To produce its first bottled beer, a foreboding Russian imperial stout, White Street Brewing put together a makeshift assembly line.
The IT guy sanitized bottles. The brewers filled, corked and rinsed. And the owners’ children even helped dry and secure the corks with wire cages.
One by one, all by hand, 1,004 times, for 17 hours.
Unlike big beer-makers, whose automated machines bottle beers in mere seconds, it took about two minutes each for White Street’s crew in Wake Forest. The brewery’s accountant, sales director and the owners helped at various points on bottling day in March.
The painstaking process speaks to how small, community-focused brewers feel the need to expand their reach.
“We know how important it is to get bottles out,” said Harmony VanGundy, White Street’s director of sales and marketing. “Our customers might not get out to Wake Forest, but we want to get it to their bottle shop.”
Other small breweries are doing the same, whether Steel String Brewery in Carrboro, Deep River in Clayton or Wicked Weed in Asheville. All want to tap into the booming bottle-shop scene and build hype for their special beers, while promoting their hand-crafted image.
“With growlers, there’s such a limited amount you can do,” said Lynn Auclair at Deep River. “If you do 22-ounce bottles, more people can get it. ... Not everybody can come to the tap room.”
For small brewers, only the most exclusive offerings get the bottle treatment – typically dark beers and sours, and often those that collectors can age for years.
White Street’s “Koschei the Deathless” fits that description. Named from Russian folklore, the imperial stout is a special beer, aged for eight months, including three in bourbon barrels. It’s an impressive 13 percent alcohol-by-volume.
“The original idea was to make the biggest stout we could make,” said brewer Ian VanGundy, as he took a break from bottling.
When it came time to serve the beer, White Street decided it fit better in a champagne-sized bottle with a cork and a fancy label. “Bourbon barrel beers age a little better,” said Harmony VanGundy. “We wanted to do something a little more classy and unique.”
For White Street, the first bottles are a precursor to more. The brewery is adding a new production facility in nearby Youngsville later this year that will include an automated bottling line for its year-round beer lineup.
And despite the headache, the beer won rave reviews at a special release at the end of March, and the brewers are making plans to make another batch of Koschei for next year.
What I’m tasting
As the White Street team toiled to fill bottles, I sampled Koschei the Deathless from the tank.
It’s not for the meek. Rich and powerful, it features bourbon, oak, roasted barley and chocolate flavors and finishes with a hint of alcohol that alludes to its high ABV. Drink now or even age it for a year.