Rick Tufts, co-owner and brewer for Triangle Brewing Company, welcomed me into his place of business with a "What are you drinking?" and then gestured to several tap handles.
I chose a wet hop IPA that was made with a Cascade/Northern Brewer cross of varietals. Slightly grassy notes hide beneath the citrusy Cascade and moderately bitter Northern Brewer. It went down smooth.
Tufts and I took our beers (he was drinking the same) to the loading dock at the back of the building. Located behind a barbed-wire fence on Pearl Street in Durham, the brewery is housed in an expansive cement warehouse with the prerequisite brewing tanks and walk-in cooler.
I asked Tufts when the brewery started, and co-owner Andy Miller chimed in: "Today we started at about 5:45 a.m.," he said as he exhaled cigarette smoke. The two partners are like a stand-up comedy duo, always finding a way to work a punch line into every sentence.
In reality, Triangle Brewing Co. opened for business on July 4, 2007, and dropped off its first keg at the Carolina Ale House in Brier Creek three days later. "And then we preceded to stay there and drink it all," Miller said, chuckling.
In 2007, craft beer wasn't trending like it is today, especially in this area. So why did they start a brewery? For Tufts, some of the real draw was to create something. For Miller, it was "to be able to be our own bosses." The two are lifelong friends. They grew up in New England, where craft beer had started to grab a foothold. Tufts had taken up home brewing, and a glint in his eye appeared a short time later.
"It started off as a pipe dream," Tufts explained. "But the more I researched it, the more I realized it could become a reality." And the reality Tufts wanted was to make a product people could enjoy "in good times ... and in bad."
Tufts didn't go straight from homebrewing to brewery owner. He earned a master's degree in developmental psychology from Southern Connecticut State University, then scored a straight job, working as a psychologist at Durham Public Schools before switching to UNC Hospitals. After that, he attended the American Brewers Guild and landed an apprenticeship at Flying Fish Brewery in Cherry Hill, N.J.
In 2009, Triangle Brewing began canning a Belgian Style Strong Golden Ale (8% ABV). "People thought we were nuts to can the Golden Ale," Tufts said. "But it is better for the beer," he said. He took a sip of the pint of draft in his hand, glanced at it and then said, "It increases the shelf life of the beer."
For Miller, it was simply about accessibility and the portability. "Golf courses don't like bottles," he said. "And I like to golf." And he likes the beach, and the pool and going to the lake—all places that frown at glass bottled beer.
When you ask the two of them what their proudest moment has been, they sound like the doting parents that they are (both have children). "That day in July when I hooked up that first keg," Miller said. "I still like going into a place and seeing our tap handles."
For Tufts, it is seeing someone order a beer and take that first sip—a voyeuristic brewer watching the drinker.
Their proudest moment may be yet to come: The two are opening Triangle Brewing Co.'s Pint & Plate, a tavern-like establishment at 802 W. Main St. in Durham that once housed The Roxy. Pint & Plate will feature 12 taps of North Carolina beers plus a cask every week. It will also be a full-service bar and will sell six packs and growlers.
"People don't give beer enough credit to be a situational thing that creates memories," said Tufts. With Pint & Plate, he hopes to do just that: help people create memories.
And their worst moment? "When reality kicked in and I realized that at the end of the day it is still a business," said Miller. "It's not all fun and games." As Miller finished his sentence Tufts countered with, "My worst moment was when I realized I had to see Andy every day."
This article appeared in print with the headline "To be our own bosses."