HOP LINE: Local Ingredients, Local Beer

By Evan Crouch

For food lovers across the Triangle, summer is a special time of year. Along with the heat, humidity and a few mosquitoes, summer brings the prospect of fresh seasonal produce. Go to any nearby farmers’ market and you can’t help but be amazed by the abundance of locally grown fruits and vegetables at our fingertips. Not only does local produce make for a tasty repast, it also helps to support the regional economy: It’s estimated that 80 to 90 cents on the dollar that’s spent locally, stays locally. Most of us are familiar with the economic benefits of eating locally, but what about drinking locally? Craft beer offers an unexpected vehicle for just that – and local breweries are catching on.

One such brewery is Fullsteam in Durham. Located at 726 Rigsbee Ave. (near the old Durham Bulls ballpark), Fullsteam strives to craft brews that use as many local ingredients as possible, with a respectful nod to the Southern culinary tradition. Locally sourced sweet potatoes, cornmeal grits, scuppernong grapes, figs and persimmons have all made their way into the brewery’s unique lineup of beers. Fullsteam’s current seasonal is the Summer Basil Farmhouse Ale. It’s made with locally grown basil that delivers a refreshing herbal quality, and coupled with the lemon and pepper notes from the saison-style brewer’s yeast, Summer Basil makes a perfect complement to a fresh summer salad.

Fullsteam CEO Sean Wilson. Photo by Sean Living-Water

There’s something oddly poetic about this brewpub rising amidst the abandoned tobacco warehouses in the former epicenter of North Carolina’s bygone cash crop. When talking to Fullsteam CEO Sean Wilson, one really gets the sense that he sees an important role for his brewery in the local economy.

“Ultimately, we here at Fullsteam want to craft what I call a ‘Southern beer economy,’ where we’re buying ingredients locally and making beer from them,” he says. “Given our backgrounds and love for local food and Southern traditions, it was easy to hone in on the Southern-sourced model – it’s fun, creative and boundless. We have a unique opportunity to create a category rather than replicate historical styles. That’s really exciting!”

Wilson isn’t the only one who’s getting excited about the “plow-to-pint” movement. Liz Clore, an apprentice farmer at Elysian Fields Farm in Cedar Grove, just finished harvesting this year’s basil crop, which wound up in Fullsteam’s Summer Basil.

“Fullsteam seems to foster a real community environment in Durham, and I’m excited they extend that to the ingredients in their beer. And honestly, much of my motivation for farming is the delicious end product, so it is awesome to know that the basil I produced and cared for becomes a part of something I love to drink,” she says.
After finishing her apprenticeship, Clore says she plans to start her own farm next year in Saxapahaw, noting that “growing crops specifically for brewers on my own farm is an exciting prospect.”

It’s satisfying to observe this positive ripple effect as it moves through the local economy. It’s even more encouraging to see new farmers get into the game. Harrison Willets, of Willets Farm Starberry Lane in Mebane, is converting an acre of his farmland to be used for hop cultivation. It will take a full three years of planting cover crops to prepare the soil, but Willets says it’s well worth it: “I think people in this area are motivated to brew at home and need a supply for fresh hops, as well as local breweries having an option to make an all-local beer. … It’s important to diversify one’s product layout and customer base. This crop does both.”

In these tenuous economic times, it’s more important than ever to back our local farmers, brewers and businesses. We all reap the benefits of a shared prosperity when supporting our neighbors in the community. And if you have a penchant for support of the quaffable variety, you needn’t look any further than the local beer scene. As Sean Wilson reminds us, “We’re truly in a golden era in North Carolina … an era that’s just getting started.”
I’ll toast to that!

The Summer Basil Farmhouse Ale is available in growlers and on draft and pairs well with light summer fare like this salad – for which the bulk of ingredients are available at your farmers’ market!

Summer Salad

1/2 pound fresh feta
1 small wedge of watermelon 
1 heirloom tomato
1/2 slicing cucumber
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon aged balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon chopped mint
1/2 teaspoon chopped basil

Remove the rind from the watermelon, peel the cucumber and remove the core from the tomato. Slice each item one-quarter-inch thick. Make sure the feta cheese is very cold and drained of any liquid, then slice into one-quarter inch pieces. On a serving plate, alternate pieces of watermelon, tomato and cucumber with a slice of feta in between each. Sprinkle the salt and herbs on top, then drizzle with olive oil and vinegar.