Beer & Barrel
Food-Friendly Signature Beers
By Julie Johnson
With the wide selection of top quality breweries available in North Carolina, restaurateurs are spoiled for choice—and a few have been inspired to seek out a friendly brewer and create a signature brew that is available exclusively on their menu. A house beer can complement a distinctive cuisine, express the restaurant’s philosophy, or anchor a special occasion. It can also become a special attraction for patrons.
When Ashley Christensen, the award-winning chef, opened Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, it was the second of what are now six restaurants she has founded in Raleigh. “With the concept being chicken and honey, it felt like such an opportunity. It was our first restaurant where it was about one item as the center of the concept,” she says.
She approached Sean Lilly Wilson, founder of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham and an avid promoter of beer and food with marked Southern roots. “We are big fans in that shop of the pairing of fried chicken and Champagne, but beer is so present here, you know?” she says. “I felt like Sean knew my food so well that he would be the perfect person to imagine that pairing.”
They discussed the project over—what else?—plates of fried chicken. Beasley’s was featuring North Carolina gallberry honey on its menu at the time. “We talked about feeling like it had this presence of tellicherry peppercorns. It has an innate, almost peppery spice all its own.”
The base beer Wilson proposed was a Belgian wit, or white beer, a style with little to no hop bitterness and that traditionally incorporates a range of spices for balance. After a few test batches, Fullsteam Beasley’s Honey White was born: softened with gallberry honey, spiked with tellicherry peppercorns, and brewed with a touch of oats for texture.
“It has a slightly cloudy richness to it; the spice kind of clears your palate after whatever bite you’ve had and complements it, then it gives you a nice reset for the next bite or the next sip,” Christensen says. She and Wilson debated a second beer—richer and darker to go with dark-meat dishes—but Honey White turned out to be a favorite accompaniment to all of Beasley’s menu items. It’s the restaurant’s best-selling beer.
Fearrington House in Pittsboro also partnered with Wilson on a brewing project, but instead of a single beer, the renowned restaurant wanted a rotating series of four to suit the restaurant’s seasonal menu. Max Kast, the beverage director at the time, says, “Sean and I thought it would be a cool idea to have something that expressed the essence of Fearrington, which Fullsteam shared: the farm-to-table philosophy,” or, as Fullsteam puts it, “plow to pint.”
The four seasonal beers are designed to be only medium in alcohol, food-friendly, and enhanced with seasonal ingredients. Fall, for example, features an ESP (extra special pale ale) made with the addition of Foggy Ridge apples from Virginia. The winter porter is flavored with home-roasted coffee and pecans from the inn’s hundred-year-old trees. The spring offering is a dry-hopped saison, and the summer seasonal, available now, is a session-strength IPA flavored with black tea and lemon peel. “It’s basically a play on iced tea, which is about as Southern as it gets,” Kast says.
At the AC Hotel North Hills in Raleigh, a compelling opportunity inspired Anthony Zinani, the general manager of beverage and food, to commission a single, special beer.
It happened when Level7, the rooftop bar, purchased a barrel of Knob Creek bourbon. “They sent us the barrel from Kentucky with our own hand-selected bourbon,” says Zinani. Once the barrel was emptied, he approached Raleigh Brewing, whose beers are regularly on tap at the hotel, and proposed a collaboration. “The first thing I thought of was that it would be cool to have them brew a beer for us and age it in our own barrel.”
Barrel-aging, which has grown in popularity recently, allows a beer—generally one that is full-flavored and higher in alcohol—to pick up new flavors from the wood. If the barrel has previously housed another beverage, some of those qualities will pass into the beer over weeks or months of aging.
“We chose a beer that would kind of stick out for that typical oaky, wood-age of the bourbon,” Zinani says. “We wanted to go with something a little darker, so it’s kind of a mix between a Belgian strong ale and a porter. It’s a dark amber color, and the beer will be a little higher in ABV, around 9 to 10 percent.”
Zinani joined the Raleigh Brewing team to brew the beer. “I was able to mash everything up, pick out the hops, dump in the hops, and really get in with the master brewer about how we’re going to do this.”
Now comes the wait. The beer will mature in the Knob Creek barrel for several months before it is unveiled around October. Zinani plans to make an occasion of the release, because once this beer’s gone, it’s gone.
Not all signature beers are that fleeting, but all attempt to capture something unusual and distinctive to deliver a unique experience for guests.