I don't even know what to tell you," says Brad Wynn of Big Boss Brewing Company when asked his job title. "Brewery worker?" he suggests with a slightly questioning tone, while pulling a pint off the draft system at the taproom on the second floor of the Raleigh brewery.
The 52-year-old Pennsylvania native has been brewing for 20 years and is actually the brewmaster at Big Boss but still has a one-of-the-guys vibe. After a stint at Victory Brewing Company in Pennsylvania, Wynn came to Raleigh to brew for Edenton Brewing Company. But Edenton, shall we say, had issues, and in 2006 Geoff Lamb bought the struggling brewery and renamed it Big Boss after one of the more popular beers in Edenton's profile.
The new name came with new branding. All Big Boss beers are named after art found on the noses of World War II fighter planes.
"People think Harvest Time is about pumpkins," says Wynn. "But it has an entirely different meaning." He points to the beer's namesake nose art on the wall.
It features a skeleton holding a scythe.
"It's about harvesting souls," he says.
The two of us are enjoying our sudsy conversation over a couple of War Hawks—an American pale ale with a hoppy nose and smooth, crisp finish.
Wynn tells how he got into craft beer while he was attending the University of Delaware. He would buy lots of German lagers and English ales from State Line Liquors in Elkton, Maryland. "American beer was synonymous with macro beer to me at that time," he says. Then one day a guy working at the store made him a mixed six-pack of American craft beer. It included Anchor Brewing Company's Liberty Ale, and, with a sip, Wynn's life changed.
"I love beer," Wynn says. "I like a lot of flavor. Something that holds my attention." That Liberty Ale got his attention and he had a revelation. "I figured if I had to get a job, I might as well get one making beer."
He is currently focusing on developing a barrel-aging program at Big Boss. The brewery has lots of barrels. "We've been aging in a lot of Cabernet barrels as well as tequila barrels," he says. Big Boss is looking into aging in rum barrels as well, but Wynn is most excited about the 100 barrel French oak foudres the brewery recently obtained.
"Sour beers are in our future," Wynn says.
But as Wynn looks ahead, he has not forgotten the past. Recently, the brewery resurrected Horniblow's Tavern's American Ale—a sort of imperial ESB that Wynn brewed back in his Edenton days. It was a seven-percenter living in a pre-Pop the Cap world where beers more than six percent ABV were not sold in North Carolina (a bill commonly called the "Pop the Cap bill," was signed into law in 2005). "Nobody ever checked the ABVs back then," he says with a smile.
Also back then, people's palates weren't as discerning, Wynn says while discussing the early stages of craft beer in North Carolina.
"There are more and more customers today. And consumers are even more and more educated," he says. This thirst for craft beer has created an industry boom.
"I don't think there are enough trained brewers," Wynn says. "Some people are putting out shitty beer." He pauses. "I mean not every beer can be good."
But, until the bubble bursts, drink up.
This article appears in print with the headline "Barrels, bubbles and beer."