Unless you want to see a man upset, do not ask Sean Lilly Wilson, president of the nascent Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, what he thinks of sweet tea.
"People talk about sweet tea as though it's a distinctly Southern beverage, but what is it? It's Camellia sinensis, a Chinese shrub! What's Southern about a Chinese shrub?" Wilson asks.
Wilson, 39, grew up in Pennsylvania but radiates an ardor for Southern foodways that borders on the extreme. In Fullsteam's mission "to brew farmhouse ales that celebrate the culinary and agricultural heritage of the South," Wilson and his brewer, Chris Davis, have tried, with varying results, to make beer from sweet potatoes, figs, rhubarb, pawpaws, persimmons, scuppernong grapes and, daringly, the roots, stems and flowers of kudzu vines. An emphasis on locally grown ingredients, specific to the South, is at the core of what Wilson describes as Fullsteam's "plow-to-pint" philosophy.
"As more people like me move down here, it's easy to worry about the South losing its Southernness, but at the core of Southern life is the climate, the things that grow here," Wilson says. "We're fermentation opportunists. All we're trying to do is to ferment what we farm and forage - as brewers have been doing for thousands of years - and to create a new approach to a Southern beer style."
Backed by about $1 million in investments and loans, Fullsteam aims to launch production this spring and to begin pouring pints in a taproom at the brewery, which stands on an improving block in Durham's resurgent downtown, by mid-May. Fullsteam's inaugural lineup will include a porter brewed from hickory-smoked malt, designed to complement the hickory-smoked meat of Carolina hogs; a tangy-tart Berliner-weisse fermented with locally grown rhubarb; a sweet-potato ale; and Fullsteam Carolina Common, the brewery's yeasty, crisp flagship beer, which surprisingly fulfills brewer Chris Davis's ambition "to make a beer that tastes like biscuits and fresh bread."
It is the sort of menu that might strike fear into your heart if you have been let down by syrupy, Smuckers-ish raspberry hefeweizens and blueberry ales. In the small-batch offerings available on the day of my visit to the brewery-in-progress, however, Wilson and Davis's beers were studies in graceful restraint. The pawpaw ale was devoid of gooey sweetness and broadened on the tongue into a dusky earthiness, a flavor of soil that could inspire you to eat dirt. The sweet-potato ale, in which sweet potatoes constitute 25 percent of the fermentable mash, was crisp and supple and entirely dodged the expected pumpkin-pie-spice bouquet.
"Traditional Southern food doesn't bash you over the head, and we're not trying to bash you over the head with our ingredients," Wilson says. "Just to make beers that work tastefully and subtly with Southern foods."
That said, Wilson is busy plotting future projects that hardly seem the essence of subtlety and taste, among them a stout decocted from the Southern "workingman's lunch," MoonPies and RC Cola.
"No idea if that'll work," says Wilson, who doesn't much mind that a cola-and-MoonPie beer would send the average craft-beer snoot into fits of peristalsis. "Beer is and should be a respite from connoisseurship. I'd like our beers to be a joyful celebration of the land we live on and the foods we eat. I know it sounds a little cheesy, a little lofty and unattainable, but so what? I'm an optimist. Full steam ahead."
Wells Tower is an award-winning short story and nonfiction writer who splits his time between North Carolina and New York. This article appears in The Oxford American magazine's 2010 "Southern Food" issue, which is available at most bookstores and newsstands nationwide. The Oxford American is "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing," and more information is available at www.oxfordamerican.org.