North Carolina has recently been referred to as the “Colorado of the east,” and if you’re Sean Lilly Wilson, chief executive optimist at Fullsteam brewery, you might be honored by that title. A quick look at the Durham-based brewery’s list of beers, as well as their recent collaboration with Fearrington Village, and it’s easy to see why the brewery is excited about the comparison.
As a self-labeled “plow to pint” brewery, Fullsteam isn’t just trying to cash in on the craft beer trend. Wilson and co-founder Chris Davis want to inject their own personalities and experiences into the nationwide renaissance. Their collaboration with Fearrington has allowed them to not only source delicious ingredients from Fearrington’s property like crab apples, bronze fennel and thyme, but also gain the attention of Fearrington’s discerning diners.
Talking to Wilson, you could easily mistake him for a Colorado craft brewer. His voice lacks a distinct southern drawl, and his background in technology makes him a bit geekier than Fullsteam’s appreciation for old Dodge pickups would lead you to believe. He is very quick to note that Fullsteam is about sustainable Southern self-expression.
“The fun that we have at Fullsteam is trying to express being from the South through beer,” said Wilson. “We start with that idea and then we brew with six-row barley, local oats, North Carolina corn grits and other local heirloom grains. Then there’s the whole fruit and vegetable side of it, like persimmons, figs, pawpaws and sweet potatoes.”
Wilson and Davis wanted to create a brewery that was more about the social function of drinking beer, in combination with locally-sourced and sustainable food. Fullsteam isn’t just for fussy foodies who like to drink, but for people who are thoughtful about classic American IPAs, cream ales and steam beers.
As a company that’s driven by both food and a sense of community, Fullsteam’s taproom is more akin to a beer hall turned picnic area. With plenty of open space, long tables and vaulted ceilings, its laid back vibe makes it one of the best date spots in Durham.
At the end of the day, Fullsteam makes beers for conversation and beers for food. Every growler they fill is brimming with a distinctly Southern experience, and what would the South be without food?
“There’s a meeting between the casual and fine dining worlds happening in our culture,” said Wilson.
The south is rich in culinary history. If there was ever a singular point of origin for American cuisine, it would be somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi. If you ask Wilson or Colin Bedford, Fearrington Village’s head chef with a Michelin star notched in his belt, they would both tell you that North Carolina is a great place to begin your search for the source of American fine dining.
Bedford, a British expat, makes full use of North Carolina’s rich agricultural history in his kitchen. Either by employing the use of ingredients grown on Fearrington’s expansive property, or sourcing pork from local farmers. With such a similar mindset, and just 25 miles of highway separating the two, a collaboration between Fearrington Village and Fullsteam seemed only natural. It also didn’t hurt that Fearrington’s sommelier, Maximillian Kast, has been good friends with Wilson for the past three years.
Bringing Craft Beer to North Carolina
Both Kast and Wilson have similar stories. Kast began work as a sommelier with beer and later moved on to wines and spirits prior to his role at Fearrington. Wilson first got his start working the front of house at Durham’s Magnolia Grill, a restaurant focused on seasonal menus comprised of mainly Southern ingredients. That was back in 1992, when the only proper pairing for a meal was a glass of wine, not a pint of beer.
Wilson didn’t become involved with local beer until 2001 when a friend introduced him to a handful of beers outlawed under North Carolina’s then six percent ABV limit. He formed a student lobbyist group called “Pop the Cap” to change the witless law, and after two years of petitioning the group convinced the state legislature to remove the law that had existed since Prohibition. Wilson was hooked, and in 2009 he opened Fullsteam.
Without the change to North Carolina’s ABV law, it would have been impossible for the state to be transformed into the epicenter of craft brewing on the East Coast. It also would have prohibited Fullsteam from brewing its Igor Imperial Stout, which packs a nine percent ABV punch. With dark fruit, roasted coffee and dark fruit notes, Igor is aged in bourbon barrels for three months, bottled and sent over to Fearrington Village where Kast likes to pair it with their chocolate soufflé.
When first hearing about this pairing, I was surprised that a beer of any style would not overwhelm something as delicate and rich as a chocolate soufflé. Kast quickly stepped to Igor’s defense, “It lends itself to the flavors in the chocolate soufflé very nicely. Our classic pairing for the soufflé had always been a 20-year-old Tawny Port, in this case it’s cool because Igor brings a nice effervesce.”
Fullsteam + Fearrington
What makes the relationship between Fullsteam and Fearrington so interesting is that all three players, Bedford, Kast and Wilson have all come full circle in their careers in regards to their relationship with beer. Bedford explained that learning to cook with beer has been difficult at times, “When you reduce beer, you have to be careful of how tannic it is. It can become very bitter.”
Through his experimentation, Bedford has integrated craft beer into the full range of Fearrington dishes. He uses Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo Marron to create a sauce for Fearrington House’s CAB strip loin and believes that “the beer and burger has moved over to the white tablecloth.”
The Fearrington House Restaurant menu could easily be at home in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco’s trendiest restaurants. Items like herb mousseline wrapped pheasant with smoked confit ragout and parkin, seared foie gras with rosemary crumpet and muscovado sugar streusel are enough to make the most jaded foodie giddy with excitement. While for many diners it may seem obvious to pair these dishes with wine, Kast points out that they all pair equally well with beer.
Kast’s appreciation for beer really shows in the breweries he chooses to feature on Fearrington’s beer list. The craft creations from breweries like Highland, Victory, Great Divide, Mother Earth, Carolina Brewery, Bell’s Brewery, North Coast and of course Fullsteam are included on the menu. “We’ve had up to 50 craft beers on offer, but recently reduced the number to focus on local breweries,” said Kast.
Fearrington’s appreciation for beer doesn’t end with Kast. Chef Bedford really finds the current trends inspiring, so much so that many of Fearrington’s dishes have been designed to be paired with beer in addition to wine.
“The nicest thing about pairing food and beer is that you don’t get bottlenecked into certain ingredients like you would with wine,” said Chef Bedford. “It definitely opens up another nucleus of ingredients that you can use and pull from. It [beer] is actually more enjoyable as a chef. In some beers the flavor is more robust, and you can really throw what you’ve got at the beer.”
Bedford summed up his experiences with North Carolina’s beer culture, “Using the beers from this area in our restaurant has helped us express where we’re from as a restaurant. That in turn helps connect us to the larger craft beer movement in general.”
Kast added, “We’re excited by it [craft beer], and want to be a part of it and want it to be a part of what we do. A big thing for us is building relationships and connections. There’s a plethora of high quality craft breweries opening up around here, and we want to represent them in our restaurant so that people can have an experience, a truly local experience.”
It doesn’t hurt that the beers that Fullsteam creates are a bit more refined and creative than what many of Fearrington’s diners have come to expect from craft beer. Their beers are capable of evoking the spirit of the Southern gentleman. Fullsteam, as Wilson put it is “beer that pairs great with food—slightly restrained and doesn’t overwhelm your palate.”
The lack of a diverse beer culture for the greater part of the 20th century limited the number of fine beers that both diners and chefs could choose from. But with the full-blown renaissance in craft brewing underway in America, a new way of approaching food and drink has emerged, breathing new life into both fine dining and local beer culture.