Jan 20, 2016 - Food and Drink

Get ready for an Adventure: NoDa Brewing + Devils Backbone debut collaboration

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Jonathan Wells adventure-pack-brewers Cover

It all began with a conversation as I was leaving the NoDa North End grand opening. Owner Suzie Ford asked what my appetite for travel looked like. Considering any event I’ve ever covered happened locally, I was eager to stretch out of the constraints of 704 surroundings.

Proper introductions were made a few weeks later by email; NoDa was one of five breweries slated to collaborate with Devils Backbone, Virginia’s largest craft brewer and a brand new entrant to the Charlotte market. Daniel Hartis, another writer covering the Charlotte beer scene, was also making the trip along with NoDa’s head brewer Chad Henderson.

NoDa isn’t a stranger to collaborative brews, but this is the largest geographic impact by far for such a joint effort. Devils Backbone would team up with five breweries in total for five wildly different beers, bottling the results, packaging them in 12-packs along with a pair of their flagship Vienna Lager bottles, and sending them out into the world as Adventure Packs.

This mix will be sent to every market Devils Backbone is in: throughout North Carolina, plus places new to NoDa like the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Devil's Backbone adventure pack collaboration
Photo via the Devils Backbone Brewing Company Facebook page

It’s not just a large footprint. We’re talking an abundance of beer. Before transitioning to their new production facility, NoDa’s brewers were squeezing just over 300 barrels of beer each week from their original 15-barrel system.

From what the email chain indicated, they’d churn out 240 barrels of future beer in the morning before breaking for lunch. With another later brew session, a whopping 360 barrels of this collaborative lager would see distribution. This was shaping up to be a Big Deal.

The autumnal rain was merciless on my drive up. Devils Backbone’s original location, known as Basecamp, sits at the foot of Wintergreen Resort. Basecamp is its own retreat, a compound nestled in the middle of a 100-acre wood. There’s an outdoor amphitheater area that hosts concerts in warmer months, but I made a beeline for the sanctuary of the taproom.

Inside, a glass wall behind the bar separated me from the copper-clad brewhouse. This 8.5 barrel system is a paltry fraction the size of what we’d be running the next day, a 120-barrel behemoth. That’s fully twice the size of NoDa’s impressive new toys back home, and the largest system NoDa brewer Chad Henderson has dealt with.

At dinner, Chad, Daniel and I got to chat with the Devils Backbone owners. Naturally, conversation revolved around beer, with a lively topic of everyone’s first craft beers inspiring trips down memory lane.

In the morning, brewery reps met us with coffee right on time and we set out for the hour-long ride to Outpost.

While the brewing area at Basecamp lived behind the bar, I could see the fermenters of Outpost from the highway. Six of them towered overhead, each of them tending to 960 barrels of beer. We quickly emptied the NoDa van of hundreds of pounds of hops, a 44-pound box at a time, fire-brigade style.

Devils-Backbone-fermenters

I’ve never seen a brew day started with a literal click of a mouse, but Chad got the honors and I can cross that sight off my bucket list. At once, the mill rollers began crushing grain two rooms away, to be met with a blast of hot water as it exited the auger for its new mash tun home.

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devils-backbone-brewing-equipment

Every time the manway door at the top of the mash tun was opened, the propeller inside that helps blend water and grist shut off as a safety precaution. The German-designed system comes from a brewing culture where extraneous mash tun additions simply don’t happen. A good laugh was had, as brewers impatiently waited for the watery whirlpool below to fervently spin before throwing open the door and fervently deploying multiple bags of flaked oats.

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It wasn’t as funny in between the two batches, once we discovered the dough ball. Dump a mass of flaked oats quickly into hot water, and they’ll tend to stick to each other. The outside gets wet and turns into a gluey skin, with the interior contents remaining dry. A person-sized glob of dough was stuck just out of reach of the mixer paddle, and brewers fought fruitlessly to free it before settling to simply start the second batch.

With the second brewing underway, we toured the facility. The packaging line itself was the size of Charlotte’s largest breweries, and the filtering room made me grateful for the mandated ear plugs. A quick pint at the tap room led to a lunch downtown before I departed.

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NoDa was the second of the five collaborating breweries to trek to Devils Backbone. Asheville’s Wicked Weed made it up just prior to our group, and Australia’s Thunder Road Brewing, Minnesota’s Surly Brewing and Indiana’s Sun King Brewing were soon to follow.

Contributing styles on the Adventure Pack run the gamut from NoDa’s India Pale Lager up to Wicked Weed’s Imperial Stout, coincidentally the smallest- and largest-ABV beers that Devils Backbone has brewed on their system.

In all my writing assignments, this was my first time traveling for a story versus covering happenings in my backyard. I was simultaneously excited and terrified. The curtain was being peeled back for us on an event with a multi-state imprint, but I couldn’t help but worry about how this trip would be perceived at home.

“You’re just bought and paid for by NoDa,” a local beer rep actually spat at me weeks later. I was gutted, having never been labeled a shill before, and didn’t know how to respond to the false charge.

Regardless, one spiteful slur will do little to dim my excitement about this collaboration series coming to town. Devils Backbone officially debuted the collaborative series at their taprooms on January 11, before sending kegs and bottles to wider distribution. Local bars and bottle shops have been keeping busy, announcing launch events around Charlotte.

In the end, it’s the giant flaked-oat dough ball that I can’t forget. Walking into the Devils Backbone facility, I stared up at the towering fermenters. I’d never seen a regional brewery making beer on a level like this before. Everything intimidated me, down to the single mouse-click that started the first brew.

Oddly, watching the doughy struggle reintroduced a needed level of perspective to the day.

Devils Backbone may be Virginia’s largest brewer, and these collaborations may see distribution across five states, but it’s still made by people fervently passionate about the beer and brewed the hard way.

A sampling of Adventure Pack events in Charlotte, with all six beers on tap:

  • Salud Beer Shop, January 20, 6 p.m.
  • Good Bottle Co, January 20, 6 p.m.
  • Flying Saucer, January 23, 2 p.m.
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