Baseball is a pastime so heavily steeped in spectacle and legend that it can become, at times, cloying with nostalgia. It is a game where human giants take the field; a game of suspense and glory where blood changes color and heroes never die. For my money, there is nothing quite so rich as the roar of the crowd, the crack of the bat, and the heckles spat tauntingly at a visiting pitcher. It’s the smell of the grass, the howls of the peanut vendors, and the taste of a hot dog and a cold beer.
2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Durham Bulls at the “new” Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP), and things have never been more exciting. The team has been owned by the Capitol Broadcasting Company since 1991 and has undergone several changes during this time, including the move to a new stadium in 1995 and a promotion from the Carolina League to the Triple-A International League in 1998 (following the Major League expansion of the Tampa Bay Rays). The team has won twelve Division titles, four League titles, and one Class title under the ownership of Capitol Broadcasting. The movie, Bull Durham, filmed at the old park in 1987, continues to be widely considered one of the greatest sports movies of all time. Yet, there is no better time to be a Bulls fan than right now; because, as of May of this year, they have been brewing their own beer.
The last few seasons have brought a host of innovations to the DBAP. In 2014, the park underwent a $20-million renovation footed by Capitol Broadcasting in conjunction with the city of Durham. They installed an enormous, high-resolution video display in the left field wall (dubbed “the blue monster”), made some improvements to the drainage of the field, and (most importantly) Capitol Broadcasting decided to take over all the concessions for the park. Under their new subsidiary company, Bull City Hospitality, they have increased the number of concessions with an open-air promenade down the first base line. They have also taken over all of the food and, apparently, beverage services, as they have now created their own brewery in Bull Durham Beer Company.
Bull Durham Beer Co. is the only brewery within a minor league ballpark in the entire United States. Take a moment to let that sink in. Nowhere else in the country can you cheer the home team to victory while drinking a beer made by the park, exclusively for its fans. It’s something that seems… so obvious, yet exists nowhere outside of Durham.
The brew house for Bull Durham is located in the park’s main concourse, alongside several other shops and concessions, within a small greenhouse of glass windows and doors. They are often brewing during games and ticket holders can peek their heads in to see the actual beer being made. It is a small brew system, able to produce about 30 barrels per month, all of which is being quickly consumed by thirsty fans. “They’re drinking it as fast as we can brew it,” head brewer, Tate Little, tells me. The brew system at Bull Durham is a bit unique, in that they use an oil-heated vessel which serves as both the mash tun and the boil kettle. The vessel has a jacket filled with an oil that is electrically heated to achieve mash and boil temperatures. It’s a method that can be rather time-consuming, but allows for very stable temperatures during the mash, to keep the beer consistent between batches while utilizing their space restraints.
Starting for the brew team is Executive Brewmaster Sebastian “The All-Star” Wolfrum, formerly the Director of Brewing Operations over at Natty Greene’s. Sebastian hails from Bavaria and brings with him a lifetime of brewing experience. Batting second is Tate “The Rookie” Little, who serves as Bull Durham’s Head Brewer. Tate was formerly a middle-school teacher and a home brewer who happened to be in the right place at the right time. About a year ago, he attended the wedding of a friend whom he had in common with Sebastian and, as a gift, he had brought a bunch of his homebrew to the ceremony. The beer was such a hit at the wedding that they immediately approached him with the offer to come and brew with them at Bull Durham, an offer which Tate clearly could not refuse.
Currently, Bull Durham Beer Co. produces only two beers: a Kolsch (4.7% ABV), which is a german-style pale ale with an airy maltiness and a light dusting of hops; and a very drinkable Wheat Beer (specifically, a “leichte weiss” – 4.4% ABV), which is very mellow, deviating from the thick mouthfeel and banana undertones that are so common in wheat beers. Sebastian tells me that they spent quite a lot of time experimenting with different yeast strains to find a yeast that would impart a more tart wheat flavor to the beer, rather than the commonly found fruity esters. Both of their styles are actively designed to be refreshing and “sessionable,” specifically to cater to fans who will be out in the afternoon heat of the summer games. I am told that they also have a lager in the works that should be ready in the near future. All-in-all, it is undoubtedly the freshest beer you can find in any ballpark in the country.
Just to make things clear, Bull Durham is not the only beer selection offered at the DBAP, not by a long shot. Jackie’s Landing, the outdoor bar at the first base landing has an admirable selection of other local and national craft beer to choose from. However, Bull Durham’s beer is only available inside the park, so I recommend you have at least one while you’re there. In the future, they have tentative plans to open a tap room in the newly constructed Aloft Hotel (on the American Tobacco Campus) that would be open year-round and would, of course, have live streams of the games during the season.
So, at present time, the only way you can get a taste of Bull Durham’s beer is to find a ticket to one of their home games and get it poured straight from the source. If you consider yourself a Bulls fan, there really is no better (or more local) beer you could have at the park. So come out and root for the home team, and while you’re at it, grab one of Bull Durham’s beers by the horns for this distinctly American experience that can be had no other place than our little corner of the world.
[Originally published in the Triangle Downtowner Magazine]