At Carolina Brewery, beer is more than a beverage. It’s a craft. And an award-winning one at that. brewery’s “Copperline” beer became the latest in a line of its malt beverages to be recognized in a national competition, winning a silver medal in September’s Great American Beer Festival in Colorado.
At Pittsboro’s Carolina Brewery, beer is more than a beverage. It’s a craft.
And an award-winning one at that.
The brewery’s “Copperline” beer became the latest in a line of its malt beverages to be recognized in a national competition, winning a silver medal in September’s Great American Beer Festival in Colorado.
It’s Carolina Brewery’s fourth national medal at the prestigious festival, this one coming in a competition that pitted the brewery against more than 2,400 competitors who entered 8,496 beers in 102 categories.
Copperline is actually one of Carolina Brewery’s oldest beers, described by brewmaster Nate Williams as an English-style ale. The brew was awarded its medal in the “ordinary and special bitter” category.
The win was the first for Williams, longtime member of the brewery team who took the reins of the brewery after the retirement of John Connelly this summer.
“It’s primarily a malty beer but has enough hops to balance the sweet and leave you with a hoppy finish,” Williams said.
Carolina Brewery, the fifth oldest brewery in North Carolina, was a vision of Robert Poitras. Poitras is a third generation Tar Heel, coming from small business family in eastern North Carolina. He notes his interest in craft brewer began on a study abroad in Europe while a student at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I became very intrigued by the beer, wine, cheese, and food culture,” he said.
During the following summer spent in San Diego, Poitras saw similarities in a growing culture there.
“There was better beer,” Poitras said. “There was a genuine movement away from homogenized products.”
What he saw in Europe and again in California was lacking on the East Coast. So Poitras dropped his honors thesis and decided to write a business plan for what would become, in 1995, the Carolina Brewery instead.
“Chapel Hill in the 90s was, well, is a hip town,” Poitras said. “It has art, it has music, and it has culture. It’s a sophisticated market with an awareness of finer, higher quality, non-homogenous things.”
Poitras set out to create a place that was not an average college bar. He wanted a “Cheers”-like atmosphere that felt like family. He chose to not have late hours, focus on quality casual dining, and of course, good craft beer.
While the Chapel Hill community was excited to have the new venture, Poitras noted there was a lot of education involved in those early days. The Carolina Brewery has never carried domestic beers. Staff and customers had to be knowledgeable about craft brewing and types of brews in order to find out what they liked.
As the business grew, Poitras began looking for places to expand and build a larger-scale brewery. After searching the area, Poitras became “fascinated with Pittsboro.”
“It had good highways, low taxes, it was growing and it would be easy to ship from here,” he said.
The location in Pittsboro, on Lowes Drive had the space he wanted to build his brewery. In fact, it had more space than he needed.
“We saw a need for our casual dining, scratch made, local focus foods,” Poitras said.
In 2007, Carolina Brewery opened its Pittsboro location. About a month after it opened, Williams joined the brew team.
Williams grew up in Colorado where his love of craft brewing began.
“I’ve loved beer since I’ve been able to drink,” Williams said. “In Denver, craft brews were growing a lot in the 90s and early 2000s.”
He began as a home brewer with his wife while working in admissions in higher education. When his wife, a doctor, was offered a job at UNC, the couple moved to Durham. Williams worked two jobs—one at Duke University admissions and one washing kegs at Carolina Brewery.
“I was like ‘Oh, I’ve done this forever, I can do this and hey I can wash kegs too,’” Williams said. “I’m going to learn to wash kegs so I can do it really well and watch what these guys are doing over here. I tried to make sure that if things changed, then I was the guy they were looking at.”
At the same time, Williams studied through the Siebel Institute in Chicago, an historic brewing institution. Williams quickly moved to a position as brewer and then head brewer, keeping the brewery running as Connolly managed the operations.
“He taught me all the good stuff of the brewhouse and the recipes,” Williams said.
Under Connolly, Carolina Brewery had previously received three medals at the Great American Beer Festival. This year’s win was the first for Williams as the brewmaster.
“It feels great,” Williams said. “Growing up in Denver, where the Great American Beer Festival is held, where I used to volunteer, it’s something that had been on my mind from the beginning. It’s one reason I applied here.”
Carolina Brewery is now entering a new chapter, according to Poitras.
“It’s kind of chapter three or maybe four into the book,” Poitras said with a laugh. “Or I don’t know what chapter, but were definitely into the book.”
With the recent addition of Becky Hammond, a veteran brewmaster from Nashville, the team hopes to implement new and high tech quality control measures to improve quality and shelf life stability.
“I’ve worked with a lot of brewers over the years,” Hammond said. “And without a doubt, Carolina Brewery has some of the best folks in the biz.”
Poitras brought Hammond aboard to assist with blending high tech science and art to increase quality control. That includes a new on-site lab, new computerized spreadsheets, and a dissolved oxygen meter.
“It’s all done to improve existing great quality to ensure better shelf-life stability,” Poitras said. “We want people who see our brews at a Harris Teeter in Charleston or Raleigh or wherever to know they are receiving a quality product.”
Hammond brings a new expertise to Carolina Brewery. Similar to Poitras, a trip to Europe sparked her passion for craft beverages.
She worked with numerous breweries, including Craftworks, which is a parent company for several restaurants and breweries. She later became the brewmaster for Mill Creek Brewing, assisting them in an expansion.
“Chris Going, the owner of Mill Creek Brewing, was a home brewer,” Hammond said. “And so I took his home-brew recipes and ‘tweaked’ them, if you will, to be able to produce them on gross scale and volume.”
“Basically at all the breweries, I have been holistically involved in everything from brewing, cellaring, packing to raw materials, laboratory techniques and implementation, inventory/accounting, distributor relationships/sales,” she said. “I have also instructed and trained folks over the years in the brewery setting.”
“It’s exciting. These are big brewery quality control measures,” Poitras said. “It’s an anomaly for a brewery of our size. We are excited about her addition and confident in her ability to improve quality.”
“It is an honor to be a part of a team that not only love what they do, but will do whatever it takes to get the job done, and done the right way,” Hammond said.