One of North Carolina’s most-promising breweries is not where you’d expect to find it.
Asheville is getting a lot of attention right now as it closes in on 20 breweries, many of which are getting national attention. But one of my favorite locations is far away from the mountains, hiding in the heart of the state.
I was bored and looking for something to do on an otherwise lazy Saturday last fall, when someone suggested I drive out to Saxapahaw, N.C., to visit Haw River Farmhouse Ales. I went along with the suggesting, hoping that I could actually find my way to the small town in central North Carolina.
For starters, plan to spend an afternoon – or longer – in Saxapahaw. Located along the beautiful Haw River, the town features a farmer’s market during the warmer months, live music in the evenings and some good eateries that include the Eddy Pub and the Saxapahaw General Store (the latter of which has a fantastic goat burger – no kidding!)
The brewery itself has a modest taproom, with roughly 3,000 square feet for tasting and brewing, and 12 taps. The bar liberally sits about a dozen people, but there’s a nice view of the brewery’s 10-barrel system. The brewers also have a variety of wood barrels on hand to feed their need to be creative.
The brewery takes pride in using local ingredients. In fact, Haw River conducts an annual Farmhand Exchange program where they give free seed packets to locals, who are then asked to grow produce to sell back to the brewery. This year, people are being asked to grow ground cherry and tangerine gem marigold for a future brew. And there is a green effort under way – the brewery recently installed a solar-heated hot water system.
Differentiation is big goal for Haw River. You can read more about this, and other lessons learned during the startup process, on the brewery’s blog.
Haw River features four “standard” beers that you should expect to see at the taproom year round: Newlin’s Original Belgian Oatmeal Pale (hop forward with a bit of bitterness), Rustic Grisette Farmhouse Ale (fermented with native house yeast), St. Benedict’s Breakfast Dubbel (a product of heavy dry hopping and the addition of Sumatran and Ethiopian Harar coffee beans) and Regent’s Rye Tripel (more on this one later).
The first beer I tried – Major Arcana – really threw me, but in a good way. It is a Belgian black sour that, on first look, would appear to be a robust stout. Even with the beer descriptions at my fingertips, the first sip seriously hit my jowls. I think of it like drinking lemon juice while expecting coffee.
Arcana is a dry, sharp sour that Haw River aged in brandy barrels for more than a year. A crafty beer that plays with your senses and, at 7.2% ABV, remains quite drinkable. At one point, this was the brewery’s #1 growler fill, and for good reason. Given the lengthy aging process, though, it might be awhile before I see this collaboration with Natty Greene’s Brewing again.
Another appealing brew was the Good Golly’a, Miss Amalia. I like the story behind this Belgo-French ale. The brewery’s owners where driving around local farmland when they noticed that one farmer was growing Amalia hops that are more common in New Mexico. They bought all of the harvest to make this one beer. This hoppy brew is expected to return to Haw River’s taps this fall.
Haw River has also made a name for itself as a willing collaborator with other breweries, producing a number of specialty beers. The Picklemania Dill Gose, a collab with Steel String Brewery
, is a German sour that includes fresh dill, mustard seeds and allspice. Woodfruit Mushroom Brown Ale centers around reishi and maitake mushrooms; Haw River worked with Deep River Brewing on that one.
I promised earlier to revisit the Regent’s Rye Tripel, a traditional Trappist-stryle golden ale brewed with 100% N.C. malt. The ale has an amazing hue and wonderfully thick head. Crisp and dry and finishes well.
Haw River got creative with Regent’s, branching out into three derivative beers to create the #NoHoldsies series. Batches of the rye tripel were split into thirds and aged in chardonnay, red wine and bourbon barrels. The series was the brewery’s first bottled product, produced as part of craft beer store Bottle Revolution’s third anniversary.
My personal #NoHoldsies favorite was the bourbon variant; you pick up a pronounced bourbon taste upfront with a punctuated back end. The red wine barrel aged has proven to be the hardest version to find out in the market, though.
Haw River is gearing up for more limited release bottle events. In early March, they released their Rustic Grissette, fermented using a house brett in oak grape brandy barrels. (Only 400 of the 375 mL bottles were produced, selling for $7 each.) Plans are in place to host more bottling events of similar size and scale as other brews come of age.
Virtually every beer aficionado I meet in North Carolina is aware of Haw River. The #NoHoldsies series, originally intended to be a one-off bottling, is creeping into more craft beer stores as well. If this momentum persists, Haw River will no longer be North Carolina’s best-kept brewery secret.