customers can enjoy the brewery’s two flagship beers, Lollygagger Kolsch and Water Tower Wheat, alongside new creations like a white IPA and amber, in addition to one-offs during the baseball off-season. On-site food will be made by Heavenly Buffaloes, a Durham wing restaurant, and a portion of every pint sold at the taproom will be donated to the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit that supports Southern music traditions.