The waiter at the Top of the Hill Tavern ("TOPO") in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was pleading his case for an IPA called Assist. I wasn't complaining. In fact, I'd just told him that TOPO's Ram's Head IPA was one of the best I'd ever had. It wasn't just me — last year, the brewpub's Ram's Head brought home the platinum in the World Beer Championships. Our waiter said that for his money, he liked the hop-heavy, "fruit-forward profile" of Assist. The thing is that I'd already bought a second round; he wasn't trying to make a sale. He was trying to convert me.
One of the truly great side effects of the craft beer boom has been a raising of a sort of hipster version of civic pride. So when traveling, I always order a local brew and have regretted it exactly once. It's something new, and the waitstaff won't just rattle off options. They get excited about it. Just like the fierce competition has driven Memphis barbecue to the next level in both quality and loyalty, North Carolina breweries are at the top of their game and have created a craft brew tourism in the bargain. It has become the Napa Valley of beer.
According to the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, there are currently 185 breweries in the state, with 56 in the areas called the Triad and The Triangle. The regions are right next to each other, but the locals are picky — they aren't the same thing.
"This is our second collaboration with Gizmo," said our waiter, adding, "If this is what they are doing with us, I'm going to make the drive to Raleigh just to see what else they've got."
According to its website, Gizmo Brew Works was launched in 2013 "from the ashes of a fallen brewery brother. ... Gizmo represents the thinkers, tinkerers, and inventors who make up [Research Triangle Park] and the Umstead Industrial Park which we call home." My only real complaint with the Assist IPA was the same I had with Gizmo's prose — there was just a little bit too much going on.
That's when it struck me — the state's success with craft beer isn't just sensible laws and fierce competition, it's also friendly collaboration. These are the factors that Matt Ridley points out in his book, The Rational Optimist, that cause "ideas to have sex."
Apt point, as Mrs. M and I were in town for a wedding. While she and her college friends went to pester the bride, the husbands went down to a famous burger shack called Al's. It was a little too famous, actually, and crowded. One of us called his boss lady to say we'd gone down the street to ...
"... the Carolina Brewery?" she guessed. Well, she had us there. This puts two fully functioning brewpubs, churning out excellent beer (try Carolina's Pamlico Pale Ale, named after the local Pamlico Sound) within about six blocks, in a city the size of Chapel Hill.
The talent in this area is so thick that when a friend from college, Britt Lytle, opened a brewery down the road in High Point, it was easy to find a local brewmaster to help him out. Brown Truck Brewery (named after Britt's first truck) won three medals in the Great American Beer Festival in its first year. If you love craft beer, beautiful scenery, and friendly arguments about brew, you might want to get yourself out to North Carolina for a long weekend.
And I have to admit to doing my part for the N.C. beer boom. Britt and I were discussing his opening up a brewery in such a competitive environment — the challenges and the fears — when the conversation turned to "Murffbrau," my college homebrew. "Was I an inspiration for Brown Truck?" I asked.
"Actually, you were." He said. "I took one sip of that crap and said to myself, 'There has got to be a better way.'"