Over the last few years, American beer has gone through a major paradigm shift. The craft brewery boom has revolutionized not only the very definition of beer, but the place it holds in our culture as well; as a totem of art, creativity, and community. Suddenly, our mugs runneth over with precious liquids from tap rooms and growlers and bombers and pick-sixes from breweries all over the country – from our west coast brethren to those local imbiberies which spring up like furious wildflowers through cracks in our city sidewalks. We are in an era of fantastic experimentation that has brought us such alchemical concoctions as the peanut butter porter, bacon maple ale, and (in extreme cases) beer fermented with wild yeast isolated from the wings of wasps. It’s as if hundreds of years of brewing tradition are being disregarded entirely. And this is a good thing! Craft beer, for Americans, has become an incarnation of that which makes us American at our core. It is a symbol of our freedom from tradition. Plus, it gets you drunk.
Enter Sub Noir Brewing Company. Beyond a narrow taproom, fully stocked with classic Nintendo-era video games, a small loading dock that serves as Sub Noir’s brewhouse exhales that familiar aroma of sweet wort in the kettle. Before yeast is added to the mix to make it officially “beer,” the sweet liquid that comes from soaking various malts is known as wort (pronounced like “word” but with a “t” at the end). It’s a mixture full of malty sugar, which the yeast will eventually convert into alcohol, and it smells like fresh caramel donuts.
The first thing I notice when I walk into Sub Noir’s brewhouse (about the size of a dorm room) is a box of Count Chocula cereal thrown haphazardly onto the workbench, as if devoured and then cast aside by a pack of voracious children. Almost instantaneously, this fills me with a wave of nostalgia for a breakfast cereal (who are we kidding, let’s just call it candy) that was probably my favorite food as a child. It doesn’t take me long to realize that I can smell it in the air. Behind a wall of oak barrels stacked in the center of the room, rises a column of steam. I walk over to find Michael Stagner and Brennan Watson, owner/brewers at Sub Noir, huddled over a small ½ barrel brew system manufactured out of reclaimed kegs.
“Wait…” I say. “Are you putting Count Chocula in the beer?”
They smile at me knowingly. “One of the great things about being a nano-brewery,” says Michael, “is that we can experiment more and make what we like.” Sub Noir brews very small weekly batches, fermenting just one barrel (or two kegs’ worth) at a time. Now, since their system is made out of kegs, this means that they must brew two batches of each beer in order to fill even this modest fermenter. This is both good and bad because, as Michael says, it allows for a lot of experimentation from one batch to the next, but it also means that demand is often higher than supply, and once a batch runs out… it’s gone.
The beer they’re brewing as I talk with them is called Zee Count. It’s a chocolate stout brewed with Count Chocula and aged on roasted cocoa nibs from Videri Chocolate Factory. It is a paradox in itself, a taste of childhood nostalgia brewed into an alcoholic beverage, bittersweet like all the best chocolate (or nostalgia, for that matter). And it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “part of a balanced breakfast.”
Also on tap while I was there was Zeruda no Eru Barleywine (12% ABV), a deceptively strong ale that doesn’t taste very alcoholic, considering how potent it is, with undertones of bananas and caramel; and Le Petit Prince Table Beer (~3.5% ABV). All of their beers are served in tulip glasses and pair very well with Mario 3, which is set on an eternal loop on the TV in their taproom. In fact, they have a whole shelf full of retro video games: everything from River City Ransom for NES to Street Fighter Alpha for Sega Saturn.
Sub Noir is a very small operation. The company is made up of two guys, Michael and Brennan, computer programmers by day, and Michael’s wife, Amy, who runs the taproom during business hours. Michael and Brennan choose to brew beer simply because they love it, which is evident by the care they take for each batch. They are all very friendly and welcome people to drop by and poke their heads into the brewhouse to see what’s cooking.
Though they don’t currently sell any beer to be taken out of the taproom (growlers and such), they do have a membership program, or “beer society,” part of a crowd-sourcing campaign which they have dubbed the Samizdat Underground. This secret society rewards its members with four limited-release bottles of Sub Noir’s seasonal brews and one 32 oz stainless steel growler. In addition, every second Saturday, they tap a cask of a special one-off beer, such as their recent Bourbon Barrel Aged Ginger Tripel.
Sub Noir is only open Friday 6pm-12am and Saturday 12pm-8pm for now and they sell out pretty fast. “We’re pretty much going through it as quickly as we can make it,” says Michael, so I recommend coming early if you want a taste of whatever concoction they’ve tapped for the weekend.
[Originally published in the Triangle Downtowner Magazine]