Tar Heel of the Week

Brewer to blend mad science, local flavor

He led N.C. campaign for high-octane beer

Staff WriterJanuary 4, 2009 

  • POSITION: Founder, Fullsteam Brewery.

    BORN: Nov. 20, 1970, in New Brunswick, N.J.

    FAMILY: Wife, Carolyn; daughters, Ella, 11, Sophie, 8.

    EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in communication/sociology, Wheaton College; master of business administration, master of public policy, Duke University.

    RELIGION: Episcopalian.

    PASTIMES: Singing in church choir, cooking, occasional racquetball, golf and video game indulgences.

    WHAT HE'S READING: "The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan; "Waiter Rant," by Steve Dublanica; "The Brewmaster's Table," by Garrett Oliver.

— Sean Wilson would like to offer you a glass of Hogwash, a dark, hickory-smoked beer that pairs perfectly with barbecue.

Swish the smoky, almost pork-flavored porter around your palate, he hopes, and you'll never again touch sweet tea.

It's the latest creation from North Carolina's new beer ambassador, a champion for suds that pack a high-octane Tar Heel punch.

Three years ago, Wilson led the charge to overturn the state's 70-year-old ban on high-alcohol beer, busting the 6 percent cap.

This year, he opens Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, celebrating both mad science and local flavor. There you'll find beer brewed with scuppernong grapes, sweet potatoes -- even kudzu.

If his experiment works, he will have given the state a signature drink, a beer as synonymous with North Carolina as Anchor Steam is to San Francisco.

"We want to create something that's distinctively Southern, that's us, that lays claim to this region that we love," said Wilson, 38.

Wilson's "Pop the Cap" lobbying changed beer's definition, inviting a new class of stronger specialty beers brewed to enhance a good meal.

His calling came after he sampled barley wine and triple IPA beer, then learned that his adopted home state deemed them illegal, their alcohol content too high.

So he quickly co-founded Pop the Cap, and in 2005, successfully lobbied the legislature to raise beer's alcohol limit from 6 percent to 15 percent. This was no easy feat, given North Carolina's history as a control state, managing the sale of all alcoholic beverages. Opponents argued that higher-alcohol beers would be marketed directly to poor minorities.

Now, Belgian ales fill the kegs of bars across the Triangle, alongside 750-milliliter bottles and high-octane brews such as Delaware's Dogfish Head. They sell despite cost: a 750-milliliter bottle of Chimay can go for $9.99; a six-pack of Ruination IPA, $16.

Wilson didn't grow up with Cheerwine and pig-pickin's. He was born in New Jersey, and his family drifted among Massachusetts, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

A former teetotaler

He didn't much care for beer as a student at Wheaton College in Illinois, the Rev. Billy Graham's alma mater, where drinking, dancing and card games were forbidden. When a classmate bought him a Guinness in Chicago, he winced and asked, "Why would anybody want to drink an ashtray?"

It wasn't until he followed his wife to Durham while she studied at Duke University's divinity school in 1992 that he started sampling Tar Heel fare.

As a waiter at Durham's Southern-tinged Magnolia Grill, he learned to detect subtle fruits and spices in wine -- a knack he slowly transferred to beer.

For him, the twin goal behind Fullsteam is to elevate the status of suds to serious beverage -- not just a fizzy yellow drink or a quick means to drunkenness.

"It's beer," he said. "It's fun. Enjoy yourselves. It's about optimism and enthusiasm. I miss the optimism we used to have about the future. How does beer factor into that? Beer is a celebratory beverage. You meet someone and you say, 'I'd like to have a beer with that person.' "

His beers are playful: Maison Derriere, which his brewer, Chris Davis, named for a notorious episode of the Simpsons.

"What's in it?" Davis said. "Let's see. Coriander ..."

Wilson stops him, chuckling.

"Not just coriander," he says. "Backyard coriander. Free-range coriander. Organic, free-range coriander. Seize the moment, man."

Barbecue and beer

Then there's the Hogwash, which Wilson, who holds two graduate degrees from Duke University, is already marketing as if it were a strain of tear-free onions.

He sees a gap in the presentation of barbecue, North Carolina's unofficial state dish. To Wilson, the beer at most pig-pickin's feels like an afterthought, a mere throat clearer.

Jim Early, president of the N.C. Barbecue Society, said dark, hand-crafted beer wouldn't be a stretch at a pig-pickin'. He's run Wilson's articles about the barbecue-beer pairing in his small newspaper Pig Tales, and he says, "I would be interested to see how a smoky beer pairs with a smoky meat."

Early confesses, "I generally come back to Bud Lite."

But Hogwash goes down like a glass of Liquid Smoke, tingling the tongue like red peppers on pork.

Pairing the two feels almost like pinot noir with salmon, but Wilson winces at the comparison: "I just can't get my head around wine with barbecue."

Fullsteam's location hasn't been completely nailed down, but 70 percent of the equity funding has been raised. When the brewery opens, Wilson imagines it as the sort of place where couples propose, tinkling a beer mug and saying, "We'll always have Durham."

There's a risk of going overboard, of pouring on the North Carolina flavor so thick it becomes cartoonish. But discriminating drinkers aren't worried.

"If Sean pulls this off, he is going to create an indigenous North Carolina character to the beer, and that's exciting," said Julie Bradford, editor of Durham-based All About Beer magazine. "And having tasted the beers, they're not gimmicky. I like the scuppernong. You recognize the flavors in it as lightly grapey."

Wilson hopes you'll recognize it, too. Lift a glass of Fullsteam, and you might detect a little of yourself.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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