Carolina Blonde, Charlestons, and Cottonwoods – Brewing Homegrown Flavor
The inside of the Carolina Beer Company (CBCo) smells like grandma’s kitchen when she baked bread on a cold winter’s day: intense yeastiness, nutty, warm and inviting. But the analogy ends there. Grandma’s kitchen wasn’t two stories tall, covered with pipes on the ceiling and floor, and occupied by a 50-barrel brew house and ten 100-barrel fermenters. This is the “kitchen” of CBCo CEO Mike Smith and president John Stritch who brew and bottle 65,000 barrels of beer and ale annually in their 30,000-square-foot facility in Mooresville, N.C. A lot of water, malted barley, hops and yeast keep 30 full-time employees bottling 5,000 cases of beer per shift; enough to satisfy customers in the Carolinas and nearby areas of Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. The flagship product is Carolina Blonde, a lighter ale, described by the company as exceptionally smooth and crisp with a rich gold color, and very drinkable, which is what CBCo’s owners hope. Carolina Blonde comprises 50 percent of all sales of the Carolina Beer Company. The other half of sales belongs to the brewery’s Charleston Ales and Cottonwood Ales. CBCo also produces and bottles Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Margarita Ice.
From books to beers
Stritch found himself in the beer industry nearly by accident. In the early 1970s, while attending college in California, he drove a delivery truck for the Coors Brewing Company on its Los Angeles route. He graduated with a degree in social services and took a job as a parole officer. Stritch says he liked the work, but it did not pay as well as delivering beer so he returned to Coors, first as a driver and then as a brewery representative.
In 1976, Stritch joined the Miller Brewing Company in 1976 as its Los Angeles sales manager. Over the succeeding years, Miller went from producing five million barrels to 40 million annually, challenging the Budweiser brand. Stritch traversed the country working for Miller – New Mexico, Arizona, New Hampshire and Texas – his sales territory changing each year. “It was more fun than anything else,” says Stritch. “There was one year when Texas was up in sales; the other 49 states were down. Miller was up percent nationwide.” That was, in part, due to sales in his territory.
Wanting a more settled home life for his family, Stritch decided to accept a position as a manager with an independent Miller distributing company in Denver, Colorado. Sales reached $40 million annually; Stritch supervised 80 employees. But then it was back to Miller Brewing Company for a position in Oklahoma.
In the mid-1990s, Stritch came to Charlotte, and with a good dose of Denver microbrewery experience under his belt, he began working with the owners/investors of the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse to market the brewery’s beer in the Charlotte region. “We did well – the Charlotte Coliseum, Panther Stadium, Food Lion and Harris Teeter – we were three guys working out of three vans,” says Stritch. “But it became too big. Southend had to decide whether to be a brewery or a restaurant. They chose to be a restaurant.” It was a decision that would change Stritch’s life significantly.
Brewing a partnership
While Stritch was pursuing a successful career in the beer industry, Smith was also learning the inside track of running a business as owner and manager of a successful commercial building supply company. When he decided to sell his interest to his partners, he leveraged his investment in Southend Brewery, which in turn resulted in his meeting Stritch. The two decided to open Carolina Beer Company.
Smith was no stranger to the bottling and beverage industry as his father Jim Smith worked for many years with Sealtest Bottling Corporation, eventually buying a Sealtest plant in Winston-Salem, N.C., and starting Dairy Fresh, Inc., which is now the largest milk and ice cream producer in the southeast United States. Smith grew up watching his father bottle milk and produce ice cream for stores such as Food Lion and Piggly Wiggly.
Stritch and Smith each brought critical knowledge to the table – experience that would allow them to begin a successful venture in the brewing and bottling industry. They became partners in 1996, operating a brewery in Greer, S.C. In 1997, they bought the Carolina Blonde name from Southend Brewery. They created Carolina Light, another signature CBCo brand, and formulated the Charleston Ales brand. Most importantly, they built their Mooresville facility in an industrial park they developed and aptly named BarleyPark. CBCo’s steel and glass building sits amid fields dotted with a few other industrial interests. Its grain silo, holding malted barley, is emblazoned with the Carolina Blonde lighthouse logo, making the facility easy to find.
Today, Stritch focuses on sales and marketing; Smith manages their financial interests and works with their equipment and engineers. Together, their company produces enough beer and ale to exceed the definition of a microbrewery (less than 15,000 barrels annually) and meet the definition of a regional brewery (15,000 to 2,000,000 barrels annually).
All the right ingredients
Stritch explains there is no “secret recipe” for Carolina Blonde or for most beers. The ingredients are water, malt, hops and yeast. To produce Carolina Blonde, CBCo uses Mooresville city water stripped of any chemicals; two-row pale malted barley (a cereal grain), which is purchased in the Midwest; mild hops (a flowering vine with preservative qualities and essential oils that add bitterness and aroma); and a Guinness-style yeast. Of importance to Stritch is CBCo’s decision to use 100% barley to produce a uniquely sweet, malty beer. Other brewers may use adjuncts such as rice flakes or corn.
Brewers mix the water and barley to create a sweetened liquid called the wort (pronounced ‘wert’). The mixture is heated in large mash tuns to dissolve starch and turn it into sugar, and it is flavoredwith hops. The hopped wort is saturated with oxygen and the yeast is introduced into the mixture where it turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide (fermentation) creating beer. The beer is aged and filtered at CBCo, and flash pasteurized, to extend shelf life and eliminate the need for refrigerated kegs. The beer is bottled on high-speed bottling lines capable of bottling 5,000 cases per shift. An automated keg-filling machine cleans and fills 60 kegs per hour.
Every brand has its own personality
Carolina Blonde and Carolina Light are American-style beers. Stritch describes them as one step up from American domestic beers. “Our beer has more flavor and more color,” says Stritch. The Charleston ales are European-style and include a pale ale, brown ale, and wheat beer. Stritch describes them as “really nice beers, very balanced, nicely hopped, and with a nice nose.”
In 2002, CBCo purchased the Cottonwood Brewery in Boone, N.C. According to Stritch, “The Cottonwoods are really out there,” providing more flavor. The Cottonwood Endo IPA (India Pale Ale) borrows its name from mountain biking where “endo” means to go over the handlebars. “Cottonwood does nothing in a small way,” remarks Stritch. “It’s the loud voice when it enters the room. You don’t compromise. We pulled out all the stops with hops to produce Endo.” CBCo also uses the Cottonwoods to produce its seasonal specialty ales: Frostbite, Lift Your Kilt Scottish Ale, Irish Red, and Pumpkin Spiced Ale (holiday ale). In January it released a new Cottonwood – Almond Stout.
A recipe for success
Brewmaster Nikki Koontz oversees production. Koontz started with CBCo six years ago working on the bottling line. Stritch says she has a unique set of skills that make her a successful brewmaster. “She is a master chef, impeccably clean, organized, mechanically inclined, creative and hands-on,” says Stritch. “And she has the people skills to manage staff.”
Daughter Shannon Stritch is CBCo’s office manager. She earned her stripes in high school cutting out labels at her family’s kitchen table and placing them on bottles in the earlier days of the brewery, when the beer was hand-bottled and hand-labeled. In fact, Stritch and his staff hand-bottled beer the first season CBCo provided beer for the Carolina Panther suite. The beer was bottled at home for every game, and Stritch was personally on hand supervising the delivery and serving of his beer.
While the technology has improved, Stritch, Smith and several of their employees, including Shannon, still attend numerous Charlotte-area events where their beers are served. “It must be fun,” Stritch says. “We work long hours, but we must enjoy it. I am always on site at events to make sure the beer is ready to go and served right.”
The event schedule begins early/late in the year with Carolina Blonde as the beer sponsor of Charlotte’s Downtown Countdown, a New Year’s Eve celebration. CBCo supplies beer for City Fest and A Taste of Charlotte in the spring. CBCo also supplies areas golf courses and marinas in the summer, and is the sole beer sponsor of the seven-week Carolina Renaissance Festival. CBCo also holds brewery tours and beer tastings each Saturday at its Mooresville brewery and competes in eight beer festivals during the year, winning awards for its products.
Room to grow
CBCo’s facility currently runs at 30 percent capacity. Stritch says he envisions growing the business so that the brewery is a premier regional Southeast brewery. “We’re locally produced and were would like to stay local and service this region; that also means our product is fresh,” says Stritch. “We like brewing here and selling here in the Carolinas.”
Stritch would like to team up with area restaurants and educate beer drinkers on beer and food pairing. He describes the Carolinas market as an under-developed market. In the U.S., total sales from craft-brewed beers are between 2 and 3 percent. In the Carolinas, totals sales are under 2 percent. (The Northwest is more than 10 percent and the Northeast approaching 10 percent, according to Stritch.) He wants to develop the taste of Carolinians toward richer flavored beers.
“You don’t start them out with an IPA,” says Stritch. “You find what your market wants and provide it. Right now, this market has a taste for lighter-flavored beers. But we lead them along. That’s why we do tours and attend events. Tasting is our best form of advertising.” CBCo’s competitors are the imported beers. And Stritch would like to see Carolinians pay the small price increase over domestic beer for his product. It would appear to be happening; sales of all CBCo brands were up 17 percent in 2002.