Saisons may have become a new darling style for craft beer connoisseurs, but as
beer writers such as William Bostwick and Joshua Bernstein have been quick to point out, their roots are humble: “seasonal” beers that made something less-perishable from extra produce and grain that Belgian and French farmers had on hand. In the process, incidentally, they came to emblemize local terroir.
At Haw River Farmhouse Ales, a brewery tucked amid rolling pastures and dairy farms in the single-intersection town of Saxapahaw, N.C., that old tradition is coming back to life. The ingredients are almost entirely sourced from within 100 miles, and include local heirloom grains, as well as foraged honeysuckles, blueberries, paw paw fruit, wildflower honey and North Carolina-grown figs.
And the beers aren’t just made in North Carolina using the fruits of the land: they are made for North Carolinians.
“If you’re just pushing tons of volume out of the door, some of the soul isn’t there,” said Ben Woodward, who opened Haw River Farmhouse Ales with his wife, Dawnya, in 2014. “Everything we do is N.C.-centered. There’s no reason for us to make beer for anyone else.”
Other than limited bottle and draft keg distribution that mostly stays within the nearby Research Triangle and Charlotte, Woodward’s vast lineup of beers doesn’t often venture far beyond Haw River’s Saxapahaw location. “That’s where we live and that’s where the beer goes,” said Woodward.
Though Haw River is currently expanding its production capabilities, the extra capacity will be used for growing its barrel-aging, wilds and sours program rather than distribution.
Photo credit: Johnson Hagood
The expansion follows frenetic efforts to meet Haw River’s rapidly growing demand, and will allow Woodward to return to the “fun” of playing around with his beers. Woodward started his brewery because his other job in graphic design was “boring,” he said.
His “fun,” so far, has produced barrel-aged beers that include bourbon barrel and red wine barrel-aged versions of the brewery’s signature St. Benedict’s Breakfast Dubbel, a dark and roasty beer that uses local flaked oats, dark chocolate, cacao nibs and coffee from nearby Muddydog Roasting Company to create a rich, but dry-finishing brew.
The barrels for the red wine iteration came from Benjamin Vineyards (also located in Saxapahaw), and impart a tannic bite to the dubbel that balance its sweetness and the roastiness of the chocolate and coffee. The thick and boozy bourbon barrel-aged version, which Woodward made 300 bottles of, sold out within minutes of its release.
“We’re comfortable enough, financially, to have fun,” said Woodward over a pint, a child-like smile gleaming from his hazel eyes and darkly bearded face.
Other projects in the works for Haw River: a lineup of barrel-aged sours that use fruits such as the ground cherries whose seeds Woodward gave out to local growers in the brewery’s Farmhand Exchange Program; an expansion of bottled wild ales like the Cotton Pickin’ Farmhouse IPA (restrained funk, and rife with effervescence and pineapple) that are aged in foudres—massive wooden aging vessels from France; and a coolship to collect native yeasts from the breezes of the Haw River located just outside.
When returning to the discussion of expanded distribution, Woodward again shook his head. He didn’t start brewing beer to make a fortune, he said, but to have fun and have time to spend with his wife and newborn.
“As long as there’s diapers on his ass, things are okay,” he laughed.
Haw River Beers to Try: The symphonically biting and rich red wine barrel-aged St. Benedict’s Breakfast Dubbel; the deeply floral, slightly sweet and effervescent Sun Hands golden ale made from local wildflower honey; the Javaberry cream stout, a milk stout with local blueberries and Muddy Dog Ethiopian coffee that tastes like a refreshing, sweet and berry-forward cold brew; and the signature Newlin’s Original Belgian Oatmeal Pale, the creamy, restrainedly hoppy and crisp top-seller.