All this time, I thought Seth Gross was a wine guy. When I'm in more of a grape than grain mood, I've felt lucky to live within a flying cork's arc of Wine Authorities, the outstanding Durham wine store opened by Gross and his business partner, Craig Heffley, in 2007.The two men were always on hand to steer customers to the right wine from a selection helpfully tagged for "daily," "weekly" or "monthly" enjoyment—an approach that combines quality with affordability.
Then, late last summer, word went round that Gross would be leaving the partnership to open a brewpub in downtown Durham, to be called Bull City Burger and Brewery. Last week, the brewing tanks arrived; Gross hopes to open at the end of this month.
For Gross, this isn't so much a new venture as it is a return to an old passion: Cooking and brewing were the two careers that preceded his move into wine.
"The reason I got serious about wine, probably, is that I couldn't afford my own brewery at the time," he recalls. "I love drinking wine, the artistry and the magic of it, but the thing about wine that was a problem for me is that I was always a middle man. I love to create, I love to get my hands dirty, I want to be proud of something that I made myself—that's what I love about beer."
Gross studied microbiology as an undergraduate at the University of Florida, then immediately enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Armed with those credentials, he was cooking in Chicago when he became acquainted with Greg Hall, co-owner and brewmaster of the pioneering Goose Island Beer Company. It's where many of today's leading brewers learned the craft.
Hall told Gross his assistant was leaving, and that if Gross would lend his skills in the kitchen, Hall would take him on as a brewing assistant. Gross jumped at the chance. "I was there for over two years, and we had a blast," he remembers.
This was the early 1990s, and Gross was in on some landmark new beers created at Goose Island, including Hex Nut Brown Ale, named for the hex Gross feared had befallen him when he used the wrong yeast in a dunkel (dark) beer. But instead of a disaster, the mellow brown brew won awards and is the brewery's second-biggest seller to this day.
The two men also brewed the original Bourbon County Stout, the first beer aged in a bourbon barrel, which launched what is now one of the most popular trends in craft beer: big, strong beers that take a lot of their character from contact with wood that has previously held spirits.
Expect to see some of the same innovative attitude at Bull City, where one of the seven taps will be reserved for an experimental beer. Of the remaining six, one will be nitrogen-dispensed—the method that beer drinkers associate with the creamy pour of a traditional Guinness. Year-round beers will include Bryant Bridge Gateway Ale, brewed for guests who are more accustomed to lighter beers (Gross calls it "our golden training-wheels beer"), and Parrish Street Pale Ale.
The other beers will also carry the names of Durham landmarks or personalities, but stylistically they will be all over the map. Gross ticks off some seasonal possibilities: "Oktoberfest, winter warmers, Kölsch. At Goose, I brewed over 40 styles of beer, so I really want to have some fun with it."
Durham boasts two microbreweries with welcoming taprooms, but the city hasn't had a brewpub since the last brewing tenant left the Brightleaf site that housed Weeping Radish and then an increasingly gloomy succession of enterprises, where either the food or the beer disappointed.
A quality brewpub must succeed as both a brewery and a restaurant. Bull City aspires to make the list of great burger joints, with burgers and hot dogs made from North Carolina grass-fed beef. Buns and condiments will be housemade from local sources whenever possible, with an emphasis on sustainable practices in the kitchen as well as the brewhouse.
Gross isn't turning his back on his wine years. An Enomatic self-serve machine—the kind that fans have enjoyed at Wine Authorities—will be stocked with 16 wines for purchase by the taste or the glass.
Gross wants the brewpub to surprise its guests with the quality of its food and especially its beer. "I want people to come here and take one sip of the pale ale and think, 'Am I really in the middle of Durham drinking beer like this?'"