Raleigh’s Nickelpoint Brewery embraces the nerdy side of brewing

Among the pieces of equipment you’ll find in the lab at Nickelpoint Brewery is a high-end spectrophotometer, an instrument that can retail for as much as $10,000 new and is used in a wide range of high-tech labs to identify and quantify molecules in a solution.

Nickelpoint uses it to make more consistent craft beer. By placing a sample of one of the company’s beers in the spectrophotometer, Nickelpoint can place a precise number on the color of its beer and determine its bitterness, also known as its International Bitterness Unit, or IBU, number.

Once measured, those numbers are compared to the original calculations that were made before the beer was brewed. If there’s a discrepancy, it can be accounted for in the next batch.

“All this is about collecting empirical data,” says Bruce Corregan, 47, who along with his younger brother Matt, 45, and two other partners founded Nickelpoint two years ago and opened its brewery in September. “You have to learn your system, and the only way is to collect data and test it empirically.”

If Bruce Corregan sounds wonky for a head brewer, blame his brother. While Bruce taught classical guitar and worked in product marketing for IBM and Lenovo for 16 years before taking a buyout earlier this year to focus full-time on Nickelpoint, Matt has a degree in biochemistry from N.C. State University and previously worked for the pharmaceutical company Wyeth in Sanford.

With Matt’s guidance, Nickelpoint is using quality control methods typically found in much larger breweries to help it stand out in an increasingly crowded Triangle craft beer market.

“Given the skills Matt has, we made a decision we were going to make this a part of our culture from Day One,” Bruce says.

A reputation for quality

As the craft beer industry in North Carolina has exploded in popularity in recent years, the expectations of consumers drinking the product has risen. That has increased pressure on brewers, as many craft beer drinkers now expect each batch to taste the same.

The North Carolina Craft Breweries Guild encourages all breweries – no matter their size – to have a lab where they can help ensure the consistency and quality of their product. The guild’s educational courses also include information on how to set up a lab.

“Even the smallest brewery can have a rudimentary lab setup, which we encourage,” said Margo Knight Metzger, executive director of the guild. “… Because it really is critical for consistent quality for you to understand the science of beer.”

She said North Carolina, which now has 130 craft breweries, has an excellent reputation nationwide for quality. But her organization’s message to new breweries is simple: “We have a good reputation; new guys, don’t mess it up.”

Many small craft breweries rely on calculations – not precise measurements – to determine the profile of their beers. Others outsource the testing to a facility with the necessary equipment.

Nickelpoint is leveraging Matt’s scientific knowledge to do it in-house, including microbiological testing of samples for algae and beer-spoiling bacteria.

The brewery is modeling its approach after Sierra Nevada, perhaps the most successful microbrewery in the country. Sierra is legendary for its early focus on quality control.

“They started out Day One with a lab,” Matt says. “I read that and it really inspired me.”

A life-changing accident

Although it’s difficult to characterize the different emerging craft brew scenes in North Carolina, Triangle brewers are gaining a reputation for their scientific acumen.

“The tendency of Asheville brewers is a bit more creative perhaps, but the tendency of the Triangle brewers is a bit more nerdy,” Metzger said. “But there’s so much art in the nerdy side of beer. You can create amazing flavors if you understand the science of brewing.”

Bruce and Matt Corregan are a particularly good example of this dynamic.

Bruce began home brewing more than 15 years ago, but it took a tragedy to get the brothers to begin collaborating. In December 2001, Matt crashed while riding his motorcycle and suffered a spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic.

Matt spent the next year living at Bruce and his wife’s house in west Raleigh while he recuperated. During that period, Bruce was experimenting with all-grain brewing and quickly ran into technical aspects of the process that Matt could help with.

“There’s a lot of technical work that goes on behind the scenes to being creative,” Matt says of their brewing relationship. “I’ve been the one who is more scientific-minded. Bruce has been more creative.”

Brewing for the bottom

While the Corregan brothers have ditched corporate America for Nickelpoint, they still use the skills and terminology they learned in their previous jobs.

Matt talks about the importance of standard operating procedures and has no problem expressing admiration for any brewery that follows them.

“There are people who poo-poo Budweiser, but big beer is a quality product because it consistently meets specifications,” he says. “It may taste like crap to you, but it consistently tastes like crap.”

Bruce, who helped market servers for IBM and then Lenovo, calls Nickelpoint’s lineup of beers its “portfolio” and stresses the importance of the Four Ps: price, product, promotion and place.

Describing the market of beer drinkers as a pyramid, he says he is brewing for those toward the bottom, not the beer snobs at the top with the highly refined palate.

Nickelpoint does experiment with small batches of beer – it offered a strawberry blonde and a peach ale at its Small Batch Thursday events this summer – but it has thus far focused on traditional ales and lagers.

The brewery’s most popular beers to date are its Vienna Lager and its English IPA. Bruce considers it a compliment when a customer says of his beers “this isn’t really hoppy” or “this isn’t a loaf of bread.”

Metzger said, as a business strategy, this isn’t a bad approach if you’re targeting drinkers looking to try their first craft beers.

“Maybe the first craft beer you fell in love with wasn’t a sour infected with Brettanomyces,” she said. “That probably wasn’t your conversion beer or your gateway craft beer.”

Nickelpoint self distributes its beer, and today it has about 50 accounts in the Triangle with bottleshops, restaurants and pubs. The brewery hopes to begin offering some of its beers in cans by next year.

These days the business is being supported mostly by sales from the tap room at its brewery in the Five Points neighborhood, where it regularly hosts family- and pet-friendly events. The tap room accounts for about 75 percent of the brewery’s total revenue.

The Corregan brothers have bigger plans for their brewery, but it has already provided them with something that neither could have imagined before Matt’s accident.

“Look what it’s turned into,” Matt says. “It’s kind of gotten a life of its own.”