By Lucie Shelly
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
Increasingly in Carrboro, you will find a culture of artisan foods and gourmet gurus. Some of it is imported, and some of it comes from the old mill town itself. But among the French wines, Columbian coffees and produce from the Piedmont, there is something inauspiciously missing: a true Carrboro brew.
Arguably, one of the things many Carrborians love about the downtown scene is sitting out on fine day, chilled bottle in hand, spectating on the hipsters and young families alike. Considering how much people like to feel part of the town, shouldn’t their bottle come from the town too? Three men who have known each other and Carrboro since their days at Guy B. Philips Middle School certainly think so.
“It just makes sense to have a brewery,” says Cody Maltais, 26, one of the three founding members and the “Financial Czar” of what will be Carrboro’s first and only brewing endeavor, the Steel String Brewery.
Maltais, along with “Brewing Czar” Willis Isley, 26, and “Logistics Czar” Andrew Scharfenberg, 25, (yes, they put those titles in their official state paperwork), say that they know and love the Carrboro community. They also say that they understand how the community loves to support its own.
“Carrboro is a place that has always supported local products, supported local businesses,” says Maltais.
Scharfenberg agrees, and in light of this dynamic, says it’s odd that there isn’t already a local brewery.
“That’s what we’ve been saying all along. It’s weird and it will fill a niche,” says Scharfenberg.
Due to the localized scale of Steel String, the company will be a micro-brewery. But the question of why there hasn’t been a brewery before now was something the men had to consider before they went forward with their business venture.
“After going through the process, I think it’s become a little clearer why there’s not a brewery,” says Isley. “You do have to keep the original building pretty much intact, turning a ’40s millhouse into a brewery.”
The “Czars” say that the preexisting infrastructure of Carrboro isn’t naturally conducive to a brewing facility.
“There’s not a real industrial area, like in Durham and Raleigh there’s so much industrial space,” says Scharfenberg. “If you wanted to do a large brewery it would be very difficult here.”
The trio is in the process of confirming the final location for the brewery, which they hope to announce on Monday, April 16. So far, it’s taken some lateral thinking and determination to get the idea off the ground.
“There hasn’t been a way to make it feasible, and we kind of found a way to do it,” says Maltais.
Isley adds that some alterations are inevitable and essential for true functionality and efficiency in the brewing process.
“We’ll have to do a lot of reinforcing of the floor and turn it into epoxy floor that you can actually wash on a regular basis. So figuring all that out was a headache but we did all that last year,” says Isley.
It helps that the men are unwaveringly enthusiastic about their brewing, and that they have found like minds in the regional craft beer industry. They got their start the same way as most curious minds – they ignored the classic cautionary warning, and tried it at home.
Isley, who lives on Carr Street, graduated from UNC with an English degree in 2007, and after some stints doing string reporting is now pursuing his master’s in teaching.
“I came back to here and at that time we started home brewing and we actually made some pretty decent stuff and I started talking with Cody about starting a business,” recalls Isley. “We bought like one of those $150 kits, started with extract and it’s just really fun.”
Despite his literary background, it was a latent interest that stirred the brewing idea.
“I like cooking, and it’s also like some science. I started as a science major. It’s just kind of a nice mix. Creativity plus science equals beer,” says Isley.
This is not the trio’s first venture together. They were once three parts of a bluegrass band that they called The Blackswamp Bootleggers. They had some success, but they have since channeled their energies into the brewing, hence the name Steel String.
“So, we incorporated all the bluegrass instruments with steel strings,” says Isley. But Scharfenberg quickly adds a dose of reality.
“I don’t go into details about how we name things,” says Scharfenberg, grinning, as he considers the name of the brewing system itself. “Penelope. We call her Penelope Brews. You know, like Penelope Cruise.”
Scharfenberg, who live on Jones Ferry Road and currently works in a law firm, is largely responsible for the mechanics of the brewing process, while Maltais played the primary financial role after his time in the military during the past few years.
While the roots for Steel String were in place before Maltais went away, it was a concept that evolved.
“Whenever I came home to visit, Will and Andrew would have some new home-brew to check out and it became one of the things of coming home, always seeing how their brew was going,” says Maltais. He was in Iraq for a year, during which time he worked on the business plan with Isley and Scharfenberg via email.
One of the specific kinks they had to work out was a feasible scale of production.
“The definition of microbrewery right now is 500 barrels produced annually,” says Scharfenberg. “We’re doing a five-barrel system. Most of the production breweries are like 40 so we’re like an 8th of the size of most production breweries.”
This is the smallest a microbrewery can be, according to the Brewers Association. But the size isn’t a weak point in the business model – if anything it’s part of the plan.
“We want to be the point of sale ourselves, and make our brewery a destination like a bar,” says Isley.
A Collaborative Craft
Despite Steel String’s eventual proximity to local Chapel Hill brewery, Top of the Hill, the founders do not believe there will be a hostile or overly competitive environment.
“We’ve been working very closely with the Top of the Hill guys. They just do so well in their own location,” says Isley.
Collaboration, Isley and the others explain, is something that is unique and essential to the survival of all craft beer.
“The big three still have 90 percent share of all beer sold,” says Isely. “Craft beer is only at 10 percent. So really us doing well and them doing well is chipping away at the big guys, we’re not really cannibalizing them at all.”
Sharfenberg adds that success for one independent group can mean success for the others.
“We want to pull people in to the craft beer fold and say, ‘Hey there’s something out here that tastes better,’” he says.
Chris Creech of Fortnight Brewing, a craft beer company based in the Raleigh-Durham area, was offering tastings of his brews alongside the Steel String Czars at the National Session Beer Day event on April 7, at Carrboro Beverage Co. This was not the first time the two companies had crossed paths.
“We’ve brewed a time or two together,” said Creech. “It’s fun to keep up and go to festivals together.”
Such events and joint work provide a good platform for exploring and contrasting what a craft beer offers the more pensive drinker.
“We’re the English take on the session beer; it’s malty, caramel, and full-bodied. Steel String is more the American, West Coast style, meaning it’s more of a citrus,” explains Creech.
Isely says that Steel String will offer four signature brews, all of which have been tried and tested for complexity, quality and sophistication compared to your average brand beer.
The four beers are the Black IPA Manzonita, Big Mon, the West Coast style IPA, a porter called Eponymous, and the Rubber Room Session Ale that has an especially low alcohol content at just 3.7 percent. For the pale ales the brewers used four different hops and four different malts.
In round one, the brews seem to have passed the test as local taster Colin Sheffield of Spring Valley in Carrboro gave his glass the thumbs up.
“I’m on a major IPA cycle right now,” says Sheffield. “It was refreshing, light, I enjoyed drinking it.”
Carrboro is finally getting a beer from the town that reflects two of the town’s greatest values: community and flavor. Steel String beer is about bottling the experience of being in Carrboro.
“We want it to be a neighborhood hang-out,” says Isely.
Going from hobbyists to businessmen is something they think Carrboro’s culture will welcome.
“I mean, the thing is, every home-brewer talks about it, right?” says Scharfenberg.
Well, now it’s time to serve it up.
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