The first day Thomas Vincent was able to make beer at his new North Raleigh brewery, Compass Rose, the scene suggested an Amish barn-raising—one with a lot less barn and a lot more beer, anyway.
"Some friends of mine heard I was starting my brew," Vincent says. "People from two other breweries stopped by to lend a hand."
Vincent, 44, is the head brewmaster at Compass Rose, a brewery and taproom located in an industrial park not far from the clotted Raleigh traffic artery of Capital Boulevard. Though the taproom opened in May, serving an assortment of craft beers from North Carolina and across the country, Vincent had been waiting for four months to receive the final paperwork required to begin brewing. At last, in September, actual Compass Rose brews could be served as soon as he could make them.
"It was literally 5 o'clock in the afternoon on a Friday. I walked in, and that piece of paper was on the wall that said we could start brewing," Vincent recalls. "So I could brew tomorrow? I look around, and we had some ingredients on order. They weren't due to arrive for another week. I know enough people around town. I started making phone calls."
Within an hour, other area brewers had committed enough ingredients to fill his tanks and occupy his mills until his own supplies arrived. The next morning, he climbed in his Saturn sedan to grab the goods.
"I loaded 50 feet of brewers hose and 500 pounds of grain into my car. Who knew it could take so much weight?" he says. "I brought it back over here and got prepped. I brewed on that Monday. It was a nine-hour brew day. It just ran really smooth."
Within two weeks, Compass Rose was, at last, serving suds of its own.
No matter what side of the DrunkTown debate you claim as your own, one thing is undeniable: There are a lot of bars in downtown Raleigh. And thanks to North Carolina's continually growing craft beer scene, lots of those are taprooms, serving beers brewed just feet away. It's not just the downtown core of breweries like Crank Arm and Trophy; new hubs are popping up in neighborhoods such as Raleigh's Five Points, while Lynnwood and Lonerider have long operated beyond the beltline.
But Compass Rose charted a course for less crowded waters, settling in North Raleigh with the goal of becoming the area's neighborhood bar and brewery. For Vincent and his investors, John Coulter, Jose Martinez and Gary Kohake, who had already worked with a brewery in Mexico, the decision was deliberate. The result, turns out, is worth the trip, even for those who rarely venture beyond the beltline, much less from Durham or Chapel Hill.
"We were all very cognizant that, while downtown's great and it has a great atmosphere, there are a lot of places downtown. But there's not any place up in this part of town," says Vincent, who lived in the area when he moved to Raleigh a decade ago. "I knew there was a great population here, but we didn't have a brewery, and we still didn't have a brewery now. So I knew it was a prime location. I knew so many people who were living in the neighborhood just to the north of here who were driving downtown and who would love to have a place where they didn't necessarily have to Uber all the way back home."
Set against a landfill and a labyrinth of food-supply warehouses and strip malls, and bordered by some of the region's busiest roads and a nature preserve, Compass Rose is indeed an outlier in its zone. That is partly why the response was so enthusiastic from the start, when people flocked to the space for summer beers that Compass Rose didn't even brew. Now that it can serve its own concoctions, the turnout has grown. Weekends are especially busy, but weeknights can be jumping, too, thanks to the manifold uses the 11,200-square-foot space allows.
Divided into two near-halves, Compass Rose gives one side to the brewery and the other for a taproom that's a legitimate beer hall. Beer lovers sit at the bar, sipping and recording their reactions on Untappd. Friends gather in groups among the room's flotilla of long tables, playing board games stacked at various points throughout the room. Classic rock—The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton—played one night ("I know every one of these songs," beamed a companion), while a more recent visit included a mix of '60s soul and pop.
Occasionally, a band sets up against a glass wall, through which you can view the gleaming tanks. There are weekly trivia and karaoke nights. The trivia night has been especially popular with the locals, as neighbors come in to compete with and against one another. And just as many breweries do, Compass Rose is working closely with food trucks, aiming to have at least one several nights a week. The commuters in those nearby subdivisions can easily stop off not only for an after-work drink but dinner, too. No, these activities are not novel, but Vincent hopes they work to turn Compass Rose into the neighborhood bar he says North Raleigh has long needed.
Of course, it wouldn't matter much what part of town Compass Rose was located in if it didn't produce good beer. With quality options in and around downtown Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham, plus breweries in suburbs such as Wake Forest, Apex and Fuquay-Varina, drinkers can afford to be picky. But local beer fans may recognize Vincent, who also teaches a craft beer brewing class at Wake Tech, from his stints brewing at Big Boss and Natty Greene's. He has already spotted a few regulars from those days pulling up a stool at Compass Rose.
And for good reason, for Vincent has a nice brewing touch. His IPA has found such an appreciative audience that he is already brewing another batch. Compass Rose's Oktoberfest offering disappeared in about three weeks, and a similar fate might await the rich Agave Cream Ale. A milk stout and a molasses amber are in the queue, too. He hopes to have six to eight Compass Rose creations on tap, accompanied by a wide variety from other breweries—including, right now, DuClaw Sweet Baby Jesus porter and New Holland's Dragon's Milk stout.
Vincent says he's not trying to create competition for himself so much as to offer diversity. If you prefer a different hop flavor than what he uses in his IPA, there will usually be one or two from other breweries on tap that use opposing hops. You can drink, compare and contrast.
Vincent hopes that open approach, combined with Compass Rose's own brews, will spread the name and reputation beyond North Raleigh. Compass Rose's brews have started creeping into spots such as the House of Hops and The Glass Jug. But for now, Vincent hopes his geographic isolation serves as a lure, not a barrier.
"People are definitely making the trip, especially on the weekends," he says. "Even last night, we had somebody in from Durham who drove over just to check out the place. I think we're accessible enough, being so close to 540. Even if you are on the other side of the Triangle, it's not that far away."
Since Compass Rose's brewery has only been operational since September, the beer roster is still in development. But so far, the flavors—both seasonal and stable—are strong. Try these four.
Thomas Vincent says the agave—that is, the succulent that is also used to make tequila—provides another fermentable sugar to play with and lends an interesting character to the brew. An early sample revealed a lush mouthfeel and full-bodied taste.
Vincent used 100 pounds of chopped-and-cooked North Carolina pumpkins for this. It pays off with a genuine pumpkin taste instead of an overbearing liquid pie spice. This is "the pumpkin beer for people who don't like pumpkin beers," he jokes. As someone in that category, I can attest he's serious. It's a glass full of subtle flavor, not gimmickry.
One of Vincent's personal favorites, this is "kind of a classic approach" to the saison style, he says. He laughs as he explains the name: "When you say it fast, it sounds like Rude American," which is often how Belgians view American attempts at brewing a Belgian style. It's fermented at a warmer temperature than most saisons and is agreeably dry, perfect for a multi-glass evening.
This American IPA uses nugget and cascade hops. It's just a little hop-forward but has a smooth, clean finish. This is becoming a local crowd favorite—and mine, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Northern passage"