We interrupt this series of posts about a single day in Durham last week with a stop for beer.
Yes, boss, that is sometimes my job. Ever since a guy named Sean Lilly Wilson led the lobbying effort Pop the Cap, to raise the alcohol limit on beer, North Carolina has exploded with craft beer and microbrews. When the campaign was over, Wilson got into the beer business himself with a sort-of crazy idea to make beers from ingredients and inspirations that reflect traditional North Carolina foods. Like sweet potato beer, and hickory-smoked beer.
The beer tastes a lot better than that sounds. And the whole thing is truly going full-steam since Wilson (left) and brewmaster Chris Davis joined up with Brooks Hamaker (right).
Brooks is well-known in the Southern food-writing world for several things: His thoughtful posts, under the name Mayhaw Man, back when eGullet first got started. His dedication and constant presence at the Southern Foodways Symposium meetings in Oxford, Miss. And -- oh yeah -- his career in beer. Ever heard of Louisiana's Abita Beer? That was Brooks. After he sold it, he became a brewery consultant all over the world, including here in Charlotte, when he helped get the old Johnson Brewing up and running.
Today, the three of them brew beer that is showing up all over the Triangle, and they've opened the brewery as a beer palace. That's sort of the best way to describe it: It's in an old auto shop in a warehouse district near downtown Durham. Finding it is tricky unless you know to look for the big backward "F" on the door. Inside, there are ping-pong tables and pinball machines, and when I stopped in after lunch Friday, Brooks and Chris were struggling with putting up a new dart board. The whole thing feels sort of like a frat house for grown men. With much better beer.
I was driving, so I kept my sipping to samples. You have to sample a lot to really get a feel for Fullsteam. For instance, there's the Workingman's Lunch. It's supposed to be inspired by a Moon Pie, but it doesn't taste like marshmallow and chocolate (luckily). It's a nice, dark, rich beer. El Toro is Hamaker's "beer beer." My dad had a gold Toro lawnmower that I remember well, so I get where's he's going with that. I also tried their new persimmon beer, which is just slightly fruity and much better than I expected.
Fullsteam is now open at noon most days (get the details here), and there actually were a handful of people at the bar when I stopped in. Friday nights have become quite a scene, Brooks says. A lot of the food trucks (see my Tuesday post) park on the street outside, and everybody from college professors to off-duty police come in to drink and talk. They offer a few bar foods, such as Dos Perros tamales and leftover goodies from Scratch Bakery (they call them "Scratch and dents.") There's even a local baker who's making "beer cookies," designed to go with the eclectic Fullsteam tastes. (That's a five-spice snickerdoodle on my notebook above.)
Fullsteam's main problem right now is that it's a victim of its own success. Tanks are at capacity, says Hamaker. Until they install more, they can't even consider expanding to markets like Charlotte and Charleston. For the moment, you have to either go to the brewery or look in hipster food places all around the Triangle.
Hamaker splits his time between Washington and Durham. Nice life, he admits. He likes Durham a lot for the spirit of food entrepreneurialism that's sprung up from its large creative class. "A lot of us just got tired of trying to find consistent work," he says. Instead, theyr'e finding fun work. Like making whatever kind of beer they can dream up.