Made from Scratch: The Outer Banks Overflows with Good Spirits
As the rain intensifies, the group of 15 huddles closer together under the shelter. Guests gaze at the giant gleaming tanks as they learn about the Outer Banks Brewing Station. They’re hanging on every word uttered by Will Holman, whose delivery is one part history lesson, one part stand-up comedy.
“We’re all pirates and characters here,” Holman tells the crowd with a smile.
Down the road in Manteo, three dozen people crowd into the tasting room at Outer Banks Distilling to learn about Kill Devil Rum from Matt Newsome. He explains the distillery’s slogan for its made-from-scratch rum – “from molasses to glasses” – and then without missing a beat tells the appreciative audience, “I’m very proud of it – came up with it myself.”
When Newsome hands off the tour group, co-owner Scott Smith welcomes everyone into the steamy production room – summer is primetime tour season, after all.
“Take as many pictures as you want and put ‘em all over Facebook and Instagram – that’s free advertising for us,” he says with a laugh. “We ask just one thing: Don’t touch any buttons or open any valves while you’re in here.”
Cross the bridge into Currituck County and more characters await at Sanctuary Vineyards and the Weeping Radish Farm Brewery. At Weeping Radish, the tour is led by owner Uli Bennewitz, who crams three decades of stories about success, failure and politics into his hourlong spiel that – oh, yeah – also includes a few details about beer and how Weeping Radish started the microbrewery movement in North Carolina.
“People talk about, ‘Wow, you were the first.’ From a business point of view, that’s really stupid,” Bennewitz says. “Let others jump all the hurdles. It always takes a couple of idiots to get it going so the successful ones can jump in.”
From self-deprecating to simply outlandish, the folks who make beer, wine and rum on the Outer Banks are indeed characters who have a passion for their craft – and a passion for sharing that passion (and their beverages) with tourists and locals alike. Here are a few of their stories:
Kill Devil Rum
When most people tour a distillery, they’re interested in sampling the end product. The entire experience, however, proves most fascinating.
Why isn’t Kill Devil Rum made in Kill Devil Hills, whose name is credited to rum so strong it would kill the devil? Because Manteo has a sewer system – “It was a blessing in disguise,” adds Matt. “Manteo has really embraced us.” Before the four friends could start making rum, they needed money for their risky start-up – “Huge shoutout to TowneBank for giving us a chance!” Matt pipes in.
The copper pot still took 13 months to come from Germany and when it arrived, all the pieces to the still were inside: “We assembled and installed it ourselves, only had three, four pieces left over,” Scott says with a laugh, then quickly adds: “Stupid joke. We’re proud that we know our equipment inside and out.”
Adam Ball and Kelly Bray had basic experience from local breweries, while Matt and Scott knew the local scene after working for years as bartenders. The group took distilling classes at Michigan State University in advance of starting the first batch of Kill Devil Rum in February of 2015, and this quirky quartet has been mixing tons of molasses and water together ever since. A full day of production, which includes four still runs, can last from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“Our goal is not to make as much rum as possible,” Scott says. “Our goal is to make the best rum possible.”
Kill Devil Silver, the unique Kill Devil Pecan Rum with honey from Wanchese and pecans from Manns Harbor, and barrel-aged Kill Devil Gold can be purchased on site or in a growing number of states’ ABC stores. Outer Banks Distilling will have some five-year rums ready in 2020, and a special Blackbeard Reserve will be out in the fall of 2018 in time to mark the 300-year anniversary of the pirate’s death.
Seems only appropriate that a couple of ECU Pirates should be in on the fun.
“Me and Matt are both Pirates,” Kelly says with a smile. “Pirates making rum – that’s good for the resume.”
Weeping Radish Farm & Brewery
The farm, butchery and brewery in Jarvisburg is a legend. Earlier this year, Uli even had a beer made in his honor – the wonderfully clever “Yours Truli” – by the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild to celebrate 30 years of micro-brewing.
Uli already was running a farm when his brother called and suggested he open a brewery. Folks at the ABC said it sounded like a wonderful idea, with one small problem: It was illegal.
So began a remarkable six-month journey that saw Uli get a new law passed – “with zero attorney hours, it was true citizen-legislation,” he says proudly. He opened up shop in Manteo in 1986 and slowly, the craft beer movement caught on and then exploded.
Uli, meanwhile, had his sights set on being a farm-to-table operation at the new location in Currituck: “What this building is all about is a celebration of craft. “Brewing is a craft, butchery is a craft…”
Navigating bureaucracy, it turns out, also is a craft, and visitors get to sip three varieties of Weeping Radish beers while Uli speaks of the challenges he faced in opening a farm/restaurant/butchery/brewery. His perseverance has not gone unnoticed. In addition to having a beer named after him, Uli was part of a panel of immigrant brewers when the Smithsonian hosted a special event in October about food and beer.
“It’s such an honor to be involved in this,” he says.
The Black Radish is a hit during the winter months, while Corolla Gold is the summer treat. Beer is sold on the premises and at local grocery stores or – even better – poured from the tap at local restaurants. Kegs are only filled to order, so it’s incredibly fresh.
“That’s our biggest selling point,” Uli says. “The demand for anything local is so strong.”
Is it a coincidence that the Weeping Radish and Sanctuary Vineyards tours are on Wednesdays and just two hours apart throughout the summer months? Perhaps, but plenty of folks make the quick hop down U.S. 158 from the brew pub to the winery, where an open and airy sitting room and sampling room beckon.
One of the first things folks learn at Sanctuary is the fact there’s more than one famous set of Wright brothers on the OBX. Seven generations of Wrights have farmed here, including Tommy and Jerry. On this day, Jerry ambles into the tasting room and regales guests with a tale about those “other” Wright brothers.
“We’ve been here so long, since 1840, 1860,” says John Wright, Tommy’s son and the GM and vineyard manager, about conversations regarding Orville and Wilbur. “A lot of folks wouldn’t have known we were here until we starting putting our names on the wine.”
These Wrights took flight with their vineyard in 2001 and now grow 13 grape varieties on some 30 acres. The goal is to produce 6,000 to 10,000 cases of wine per year, depending on the harvest, which takes place in late August/early September.
“Harvest, then it ferments and ages, and in that time gap, hopefully what we’ve done before will carry us through,” tasting room manager and tour guide Elton Singletary says.
With John Wright and winemaker Casey Matthews on the job, there’s little worry about that. Visitors and locals alike enjoy wines with names like Wild Pony White – the vineyard’s best-seller, which comes with an added bonus of $1 a bottle donated to the Corolla Wild Horse Fund – and Whalehead White, plus Shipwreck and Lightkeeper. Tours and tastings are free, and the tasting session is a lengthy one as visitors sample all that OBX history.
“We found that any wines we put forward that didn’t have some regional Outer Banks branding to them do not do nearly as well,” John Wright explains. “We try to keep it local
Outer Banks Brewing Station
Seemingly everyone knows about the wind turbine that stands 93 feet tall and gives the OBBS its claim to fame as “America’s first wind-powered brew pub.” So Will Holman doesn’t talk much about that on his tours.
Instead, he shares how owners Eric Reece and Aubrey Davis got their idea for starting a brew pub while drinking (of course!) in Thailand with the Peace Corps. Then there’s the unique building that houses the Brewing Station. Yes, it’s designed to look like an old lifesaving station. But … “We call it the beer church,” Holman says, drawing more laughs.
Holman’s tour is short on scenery but long on information. An impossible number of tanks and hoses fill one room and a crowded storeroom houses giant bags of malt. Holman spends part of the tour passing around different styles of malt to smell and sample, comparing them to popular cereals, then tells how everything in the mash tank is stirred by hand with giant plastic paddles for 60 to 90 minutes.
Brewing beer, it would seem, is not quite as glamorous as one might think.
During the busy season, the Brewing Station will brew three times a week: “If you’re here July Fourth and you come back Labor Day, you’ll literally see a totally different beer menu,” Holman explains. “From tank to tap, you’re drinking beer that’s 14 days old.”
LemonGrass Wheat Ale has become the Brewing Station’s most popular brew and is now sold across the state. And it’s a safe bet that most of the folks visiting with Holman – who worked 10 years as a bartender at OBBS before shifting to managing and “freestylin’” his tours – will be seeking that taste of the beach when they head home.
“I don’t think I could do anything more cool on a rainy OBX day than see the brewery and finish it off with a little sipper-doodle,” he says.
Lost Colony Brewery & Cafe
Manteo’s quaint downtown houses the Lost Colony Brewery and Cafe, where the only beers on tap are specialties such as Buxton Brown Ale, Kitty Hawk Blonde, Hatteras Red and Manteo Porter. Paul Charron started his dream of brewing beer at the former Full Moon Cafe in 2011 with 80-gallon pots.
Now, a new facility in Stumpy Point cranks out more than 1,000 gallons of English ales being served in more than 60 restaurants from Corolla to Manteo at the height of the summer season. Deliveries are made in the “Beer Response Vehicle,” complete with flashing blue “emergency” lights.
In the recurring “buy local” theme, all of Lost Colony’s English ales are made with English ingredients and then brewed fresh – “from the malthouse to your glass in less than a month,” Paul says. “Beer is a perishable. The closer you are to the brewery, the better it’s gonna taste.”
How fresh? After unloading several kegs on his daily 22-minute drive from Stumpy Point, Paul points out that this batch of Kitty Hawk Blonde was made three days ago.
Sales skyrocketed after Paul got rid of every other beer but his own at Lost Colony. At one point in 2012, demand for Kitty Hawk Blonde grew so much that some of it was brewed at Weeping Radish thanks to Uli lending a helping hand.
So Paul is living the dream, right?
Sort of. Shortly after he started working his tail off as both brewer and leader of everything else going on at the restaurant, a guy looking for work in the kitchen who had dreams of one day getting into brewing came looking for a job. Turns out that Owen Sullivan “stole” Paul’s job along the way.
“It became his full-time job, and he is phenomenal,” Paul says, smiling, but perhaps a touch exasperated at what he did to himself. “I tell Owen, ‘You work five days a week, you’ve got weekends off – dude, you have MY job!’ ”
It’s a tough job making high-quality beers, building kettles for your rum and growing grapes – but somebody’s gotta do it. The Outer Banks is lucky to have so many passionate people catching lightning in a bottle and making merriment for all to share. ♦
Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.