One line remains elusive on North Carolina’s craft brewing resume: a nationally distributed beer. But the next best thing will soon hit bottle shops across the country: a beer made with North Carolina malt.
New Belgium Brewing collaborated with Asheville’s Riverbend Malt House to debut a special beer made with Carolina rye, a grain variety grown in the state since the Civil War.
The Colorado-based brewer calls it RyePA, a India pale ale marked by “big, juicy, fruity hop flavors complemented by a spicy rye finish.”
Even though the beer is part of New Belgium’s small-batch Hop Kitchen series, it was a big task for Riverbend, a 3-year-old, mostly two-person operation.
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The big craft brewer ordered 17,000 pounds of grain for a beer that is an impressive 40 percent rye. It was more than twice the size as Riverbend’s previous largest order.
“I’ve been telling people we didn’t cancel Christmas, but we got pretty damn close to it,” says Brent Manning, one of the co-owners. “We were basically running batches right up to Christmas Eve and then back on it the day after Christmas to meet the order.”
Riverbend’s product is unique. From a nondescript warehouse southwest from town, the company is reviving the ages-old floor-malting process using local grain.
The rye in the New Belgium beer was grown by Carter Farms in Eagle Springs, which is about 80 miles southwest of Raleigh in Moore and Montgomery counties.
It is malted in the traditional three-step process: steeping, germination and drying and kilning. In the germination room, with the temperature and humidity closely monitored, the grain sits on the concrete floor in a 6-inch-thick circle where it is raked by hand.
The batches were done 1,300 to 1,400 pounds at a time, a seven-day process for each.
The approach impressed the New Belgium brewers when they visited a year ago, amid planning to open their own East Coast operation in Asheville. “We left totally inspired,” brewer Matty “Smooth” Gilliland recently wrote on the company’s website. “The quality of their craft and their unbelievable work ethic left an indelible impression on us.”
The beer will go in early March to the 37 states where New Belgium distributes. It’s huge exposure for Riverbend. “They are basically saying that they believe in your mission and the quality of your product to put it in every one of our states,” Manning says.
“And it’s not just us,” Manning continues. “I think it’s a real vindication and recognition of what all the small-scale micro-maltsters are really doing, which is trying to connect their local farming community to the wildly popular and expanding craft beer market. This is just a great way to connect those dots, really.”
For Riverbend, the connections are many. In mid-January, once the New Belgium order was complete, the maltsters began a major expansion into a new space in the same building to meet increasing demand.
The extra room – along with a more efficient and automated process – means Riverbend can move to 8,000 pounds at full build-out in March.
“It’s where we needed to get to to be able to talk to these guys who are coming into town,” Manning says. “Everyone is growing. It’s not just the New Belgium order that is big. There are guys going from a nanobrew system to 15-barrel system, and they are looking to us to grow with them.”
What I’m tasting
Ratebeer.com, a popular consumer beer review website, recently named its top 2013 beers in each state. For North Carolina, it was Olde Hickory’s The Event Horizon, an imperial stout brewed with honey and aged in oak bourbon barrels.
With its thick mouthfeel and rich roast character, made only more dynamic with barrel-aging, it is worthy of the crown. It’s released each winter; check your local bottle shop for the last few bottles from 2013.