Being the first microbrewery in North Carolina obviously means we aren’t afraid to try new things. The art of brewing is thousands of years old and techniques really haven’t changed that much. The beer brewed today wouldn’t be that different from beers thousands of years ago, but what’s holding them certainly has. Our beers may be based on centuries of tradition, but the packaging is constantly changing with improvements in technology. Ahead of the curve, behind the times, or right on track – we’ve done it all! When we first opened our brewery in 1986 we didn’t even keg our beer; the draft lines were hooked up directly to the tanks. Since those early days I think it’s safe to say that we’ve tried pretty much every type of sealed portable consumer container of even quantity.
The first bottles we had were the one-liter flip top bottles we still have today. Unlike growlers filled directly from the tap, our bottles are counter-filled with CO2 in the brewery to give them shelf stability. When the bottles come back they are cleaned and sanitized to avoid any kind of contamination. Only the best for our beer! It was a bold new concept in the 80s, but bringing the bottles back caught on. Customers bring them back year after year, from hundreds of miles away and sometimes we get vintage bottles from the early days of the Weeping Radish. Another old favorite that found renewed success was the 5-liter mini keg. Imported from Germany, they have a built in tap and are perfect for gatherings. We couldn’t get them for a few years, but having those Bavarian flag wrapped kegs back in the cooler is nostalgia at it’s best.
Some of our other bottling adventures were not quite as successful. When we were contract brewing in Maryland as our current building was underway, we used 12 oz bottles in six packs. For a small brewery this was a disaster. The packaging costs, case, carrier, bottle label, neck label and cap, were cripplingly expensive and worse we blended in with domestic beers on the store shelves. When our brewery in Grandy was up and running we looked to our liter bottles for new packaging inspiration. The result was a 16 oz reusable bottle. In Germany an entire industry has developed around collecting bottles from shops, cleaning them and returning them to breweries. Having a 100% glass reuse program was a dream for us, but it didn’t take us long to realize that without the collection companies using these bottles was a nightmare. For a while we went back to 22 oz “bomber” bottles and we were actually on trend. Many microbreweries were using this size to distinguish themselves from factory breweries and the larger size was ideal for breweries making bottle fermented styles of beer.
But there was a sense of change in the air; something new was coming to the micro-brewing industry: cans. For the last three years we’ve been canning our beer and loving it. Once strictly the territory of large-scale domestic breweries, advances in technology have made canning an attractive option for microbreweries. The debate between bottles and cans is heated amongst consumers, but almost non-existent among brewers. Cans are champions at defending beer against light and oxygen. Cans are filled and sealed to the brim unlike bottles which have a gap of headspace. And with glass verboten on the beach, cans are a no brainer for a coastal brewery. Not to mention that they’re gorgeous! We’ve brought out new designs this season, giving old favorites a facelift and celebrating over 30 years of making quality beer on the Outer Banks.
Delicious and high quality products are the standard at the Weeping Radish. We set the bar high and work hard to maintain it in our restaurant, brewery and butchery. I suppose it is my intimacy with this struggle that made some of the comments on my last article such a surprise. Why should we, as one commenter suggested, be grateful to comply with a system that does not guarantee safer food, but costs us thousands of dollars a year? The time and resources we’d like to invest in further training and equipment, which would provide safer quality products, has instead been spent on creating a web of paperwork for inspectors to file. Inspectors who are given limited training and at times display limited interest in their work. We had one inspector who sat in the office and read her way through the Twilight series before upgrading to the collected works of Jane Austen. It made our mandatory weekly meetings much more entertaining, but didn’t reassure me about the effectiveness of the inspection system. Neither did the fact that less 3% of meat coming into the country is inspected! I’m all about safe food, I eat too, but I also make food and that has taught me to put more trust in the people crafting it than the legend of inspection on the package.