Long before I opened the doors to Mystery Brewing Company, people had already accused me of seeing everything in life in terms of beer. In my defense, it’s difficult not to do when you’re surrounded by so much of it in so many ways.
Orange County has been a thriving home to the beer industry since before North Carolina’s craft beer revolution and Pop the Cap in 2006, with two iconic brewpubs. With a large national and international population attracted by UNC, it’s easy to see why an industry with a long global history has thrived here.
The journey through Orange County’s brewing culture starts on East Franklin Street with Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill. It opened in 1995 when founder Robert Poitras noticed a trend for fresh, locally produced items such as cheese, vegetables and bread, and decided to do the same with beer. Today, the brewpub he opened is a favorite gathering spot for local beer lovers, UNC students and alumni. Head there on a game day and catch the Blue Sky Express over to UNC’s Kenan Stadium, the Dean E. Smith Center or even the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Or hang out in front at the original brewhouse and enjoy the game on TV with dozens of other fans.
Top of the Hill at the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets in Chapel Hill was the second brewery to open in Orange County. It launched just a year after Carolina Brewery and is now a landmark, overseeing the throngs that mass in the streets after UNC victories. Owner Scott Maitland conceived of Top of the Hill to keep a national chain restaurant from dominating downtown. “I thought a brewpub was the perfect antithesis” he says.
It remains a regular stop for both tourists and beer lovers.
For years, those two brewpubs produced the only locally made adult beverages in Orange County. In 2012, that changed.
That year, Maitland opened Orange County’s first (legal) distillery, TOPO Spirits, on West Franklin Street in a building that once housed the Chapel Hill News. The distillery uses 100 percent organic North Carolina-grown wheat, and its largest market for TOPO vodka and gin is right here in Orange County.
2012 marked the opening of my brewery, Mystery Brewing Company, in Hillsborough. We originally chose Hillsborough because, as Orange County’s first packaging brewery, we wanted to get onto the highways quickly. The proximity of I-85 and I-40 made Hillsborough an easy choice. After getting to know the town, however, we found that the county seat was ready for a local beer of its own, and we launched to incredible public support. We opened our production facility in February 2012 and have since opened our very own Public House on Nash Street. We now sell more than 30 percent of all the beer we make inside our little hometown.
Shortly after we opened, Starpoint Brewing became Orange County’s second packaging brewery. Owner and Brewer Tim Harper grew up in Durham but has called Carrboro home since 1979. “I found local officials were very helpful and supportive of our venture,” Harper says.
He built his brewery in his front yard, and the small facility has been maxed out since the day it opened, selling his hop-inspired beers to local watering holes. At Tyler’s Taproom on Main Street, Starpoint continues to be one of the best-selling beers.
Most recently, Steel String Brewery on South Greensboro Street in Carrboro joined the scene. Will Isley, its brewing czar, says he chose Carrboro specifically because of the local vibe. “We felt like craft breweries get great support from the local community in nearly every case, so Carrboro would be exponentially supportive of a craft brewery,” he notes. And they were right. From the day that they opened a few months ago, Steel String has been a popular hangout, packed with locals enjoying beer how it should be: fresh.
One of the things that each of these producers has in common, aside from Orange County, is a focus on using local goods. Starpoint Brewing buys local ginger from the Carrboro Farmers’ Market and picks blueberries at a local farm. Both Top of the Hill and Carolina Brewery buy food from local farms and bakeries for their brewpubs. Top of the Hill Distillery sources all of the wheat used in its spirits from within 100 miles of Chapel Hill. Almost every local brewery uses some amount of North Carolina-grown and -malted grain from Riverbend Malting in Asheville.
Any beverage producer will tell you the immense importance of water, its most local resource. Without good water, you simply cannot make good beer.
Jon Connolly, head brewer of Carolina Brewery, explains: “Water is part of the flavor of any beer that you drink. If the quality is good then it will produce a good beer no matter what the source. Having a water supply of consistent quality definitely takes some of the guesswork out of brewing.”
Every brewer I spoke with emphasized the excellent quality of the local water.
“Because the water is neither too hard nor too soft, it is ideal for making most beer styles. Little or no other water treatment is required,” Connolly says. Kudos to you, OWASA.
At Starpoint Brewing in Carrboro, owner/brewer Tim Harper draws his water from a well that taps into a quartz aquifer. And in Hillsborough, Mystery Brewing Co. brews with water from the Eno River, one of the cleanest natural water sources in North Carolina. High-quality, great-tasting water is one of the primary reasons your local beer is so delicious.
Erik Lars Myers is the author of North Carolina Craft Beer and Breweries and is the founder and head brewer of Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough.