Craft beer industry brewing in Surry

By Tom Joyce

May 5, 2014

Move over, wine! There’s a new “kid” on the block capturing the attention of local connoisseurs desiring another kind of beverage — one with suds, a brownish hue and a pleasantly bitter taste compared to its grape-based cousin.

While Surry County remains a winery destination for tourists, the craft beer industry is elbowing its way for space at the tasting bar and becoming popular with consumers weary of commercial varieties manufactured and shipped from many miles away.

“I think craft beer is taking off — that’s for sure,” said Kent Yocco of Skull Camp Brewing, which is now the only entity producing it on-site in Surry.

And while some might think beer and wine mix about as well as oil and water, Skull Camp Brewing traces its origins to, yes, a winery — Round Peak Vineyards, located in northwestern Surry, where the craft-brewing operation is housed.

Due to the nature of the wine industry, namely the length of time needed to achieve profitability from grape yields, wineries constantly are seeking new opportunities to market themselves, Round Peak Vineyards co-owner Ken Gulaian said.

“This is a really good one to do,” Gulaian said of the addition of craft beer production, which Round Peak launched in March 2012. This occurred about four years after he and his wife took over the winery that originally opened in 1998.

“The craft beer industry has been really growing over the last five to seven years,” Guilain said of a trend that made its way to North Carolina and now appears to be taking hold in this area.

“There’s so many wineries,” Yocco, who serves as the brewer for the operation, said of the Surry County landscape. “Why can’t there be more breweries, too?”

Up to this point, Round Peak Vineyards has produced craft beer — in a number of varieties — at the winery on Round Peak Church Road. But the operators recently began setting up shop at an expanded location in a building behind the now-defunct Basin Creek restaurant at Elkin, which the Round Peak owners bought and plan to reopen.

Natural Marriage

The same type of business model for wineries also applies to craft beer, Gulaian and Yocco say, and is evolutionary in a sense.

“We focused on dry wines,” Gulaian said of the original emphasis when the couple took over Round Peak Vineyards, but they found that a lot of consumers desired sweeter varieties. The next step in the evolutionary process emerged via a realization that often occurs when couples are involved:

“One of the spouses didn’t like wine at all,” Gulaian said.

But Yocco thinks the growth of locally produced wine and craft beer share the same origin, a desire to eat better which stems from people becoming more finicky with their pallets. “And when you eat better, you want to drink better.”

The craft beer industry seems to fly in the face of the Joe Sixpacks among the populace who’ve been content with the conventional “over-the-counter” beers long available in supermarket or convenience store coolers. Individuals who are more discriminating have discovered craft beer and come to realize what they were missing all this time.

“I think it opens their minds to the possibilities,” Yocco added.

Craft beers tend to be heavier and “hoppier” than Bud Light, for example.

Much like a conventional winery operation, Round Peak Vineyards has a tasting room where patrons sample its craft beer offerings as well, from pale ales to dark varieties and just about everything else in between.

The main selling point, along with the special touches brewers give to their craft beer recipes which make them unique, is the freshness of the product and the fact consumers can buy local.

“We all try to do the same thing,” Yocco explained of those in the brewing community, mentioning that four main ingredients are needed for beer: water, grains, hops and yeast. However, beer made elsewhere from the exact-same recipe will taste differently when produced in Surry County due to atmospheric and other factors involved, he said.

Meeting Demand

One problem for Skull Camp Brewing at present is producing enough craft beer to satisfy customers’ thirst. At present, sellouts are common.

Customers now can buy only limited amounts on tap at the winery. Becoming a member of its beer club can entitle one to more, in the form of “growlers” containing 64 ounces. But that has its limits as well.

A key consideration in meeting demand is that all the steps from start to finish in beer production can require up to six weeks to complete.

When the move to Elkin is complete, Skull Camp Brewing will increase its output and hopes to offer its craft beer at various venues in this area, including restaurants. Some dining establishments have been embracing the craft beer trend recently, including Trio Restaurant and Bar in Mount Airy.

“Right now, it’s just everyone who comes here,” Yocco said of the present customer base at Round Peak Vineyards.

Intricate Procedure

Yocco, 32, is a transplanted Georgian who initially had a career in the world of finance after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in that field. “I was doing that in Atlanta and I didn’t like it,” he said.

After going to New Zealand and working in a vineyard, Yocco learned of the burgeoning home-brewing trend in the U.S. He subsequently returned to this country and, while waiting to enter a brewery school, enrolled in the viticulture program at Surry Community College — where he met Gulaian.

Yocco completed a program through the American Brewers Guild, which among other course work required flying to Sacremento, Calif., and working for one week at a brewery. He learned much during work days lasting up to 14 hours.

He joined Round Peak in the spring of 2012 as vineyard manager, which also would include serving as the brewer for its craft beer enterprise.

Yocco maintains a computerized database for storing his various recipes.

He uses a Sabco Brew Magic system — a contraption made up of three 15-gallon stainless-steel kettles interconnected with pipes, gauges and knobs to control the heat level and other functions. “It makes 10 gallons at a time,” Yocco said while recently producing a batch in a facility adjoining the winery building. Jeff Leftwich has been assisting part-time there as a brewer, in addition to his regular job at Pike Electric.

The beer-making process starts with grain that has been milled and then mixed with hot water in a large vessel to form a cereal-like mash. During a mashing phase, enzymes in the malt convert carbohydrates into sugars that can be fermented.

“You’re essentially making a tea out of these grains,” Yocco explained of what happens during the procedure, saying beer-making is much like cooking food and involves an understanding of various chemical processes.

The liquid that results from the earlier phases is boiled with ingredients such as hops that give the beer its slightly bitter flavor. When yeast is added, the fermenting process begins.

“Then we’re good to go,” Yocco said.

After being put into a conditioning tank and aged for four to six weeks, the beer is cooled and kegged, with carbon dioxide added for carbonation. “There is a lot of work to it,” Yocco said.

The local brewer takes pride in producing something with his own hands that people will enjoy — “having them try something you’ve made and seeing the satisfaction on their face.” But brewing also is a somewhat-humbling vocation due to its heavy emphasis on sanitation, he says.

“I call myself a glorified janitor.”

But at the end of the day, it’s all about that smile on a beer lover’s face which is important.

“I think it’s worked really well for us,” Gulaian said of Skull Camp Brewing. “I think we make good beer.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.