Zach Phillips and Mike Valente graduated from Western Carolina University just in time to enter the worst job market in 80 years. Instead of crying into their beers, they decided to brew their own.
“I’d applied for a few jobs and when it didn’t work out, it sort of disillusioned me,” Phillips said. “So I figured I’d work, and work on my beer at the same time.”
Phillips has spent the last year perfecting his home-brewing techniques, while Valente has been a mainstay as an apprentice brewer at Heinzelmannchen Brewery in Sylva since 2008.
Next Saturday, the two friends will showcase the fruits of their labor alongside 15 or so other local brewers at the inaugural Smoky Mountain Craft Beer Festival. Phillips organized the event after being inspired by craft brew festivals in Chapel Hill.
“You get to brag and show off your beer and everybody who’s there is an experimenter,” Phillips said. “It’s a great way to trade ideas and get to know other brewers. It’s beer and music and food. What’s not to like?”
Craft beer is essentially small batch beer that showcases the brewers’ recipes and measures their technical acumen. The festival marks the growth of the craft brew scene in the mountains west of Asheville –– breweries from Sylva, Bryson City, and Waynesville are slated to show off their wares –– but the effort to put it together is really a testament to the commitment of two friends who see beer as more than a pastime.
From Blue to Brew
Phillips graduated in May 2009 with a communications degree. He thought he had a job lined up in his hometown, Raleigh, but when it fell through, he was lost in a sea of resumes.
Phillips traces his love affair with beer to his 21st birthday party, when his mother presented him a bottle of Delirium Tremens to mark the occasion. The high-alcohol Belgian pale ale won the “Best Beer in the World” title at the World Beer Championships in Chicago 1998, and it opened Zach’s eyes to a world beyond frat party kegs.
“Up until then I was a Bud Light/Miller Lite type of guy,” Phillips said. “That beer really opened my eyes to what’s possible with beer.”
He bought a $150 beer kit at Dingleberry’s Home Brew Supply in Sylva and turned mad scientist.
“I’m kind of an obsessive-compulsive person,” Phillips said. “When I started brewing my first batch, it was okay, but I was already thinking about how to do it better.”
For many years, home-brewers were treated as odd tinkerers, people who pilfered water coolers from work and created wild concoctions in their dark basements to be doled out at parties.
But in the heart of North Carolina beer country, just a few miles up the road from AshVegas, Phillips wasn’t isolated. For one, he had his friend Mike Valente and the inspiration of Dieter Kuhn, Heinzelmannchen’s German brew-meister.
“Everything I haven’t learned from a book, I’ve learned from Dieter,” Phillips said. “He’s been so supportive, and that guy really knows his beer.”
The first Smoky Mountain Craft Beer Festival will be a farewell party for Valente, who is heading to Chicago in May to pursue an associate degree in beer brewing at the Siebel Institute of Technology’s World Brewing Academy.
“After six months to a year with Dieter, it all started to make sense,” Valente said. “I wasn’t ruining batches anymore or contaminating barrels. The customers were happy. It grew from a fun job and passion into something bigger.”
Like many young craft brewers in their age group, Valente and Phillips tend to gravitate towards beers with unique and powerful flavor profiles. But being around Kuhn, who espouses the German brewing tradition that favors balance and drinkability, has influenced them.
“These guys have a penchant for something extraordinary, something big,” Kuhn said. “But if you have a base in balance, it’s easy to accomplish a beer that’s drinkable.”
Mike and Zach are brewing together one last time.
While their contest offerings at the festival will showcase their own ambitions, they’ll also not surprisingly reflect the Heinzelmannchen influence. Phillips and Valente plan to offer up a single decoction extra special bitter ale inspired by a Green Man ESB and a rye pale ale inspired by offerings from Terrapin and Goose Island versions.
Phillips has worked hard to whip up local support for the event, which will take place at Soul Infusions Tea House & Bistro in Sylva and will feature local bands and the beer of local contestants and barrels from Henizelmannchen, Nantahala Brewing Company, Pigtopia Brewery, and Tuckeseegee Brewing Cooperative.
Brewing contests that award medals can be competitive and controversial. Kuhn helped get experienced judges fresh from the Hickory Hops Festival to contribute their expertise to the Smoky Mountain contest.
But Valente and Phillips are really just hoping for a community-centered celebration of beer, something they hope their own craft brews will foster.
“I want to please the crowd. I’m not worried about the judges,” Valente said. “I want people to want to drink our beer and to get excited about what you can do with it.”
Kuhn, meanwhile, will say goodbye to one protégé.
“I’m hoping he’ll come back,” said Kuhn. “If he doesn’t, I hope he’ll win world beer competitions.”
And Phillips is starting to see how his communications degree and his love of beer might make for a brighter future than he expected.
“I think the brewing industry is definitely going to be my career choice in some way,” Phillips said.
Try a taste