First, I must concede that I'm a lightweight. My alcohol tolerance has decreased from an all-time high of eight, albeit cheap, beers a night (see 1985, Indiana University, falling off the dean's list) to my current pace of no more than 1.5 moderately priced beers in a 12-hour period. More than that, I start dancing on the table with a lampshade on my head.
But I do love craft beer. And with the exception of Bell's Two-Hearted IPA, made in Michigan, I drink North Carolina brews, not out of any sense of loyalty (I don't even recite the Pledge of Allegiance), but because I think they are the best-tasting beers you can buy stateside.
Before I continue with the results of my survey, I want to emphasize there are many, many fine beers not only in North Carolina but here in the Triangle alone—so many that I could not include them all: Mystery, White Street (I love its crisp Kolsch) and Raleigh Brewing Co., for example.
So given the limitations of my time and my liver, I set out to drink a variety of types, including ones that I don't usually imbibe, such as stouts and porters. This survey is geared to both those with more sensitive palates—pale ales are a good starting line—to veteran drinkers who don't mind occasionally being punched in the face by a beer (but not a beer glass).
The best advice I have is to spend your money on good beer, even if that means less of it. Don't pound the beer. Don't sully it with Ping-Pong balls. Someone worked very hard to brew that beer, so honor the maker and savor it.
I ventured beyond the Triangle, to Winston-Salem, for Foothills' Torch Pilsner, a Czech-style beer with a golden glow. Some beer aficionados have described this Pilsner as "grassy," but I've not eaten grass, so I can't vouch for that. I do know it is neither sweet nor bitter, and it has nice malt-to-hops balance. Its alcohol content is 5.3 percent, more than that of a session beer, whose limit is 3–4 percent, but Torch is what I call a "daytime" beer. That means should you want to drink your lunch, it's mellow enough that you can return to work and still have a productive afternoon.
India Pale Ale
India Pale Ales, IPAs for short, are known for being hoppy—the hops were key to keeping the beer drinkable on its journey from England to India. In the last five years, brewers tried to out-hop one another, and to my palate, those beers are so bitter as to be undrinkable. More moderate heads prevailed over at Trophy Brewing, which made a clean yet bracing IPA, but the Raleigh nano-brewery no longer offers it. So on a friend's recommendation, I tried Steel String's Big Mon. The Carrboro brewery has a winner: Bitter, yet not off-putting, Big Mon has citrus undertones but it is not sweet. Refreshing even at 6.7 percent alcohol.
The malt used in this type of ale is light—pale—which distinguishes this variety from its darker brethren, the brown ales. Parrish Street Pale Ale, an English-style made at Bull City Burger and Brewery in Durham, is clean and crisp, with enough hops to tickle the palate. With a golden-copper hue, it's one of my favorite summer beers.
An unfortunate trend has been inflicted upon America: Beers infused with blueberries and sweet potatoes, basil and rosemary. What next? Tears harvested from the eyes of newborns? (Cue Hank Williams: "There's a tear in my beer.") Fullsteam has been guilty of brewing fussy beers, but its simple American Common Lager is a joy. Light, clean but not wimpy, this lager is delightful. Save the sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving.
A dark beer made with brown malt, Porters originated in London, so leave it to an Englishman in Cary to brew a tasty one. First, pour it in your glass and take a whiff: Malty and rich, it sets up your palate. Then drink it, but carefully. Because of its complexity, this is a beer that is meant to be sipped. I tasted malt, of course, and this porter is slightly bitter but not the least bit off-putting. Lighter than a stout, Fortnight's Porter is less than 5 percent alcohol and an all-around enjoyable beer. It could be my new favorite of the Triangle brews.
With a roasted flavor, the Irish stout, Guinness, is usually the gateway drug to this type of dark beer.
Olde Hickory Stout, made in Hickory, registers 5.8 percent alcohol, and lacks the sweetness of an oatmeal stout (oatmeal belongs in a bowl with cinnamon and blueberries, not in a glass). Olde Hickory also feels lighter—better for summer drinking—than Imperial stouts.
Imperial stouts are stronger because originally they were brewed in England and exported to Russia. In the 1700s, that trip was quite a haul. With an alcohol level of 10-plus percent, Ponysaurus' Imperial Stout—currently unavailable, sniff—will put hair on your chest. Dark as oil, with a creamy head, it is bitter and silky, with hints of coffee. I hope the Durham brewery revives it for winter.