While on a trip to Charlotte, NC for a conference, I was introduced to Blue Blaze Brewing. Their Alpine Wiesen Oktoberfest Ale was recommended by the server during lunch at Futo Buta (a scrumptious ramen spot… give it a try if you’re in town!).
A nearby wine & craft beer bar, The Cork and Cask, picked up on my beer choice through Twitter, and that started a conversation that led to a fascinating interview with one of Blue Blaze’s owners, Craig Nunn.
I could have enjoyed both the brews and conversation all day.
Upon walking into the beautiful, sunlit taproom, you forget that you’re in North Carolina’s largest city.
The goal was for the brewery to feel like a “big warm hug” to patrons, and I’d consider that mission a success.
The natural lighting, reclaimed local wood, and photographs of North Carolina waterfalls imbue Blue Blaze with warmth and comfort; you can actually feel yourself relax as you settle into a rocking chair on their patio or at one of the wooden tables indoors.
In addition, Blue Blaze is very dog-friendly, so there’s no shortage of furry friends to pet as you sample all that this brewery has to offer.
The owners of Blue Blaze noted the high correlation between those that enjoy both outdoors culture and high quality craft beer, so Blue Blaze was designed with this blend in mind.
For those like me who aren’t avid hikers, blazes are marks put on trees along trails that help hikers discern paths as they make their journey.
Along the Appalachian trail, white blazes mark the official trail, while blue blazes indicate a path that may lead to water, particularly beautiful scenery, or a place for relaxation.
All of Blue Blaze’s beers are named for backpacking, Appalachian slang, or other outdoor recreational activities.
The different levels of elevation in the brewery such as the upstairs seating area with the “take one, leave one” library and the fire pits along the sloping land beside the brewery are designed to mimic the hiking experience.
The brewery also offers all of the necessary tools and ingredients for guests to make s’mores over the fire pits to enjoy along with their beers.
As for the beers themselves, brewing, Nunn contends, is where science meets art.
The philosophy behind Blue Blaze’s beers is that, throughout history, human culture has revolved around music, food, alcohol, good company, and fire, so this idea is the foundation upon which the brewery is built.
Their goal is for their beer to be, “great background music to great conversation without diminishing the effort that goes into great beer.”
Craig states that many craft breweries focus their marketing on people who are already craft beer converts – those who already prefer ultra-hoppy IPA’s, boozy Belgians, or other strongly flavored niche beers.
In contrast, Blue Blaze wants to be a bridge to the everyday drinker, to guide those who prefer beers that are light on flavor gently into the world of craft beer.
He says that he wants Blue Blaze to produce beers you can, “have a conversation around, not about.”
Master Brewer Steve Turner accomplishes this mission with steam-brewed beers in classical styles with emphasis on drinkability; however, they are not married to tradition.
Craft Beers for Everyone
For example, their Black Blaze Milk Stout is brewed to be deliberately light in order to make it drinkable year-round – as enjoyable in the summer sun as it is by a fire on a brisk fall night. You won’t find any palate-wreckers on the Blue Blaze tap list.
The focus of each beer is on flavor with an attempt to make them with a clean, slightly dry finish so that drinkers can continue to enjoy the subtleties in each successive brew they sample.
Both the Ursa Minor IPA and the Carolina Thread Trail Pale Ale have noticeable hop flavor, but neither beer is overly bitter.
They would serve well as a gateway beer for a friend you’d love to eventually have enjoy a west coast IPA with you, but who isn’t yet quite ready.
One of my favorite beers that I tried was the Muddy Waters American Brown Ale. With its light yet distinct fruity flavor, this beer embodied fall leaves and bright sunshine, and it would be an excellent choice to share with the friend who prefers ciders.
Their Smores Blonde Ale was a surprise! I had no idea that I could enjoy a blonde beer with a distinct marshmallow and graham flavor; you even get a hint of the chocolate!
When possible, organic ingredients are used in the brewing process. They experimented with organic versus inorganic ingredients in their beers by brewing with both but controlling all other possible variables and then taking both versions to parties.
Without divulging their experiment to those who tasted their beers, 99% of their drinkers chose the organic versions, claiming the organic beers tasted “cleaner & fresher” without being aware in the difference in the ingredients.
Blue Blaze uses organic ingredients as often as possible, but organic is not always an option 100% of the time, so they are not certified as an organic brewery.
Blue Blaze and the Future of Craft in Charlotte
When asked about his feelings on capacity for the increasing number of breweries in the Charlotte area, Craig cited some research done as they were preparing to open a brewery.
When the numbers for brewery per capita in Charlotte are compared with those in Vermont, it’s clear that there is plenty of room for more breweries in Charlotte.
The beer culture (Nunn despises the term “beer scene”) in Charlotte also lends itself to growth due to both the fact that many area breweries are designed with the goal of being neighborhood breweries with different capacities and beer styles as well as Charlotte’s history with alcohol.
I learned from Craig that there are three major factors that lend to Charlotte being a beer city:
- The first is its German roots that give the city a cultural undercurrent of beer: the city, located in Mecklenburg County, is named for Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, once located in north Germany.
- Second, Charlotte is the original home of NASCAR which has origins in bootleggers outfitting cars to illegally deliver moonshine.
- Finally, Charlotte is a major banking hub with people transferring from big beer cities such as Boston and San Francisco who come to town looking for local breweries to satisfy their craft beer cravings.
Like all craft brewers, Nunn has his perspective on big beer companies. Ideologically, he feels like most consumers do about big brewers buying up small craft breweries in the sense that he’d rather it not happen.
Pragmatically, however, he does understand why it’s done, stating that breweries are, “constantly chasing capacity,” and selling out to AB InBev can make increasing capacity and distribution much easier.
He contends that AB/InBev is the easiest point of entry which is why a lot of buyouts are happening; large companies are trying to bring craft beer prices in line with Bud Light style prices.
He appreciates the way New Belgium has handled this issue by utilizing an employee stock option plan so that the brewery is owned by its employees. Ideally, all craft breweries would be able to stand on their own.
As for Craig Nunn’s personal beer tastes, he favors browns, porters, stouts, and ambers. He began lobbying for craft beer back in his days working at a restaurant where he convinced the owner to switch two of their taps over to kegs of local craft beer.
The owner had a difficult time believing that it made good economic sense to purchase more expensive beer or that people would choose to pay a higher price for a beer that wasn’t nationally recognized.
Nunn’s persistence paid off and the restaurant’s owner quickly became a craft beer convert, switching more taps over to craft beers as the customers really enjoyed – and happily paid more for – them.
Craig is a fan of the Charlie Papazian quote,
Buy a man a beer, and he wastes an hour. Teach a man to brew, and he wastes a lifetime.
After tasting several of Blue Blaze’s beers, I wouldn’t call any of it a waste.
The attention to detail poured into all aspects of Blue Blaze lend to a comfortable, amiable atmosphere accompanied by flavorful, pleasant brews. The layers of flavor in each beer leave you often surprised and always satisfied.
Everything here is deliberate, each decision made highly intentional but without being overstated, and the result is indeed like you’ve just experienced a big, warm hug after a walk in the woods on a beautiful day. I can’t wait to go back.