BrewFest’s Best – Our Picks for Best Brew in the Triangle

The Carolina Ale House, hosts the 2nd Annual BeerFest


The Carolina Ale House, hosts the 2nd Annual BeerFest

by Matthew J. Cote

The Carolina Ale House celebrated their Tenth Anniversary as host of the 2nd Annual Carolina Brewfest, Friday, August 27th, 2009. I arrived with two guests to enjoy a couple hours of live music, endless grub, and bottomless draughts from seven of North Carolina’s premiere micro-breweries: Red Oak Brewery, Top of the Hill, Foothills Brewing, Carolina Brewing Company (CBC), Carolina Brewery, Lonerider Brewing Company, and the Highland Brewing Company were each serving at least two different kinds of beer to those in attendance, doing their part to make sure that nobody ever held an empty glass at any point during this spectacular event.

We were anxious to get our wrist-bands and head out to the festival upon arrival; standing there and waiting while the hostess took my ticket, I could hear the band roaring System of A Down covers from the stage, centered among a handful of white tents. We were granted admission and told to walk out to a table, where we selected our Carolina Ale House t-shirts, and accepted the souvenir party pilsners that we so desperately needed. And once we were armed and ready, we turned to face the field, agreed to approach the closest and begin our mission: pick the best beer beneath each roof, the best of each available style; and finally, the best brew of the whole shebang.

The finalized compendium is listed below, and includes a small snippet about the brewery before a paragraph discusses the five aspects of a beer: (A) Appearance, (S) Nose, (T) Taste, (M) Mouthfeel, and (D) Drinkablity. I have placed my list of favorites after this list, since I would like to provide my completely objective reviews, before turning over my subjective opinions, and consequential choice for the winners of the aforementioned categories.

1) Red Oak Brewery (Whitsett) follows a revised version of the Bavarian Law of Purity from 1516 (or the Reinheitsgebot), which originally limited the beer making ingredient list to barley, hops and water (since yeast hadn’t even been discovered when it was first devised) Red Oak prides itself on the adherence to this law, and they are committed to using just water, malted barley, yeast and hops in their brew process, which is fine by me when they produce their superb line-up of Red Oak, Hummin’ Bird, and Battlefield Bock; the first of which had me sold at first sip.


The five aspects of a beer: (A) Appearance (S) Nose (T) Taste (M) Mouthfeel (D) Drinkablity

Red Oak is an Old Style (Munich Urtyp) Lager, and interestingly enough, before it’s fermented, they add an imported yeast strain from Weikenstephen, the oldest brewery in the world (founded before 1040 AD).  The nose (S) is of a light caramel malt aroma, that is both citrusy and herbal The taste (T) is a sweet and fruity maltiness, with an underlying bready character. The mouth (M) is good and full, and makes it very clean, extremely smooth, and highly drinkable (D). And always remember that Red Oak strives to serve only the freshest brew possible, so beware of a metallic taste, which indicates a less-than-fresh batch.

Hummin’ Bird is a Helles (a pale wheat german beer), or light lager that resembles those found throughout Bavaria. It pours (A) pale gold and carries a white head, which dissipates quickly to some spotty lacing. A subtle scent (S) of corn plays behind a citric maltiness. It tastes momentarily bitter upon first contact with the palate, which tapers into a malty sweetness that is accented by a hint of pear. The mouthfeel (M) is smooth and light-bodied, with medium carbonation that makes it highly drinkable (D) and a great local replacement for Bud or Miller.

Battlefield Bock is a smooth and creamy Bavarian Style Bock Lager. It appears (A) as a thick black color, and presents a nose (S) that is reminiscent of a chocolate carmel mocha milkshake (compliments of bavarian dark-roasted malts), with hints of coffee and a hoppy bitterness. It is mildly malty, and tastes (T) like hot cocoa and black coffee. This Bock presents a mouthfeel (M) that is medium-bodied, with a light prickliness of carbonation that still manages to go down smooth. Overall, it’s highly drinkable (D), and an unbelievably creamy blend that is both tart and sweet, and completely satisfying.


2) Top of the Hill (Chapell Hill) is the social crossroads of Chapel Hill, which provides a magnificent dining and social experience at the threshold of historical downtown. They have won sixteen medals in the World Beer Championships, and have been recognized as a one of the top breweries in the United States; luckily, I was fortunate enough to try four of their handcrafted brews: Iron Mine Pale Ale, Kenan Summer Lager, Blueberry Wheat, and Old Well White. And I’d have to go with the Summer Lager as my favorite, and new Bud-fix replacement.

Iron Mine Pale Ale is (A) golden in color, with a hearty white head. It smells (S) strongly of citrus, and has a flavor (T) that is dominated by citrusy cascade hops. The mouthfeel (M) came off as medium-bodied and only mildly bitter towards the finish. Overall, I’d say that this brew is highly sessionable, and great with anything off the grill.

Kenan Summer Lager (aka the Leaderboard Trophy Lager) pours (A) a golden amber with a quarter inch head that fades quickly. It smells (S) of malt and grains, and (T) is refreshingly light and delicate, with a crisp, clean, taste that tapers off to a dry finish. The mouthfeel (M) is light-bodied and somewhat effervescent. This lager is (D) very sessionable, and could very easily persuade a macro drinker to cross over and give it a try.

Blueberry Wheat pours (A) yellow with a two finger head that dissipates quickly. It smells (S)  of blueberry, with soft tones of lemon zest and wheat. It tastes (T) exactly like blueberry cheescake with a sweet-grain bitterness toward the finish. It boasts (M) a creamy texture, and is (D) highly drinkable; though, the overwhelming flavor makes it difficult to pair with any food.

Old Well White is a (A) hazy orange color with a thin white head that dissipates very quickly. Its nose (S) is mostly banana, with notes of coriander and wheat. This whitbier tastes (T) of mild orange, grass, and grainy wheat. It is (M) soft and smooth, with a high amount of carbonation. This brew was a pleasant surprise that is both (D) refreshing and highly sessionable.

(Winston-Salem) is a craft brewery that always carries ten different brews (six standard, four seasonal), which range from light golden ales to deep ambers and robust stouts. I had the honor of sampling three of what they had to offer: Hoppy Yum, Hurricance Hefeweizen, and their Oktoberfest. The latter of which is my personal choice.

Oktoberfest is a german-style lager, which pours (A) a dark amber pint, with a small off-white head and no lacing, and smells (S) of malty caramel, grains and nuts upfront, with a slight earthy hops presence. It tastes (T) toasty, with a roasted nut goodness that compliments a caramel/ brown sugar sweetness. This American Märzen’s mouthfeel (M) is moderately heavy and medium-bodied that is very smooth with low carbonation. It is (D)  very drinkable, rich, and one that I could definitely drink several times in a night.

HoppyYum,  fills the pint (A) with a hazy, copper color, with a single finger width, off-white head, which dissolves into a patchy layer with decent lacing. This IPA smells (S) grapefruit, pine and grass, with a background scent of sweet malt. The taste (T) presents upfront caramel malt flavors, which compliment a bright citrus and mild pine flavor, that fades into a somewhat bitter finish. Hoppy Yum has a (M) soft and creamy thickness with moderate carbonation (so it isn’t too heavy). Overall, I recommend this (D) highly drinkable beverage to anyone looking for a well-balanced IPA.

Hurricane Hefeweizen is a german-style unfiltered wheat beer, which pours (A) a light, hazy golden color, with a finger-width of creamy white head. It smells (S) – as can be expected – of bananas, with undertones of vanilla, clove and honey. the taste (T) resembles the nose, presenting upfront tones of banana and bubblegum, with hints of vanilla and honey. This brew exhibits a mouthfeel (M) that is creamy, crisp, and mildly carbonated. It would be an (D) excellent choice for a hot summer day, though it lacks any memorable characteristics.

4) Carolina Brewing Company (Holly Springs) unofficially follow the Law of Purity, since they do only use four ingredients in their beer: malted barley, yeast, water and hops. And continuing with this natural approach, they do not use any chemicals or additives, and they do not pasteurize their product. I was lucky enough to be served a seasonal outside of the brewery (which they say doesn’t happen on the website!), along with their three year round styles; altogether, I had their Summer Wheat, IPA, Pale Ale, and the Nut Brown Ale. Overall, I thought that the Carolina Nut Brown Ale was the most appealing.

Carolina Nut Brown Ale pours (A) medium brown with a nice foamy (one finger) head that is tan in color. It smells (S) nutty with a powerful caramel aroma, and a biscuity maltiness. It tastes (T) very malty and nutty, with a roasted finish that is rather astringent. The mouthfeel (M) is medium bodied and lightly carbonated.  I’d say that this brew is (D) pretty drinkable, and a nice, humble brown, good for a few among friends.

Summer Wheat is a (A) clear and crisp yellow/orange color with a thin diminishing head. The aroma is (S) overwhelmingly of Czech Saaz hops, which makes it impossible to detect the slightest bit of wheat. It tastes (T) sightly bready with a tinge of malty sweetness. It had (M) a very thin mouthfeel with sharp, light carbonation and a dry finish. This is (D) a great brew for anything BBQ, or to bring in the picnic basket.

Carolina India Pale looks orange in color, and pours a thin off-white head that did not last long at all. The nose is (S) grassy with a good balance of malt and citrusy hops,with gentle tones of apricots. It tastes (T) of a caramel malty sweetness upfront, and finishes with a magnificent grassy hop bite on the back end.  It feels (M) light to medium-bodied with decent carbonation. Overall, (D) I enjoyed the subtle hoppiness, and find that this would make a great session brew.

Carolina Pale Ale is an (A) amber colored, American style pale ale (APA), with a very slim head that leaves no lacing whatsoever. It smells (S) of toasty, earthy hops with a touch of a sour maltiness. The taste (T) was slightly sweet, and finished with a tinge of a hoppy bitterness. It is (M) medium-bodied and pleasantly sticky with a miniscule amount of carbonation. I’d have to say that this brew is (D) a very easy beer to drink.

5) Carolina Brewery (Chapel Hill/ Pittsboro) has been voted the Best Brewpub in the Southeast by Brewpub Magazine, and Best Overall Brewery at Hopfest ’04: so it’s no wonder why it was so hard to pick a favorite. I tried the Oatmeal Porter, Sky Blue Gold, Copperline Amber Ale, and the Flagship IPA; I had to come back to the decision several times throughout the night, but finally settled on the Oatmeal Porter.

Oatmeal Porter – This hearty ale pours (A) dark brown with a rocky head that fades quickly. It smells (S) of malt, roasted oats, and hints of molasses, chocolate and honey. The taste (T) boasts toasted grains with a hop bitterness at the finish. It is (M) silky, creamy, rich and medium-bodied, with a nice balance of carbonation. I think its (D) highly drinkable, and wouldn’t mind knocking them back for the entire night!

Sky Blue Gold [Silver Medal at the World-Beer Championships] is a Kolsch style ale undergoes a cold aging period – which is strange for an ale. (A) It pours a pale-yellow pint with a negligible white head, which leaves little lacing behind. It lacked (A) any significant aroma, just a slight scent of the Hallertauer hops. I felt that it tasted (T) rather bland, with fleeting notes of fruit and grainy malts. The mouthfeel was (M) watery that is very simple, which makes it very easy to drink. I would say that it is (D) highly drinkable and thirst quenching: a great brew for a lazy summer day of not cutting the grass.

Copperline Amber Ale [Gold Medal at the World Beer Championships] is a brilliant red ale, brewed with caramel and pale malts is a best seller at the Carolina Brewery. It pours (A) a crystal clear copper color with a one-finger white, which leaves minuscule lacing. (S) It boasts an upfront scent of the Kent Golding hops, with a caramel malt character, and notes of fruit. It has a (T) malty sweetness with a hoppy bitterness at the finish. It’s (M) smooth, medium-bodied, and moderately carbonated. I find Copperline to be a refreshingly light and sessionable beverage.

Flagship India Pale Ale [Gold Medal at the ’06 Great American Beer Festival] is an English-style IPA, which pours a (A) light orange-hued amber color, with a slim head and little lacing. This beer has (S) a unique floral aroma from the generous addition of dry Cascade hops. It tastes (T) malty sweet, which fades to a bitterness that fills the mouth and lingers at the back of the throat. It is (M) medium-bodied and moderately carbonated. Personally, I thought it was a (D) great, highly-drinkable IPA.


6) Lone Rider Brewing Company (Raleigh) says to forget about thinking outside the box, while trying to imagine that there isn’t one at all. Walk your own path and influence change; don’t be an audience. Their philosophy guides both their way of life, and the way they make their beer. And I must admit, after trying both Shotgun Betty and Bootleg Brown, I was pretty disappointed that they didn’t bring DeadEye Jack; but hey, I still found my favorite with my first glass of their Hefeweizen: Shotgun Betty.

Shotgun Betty [Silver Medal at the Hickory Hops Festival] is (A) a nice hazy orange color with a thick head that stays for a good while. It boasts (S) a rich, banana-clove nose, and it tastes (T) like bananas with a wheat malt character,  which is slighlty bitter, and dry at the finish. It is (M) medium-bodied and lightly carbonated (for a Hefe).

Overall, its (D) very thick and rich, and probably too filling to really be a great session beer; but I’d definitely have one for dessert!

Bootleg Brown is (A) copper in color and presents a very (S) floral aroma. At first, it tastes (T) rather bitter, though this fades out to reveal the undertones of chocolate and malty molasses, which presents a sweetness to balance the hoppy bitterness. It is (M) very smooth, though not very refreshing or crisp. Overall, I’d say that this brew (D) isn’t all that great for a session, though it would work well with dinner.

7) Highland Brewing Company (Asheville) had to temporarily brew their beer in Frederick Maryland, when they needed a temporary way to increase production. It was only until in 2006 that they were able return to a local production, and consolidated their operations to a bigger and better brewery located in East Asheville. And even though they only offered two samples – St. Teresa’s and Clawhammer –  it wasn’t difficult to see why they are in such popular demand these days. And so, since I have to choose between the pale ale and the oktoberfest, I have to go with the latter: Clawhammer.

Clawhammer fills a pint with a (A) copper colored, medium-bodied Oktoberfest with an off-white head that fades to a patchy cap and slight lacing. The nose (S) is a rounded balance of spicy grass and toasted bread; initially, it presents a (T) malty-bready flavor with a slight hoppy spiciness, which gradually tapers off to a dry finish. The mouthfeel (M) is medium-bodied, smooth, and just right for this style. It is (D) well-balanced, very sessionable, and a great representation of an American Oktoberfest.

St. Teresa’s is a pours (A) a deep golden-copper glass with a medium sized cream-colored head. It presents a nose (S) composed of faint hops, toasted malt, caramel and grassy undertones. This pale ale has a (T) toasted maltiness, with notes of floral pines, orange citrus, and a toasty, caramel malt at finish. It is (M) a medium-bodied brew, and decently carbonated.. This beer is (D) highly sessionable and well-balanced by the emphatic flavor of American hops

And now for my roster of style favorites:


Best Lager: The Favorite Lager was Red Oak (one of my favorite beers from now on!)

Best Dark: I chose the CBC’s Nut Brown Ale

Best India Pale Ale: Carolina Brewery’s Flagship IPA

Best Oktoberfest: The best Oktoberfest was brewed by Foothills Brewing, who also beat out with their Hurricane Hefeweizen

Best Wheat Beer: Blueberry Wheat was at the Top of The Hill

Best Pale Ale: St. Teresa’s from the Highland Brewing Company was my favorite Pale Ale


Best of Overall: : The top of the line among the many fine N.C. beers presented was the Red and Bock, a spectacular concoction served up by my friends at Red Oak Brewery.

I was lucky enough to experience the tantalizing blend of Red Oak and Battlefield Bock, which I was originally told to call, “Holy Shit,” until my friend Jackie Orbert told me that his boss (at Red Oak) wouldn’t exactly approve of me calling it that; nevertheless, I agree with a fellow customer named Phillip, who, after experiencing this well-balanced flavor, couldn’t help but say, “Holy Shit, that’s good!”

By Triangle A&E

What about Bob Bob has over thirty years experience as Creative Director at notable advertising and marketing agencies in Manhattan and Raleigh Bob's creative has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators, Packaging Design Council, Magazine Design, Art Directors Club. In addition, Bob has been published in Graphic Design USA, American Graphic Design, and the Creativity Annual. In 2008, Bob was honored to Judge the Davey Awards for interactive and web design. Bob's passion for the arts has led him to utilize his talent and experience in support of the arts here in the Triangle by creating Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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