Steel String Brewery — It’s Beer O’Clock in Carrboro

The driven boys behind Carrboro’s soon-to-be favourite craft brewery preview their rad space and a tasty sample of things to come at Steel String Brewery

While I was in North Carolina over the holidays, I had the pleasure of meeting three of the four founding members of Steel String Brewery in Carrboro, NC. Head Brewer Will Isley (aka Brew Czar) invited me to meet him, Hoopla Czar Eric Knight, and Logistics Czar Andrew Scharfenberg at current Steel String HQ—the home Will shares with his awesomely accommodating wife, Jaimee, and their dog, Bruin.

Eric & Will working on Steel String Brewery Prototypes at Will’s home

Construction crews are hard at work getting Steel String’s prime Greensboro Street location up and running for their May opening, and the guys are hard at work brewing beer as they always have, wherever there’s space. The setup brings to mind the 8Ball & MJG/OutKast line, “People barbecuing in the front yard”. But in this case, Will fires up Steel String Brewery prototypes one keg at a time.

I’m a few days early for a surprise tasting the guys are putting on for their Hit-Makers Club (community backers), but I do get to do a little sampling. And—with the same reverence West Coasters are given to showing off their homegrown—they even give me a tour of the hops freezer.

Who doesn’t want a freezer full of hops?

Because they plan to serve their product almost exclusively on site, Steel String Brewery will carry a handful of house standard ales to maximize freshness and quick and easy turnover, and offer smaller runs of more complex and labour intensive seasonal brews.

For non Hit-Makers (it’s the last week to join the club, hurry!), Will offers some points of reference on what to expect when the Steel String Brewery starts serving. “I’ve modeled our IPA after Centennial and Stone. I initially tried to brew clones of each of those, and then I tried to find a middle ground. Centennial’s not as bitter, but it’s a little sweet, and I like the dry taste of Stone.”

Tending the keg

Along with seminal craft breweries, Steel String Brewery takes flavour cues from local ingredients, “Bitter American by 21st Amendment is the starting point for our Session Ale. We’ve added rye where 21st Amendment uses wheat because we think we can source North Carolina rye. We want to make our IPA and Session Ale easy drinking beers. Then we want our Pecan Coffee beer to be our beer with an annual release. It’s going to be hard to make, it’ll take a lot of coffee, and a lot of pecan”. For that, there are plans to partner with roaster Scott Conary and  Open Eye Cafe across the street. And Eric tells me that “health department permitting, they even hope to go as far as harvesting some of the pecan from the tress on UNC’s frat row. Fingers crossed.”

In the mean time, back to those hops, Will:

Most brewpubs have a lineup of beers where the sweet flavour is changing with malts—you’ll have a pale ale, a red ale, a brown ale, and a stout where just the malts are changing. I usually don’t change my malts, and instead try to use the yeast or hops. Most of our beers are very dry and very hoppy. When they’re not hoppy they have an intense yeast flavor like a German or a Belgian.

Once today’s brew is simmering nicely, we walk up to brewery, and I get the story behind how the four young titans—at 27, Financial Czar Cody Maltais is the oldest—came to found Carrboro’s first craft brewery.

As the name and tres cool branding suggest, Steel String Brewery is rooted are in western NC’s bluegrass world (I now know that all bluegrass instruments have steel strings). Will and Andrew “played at Mill Town every week, and got two free beers while we played. They have an awesome selection, so we started exploring craft beer in a subsidized way”. By the time Will started grad school at UNC, he was a pretty serious brew hobbyist. He picked up a job at Starbucks, “which actually was nice because it got me into coffee—I don’t drink their coffee anymore because it’s not that good, but it started me down the right road”. Around that time, Cody was preparing to retire from the Marines, and saw a perfect storm brewing between his friends’ various skills and passions.

Will remembers, “I had a craft beer background, and saw how a coffee company works. Cody was getting out of the military and wanted a new career. We had been doing some kit beers for a couple of his parties. He said, “I’m getting out of the military, let’s start pursuing this seriously”. He gave us some money to start buying better equipment, which is when we switched to all grain and started brewing every week”.

Temporary signage

I mention that opening a brewery at an age when most people are still learning how not to drink like a 21-year-old is no small feat. Yet they seem fearless. Will answers with the wisdom of youth, “we’re young enough that we can be fearless. I think it’s actually an advantage. I mean, worse case scenario, we’re still 28 and have a lifetime to keep doing other things”.

But today, the game plan is clear: brew and sell beer the Steel String Brewery way. Will is quick to point out, “our competition isn’t other small breweries, our competition is Anheuser”. Andrew breaks from talks with the renovation crew to add, “anytime we’re about to make a decision and think, well it would be cheaper if we did this through China, we say, no, that’s what Anheuser-Busch would do. Let’s suck it up and do some more fundraising”.

Anheuser-Busch might be the antithesis of craft brewing, but home brewers need to start secondhand somewhere

This ‘what would Anheuser-Busch not do’ (WWAMND, in braclet form) ethos has led Steel String Brewery to some pretty inspired decisions. Their shiny new brewing equipment is being constructed in Washington State, from 100% American Made Steel. Will is experimenting with NC grown and malted samples from Riverbend Malt House in Asheville, “one of the few micromaltsers in the country, and definitely the first in the South East”. The team has constructed what will prove to be a very iconic, and very badass guitar-shaped bar. Overhead tap lines and serving vesicles are coming to Steel String Brewery via the “Cadillac” designer of such things.

Andrew, Eric & Will rocking out with their guitar bar out

To Will, it makes good brewing business sense. “If we’re going to be the downtown craft brewery, we should probably serve the best draft beer”. Or, as Andrew puts it, “there’s no point in making beer if when it’s served, we’re like, “Here, you have no head on your beer””.

Call it civic pride with a business bent. From the website that dubs Carrboro “The Paris of the Piedmont”, to Steel String koozies that proclaim, “It’s always one degree cooler in Carrboro”, it’s clear that Steel String is beer brewed in Carrboro, for Carrboro. Will references Ralph Nader’s Huffington Post article that praises Carrboro’s Weaver Street Market (one of the few offsite locations you’ll be able to buy Steel String) as successfully fostering local economy. “Everybody here loves being local. We’ve got such good farmland around the area. We’ve got really nice water. We’ve got all the ingredients you need to be successful as a brewery, and it’s just amazing there isn’t one yet”.
There are still a few months to wait, but like happy hour looming at the end of a long day, Steel String Brewery is coming Carrboro. Just wait.