Chad Henderson from NoDa Brewing Company

NoDa Brewing CompanyLast week, I was on Google+ and someone shared a TEDx video. I was bored, so I decided to watch it. The video featured Chad Henderson explaining his passion for craft beer, and his history with NoDa Brewing Company. I was blown away by the presentation, and immediately sent it over to Sheryl. She watched it, and was as impressed as me. I then went to their website, and learned even more about Chad. Chad is the head brewer at NoDa, and likes Dogfish Head beer. That comes up several times in the TEDx talk, and also comes up in the interview. I was so impressed by his story, I emailed him asking for an interview. He quickly replied, and I spent some more time researching him, the brewing company, their beers, and more. They have a cool story, and while I can’t get the beers here in Arizona, I hope to trade for some or make a pilgrimage to the brewery in the near future. That would sure be a fun weekend! Is it my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Chad Henderson, head brewer at the NoDa Brewing Company.

Do you remember the first beer you ever tried?

Unfortunately I don’t remember the very first beer I ever had.  I’m sure it was probably a macro produced beer that I hated and tried just a sip of from an adult in my teens and never went back for years.  My first craft beer that really stood out to me was Flying Dog Tire Bite which I had from a friend in college.  Too bad the rest of the selection at that party  and many more were of much lower quality.

What did you name your first home brew?

I helped homebrew for several batches but my first one that I did from beginning to end on my own equipment was called “O’Brian’s Imperial Irish Red”.  It was my own recipe of a double Irish red ale (about 8% alcohol by volume) with oats and a little bit of clove to just be a little weird.  When I finally buckled down and decided to brew my own stuff I had an idea of making all of my beers my own interpretation of imperial brews so all the first batches were named after some sort of conquering or imperial historic figure.  I drank O’Brians while I was brewing my fourth batch (even when I started I still brewed weekly), which I believe I named Nero Imperial IPA.  The brews were good so I didn’t stop.

How did you meet Todd and Suzie Ford from NoDa Brewing Company?

When I moved to Charlotte many years ago I did a lot of volunteer work with groups promoting craft beer through events, tastings, dinners, and festivals and brewed any chance I got that week.  When one of those activities wasn’t going on I spent as much time as I could getting out to the craft beer supporting bars and venues around town to get to know the managers, patrons etc… I actually had a schedule of must go to spots during my weekly rotations.  One of those spots I’d try to stop by at least every other week happened to be a pizza and craft beer bar that is right by where Todd and Suzie live.  I was alone that night at the bar and I overheard Todd and Suzie talking just one seat down from me and I heard Todd mention something about hops he was growing so I rudely butted in assuming he was a homebrewer.  I was right and we hit it off and the rest is history.

Tell me a little bit more about the NoDable series.

The NoDable series is something that really help enforce our identity in the Charlotte market as a highly expressive and adventurous brewery.  Before I knew Todd and Suzie I had dreamed that if I was in a brewery I’d try to do a regularly rotating smaller quantity special beers that people could somehow vote or elect as returning beers to some extent.  After we started the concept of NoDa Brewing, Todd brought up that he was inspired by a brewery in Oregon that did a new small batch beer every week.  The idea was challenging but its a challenge I wanted.

Our NoDable series is about 12-15 gallon batches off our pilot brewing system and appears on tap every Tuesday at the opening of the tap room. These beers serve three main purposes.  One, they are a way to keep our creative gears lubricated.  Any weird idea or inspiration has a chance to be a reality on the pilot system.  Secondly, the series offers us a testing ground for batches that we are confident in putting into the main line up or seasonal rotation and we can judge their potential success by the reception they receive from our patrons in the tap room.  Lastly, the series acts as an experimental ground for us to try out a concept or technic that maybe new or different than what we normally do in production.  This can be anything such as different mashing techniques, odd hop additions or even sourcing unusual fermentables for styles that normally wouldn’t use them.

Many times the NoDable beers have such success that they become seasonal rotators that get produced on the 15bbl system.  These beers include our White IPA, Ghost Hop, our Black IPA (CDA), a mojito inspired belgian wit, NoDaJito and so on.  We also have started a program where at the end of each year we ask our patrons to vote on their favorite NoDable beer that didn’t get bumped up to the main system and the winner gets a once a year limited production system brew and is distributed out as a limited series beer.

The NoDable beers are also accompanied by another unique aspect of our brewery, we post a video each Monday to preview the following days release.  The videos give people a glimpse at the staff who made the beer and also are usually scripted to some extent to give further story and character to the beers… and us as well.

Out of all the beers you brew, do you have a favorite?

So far I have a few favorites and they usually rotate through whatever next crazy creation is being down on a limited release.  Right now I’d say it’s a tie between our Hop Cakes which was a 10.2% ABV, 117 IBU imperial IPA made only with base malt and maple syrup as fermentables and 10 hop additions of 7 beautiful hops, and our bourbon barrel aged Menage a Quad, which is a 11.2% Belgian quad that we aged only one bourbon barrel for 3.5 months.  The rest of that batch is aging for about 4 months in red wine barrels and will be released as a limited series, mostly in bottles, in the near future.

Who designs all of the beer labels?

I and our owners, Todd and Suzie, give ideas and input on concepts for each design to our label designer who generates the the drafts of each and we critique them.  I’ve made a fair portion of the names, especially those on the pilot system, but Todd, Suzie, and I will frequently meet over the name if it wasn’t already established off a smaller batch and get feedback from our staff members.  There’s been some too that are named by an assistant brewer or another staff member while we are kegging or cleaning and it just blurts out and we go, “THAT’S IT RIGHT THERE!” and we have a name.  When you have as many brews that head out the door like we do it gets tough sometimes finding just the right name and identity for the batch.

We can’t get NoDa beers here. Do you distribute anywhere outside of North Carolina?

We currently self distribute (it’s allowed in North Carolina) to our surrounding county area and a few areas in different parts of the state and are planning to move into South Carolina in the near future and we’ll see where else as time goes on.  It’s difficult to say now at 17 months old how far and how soon the beer will travel for sure.

Where do you find inspiration for a new recipe?

I actually get that question a lot and usually feel bad when I answer it because it kinda sounds like a sarcastic answer, but it’s true.  I get inspiration like any song writer or chef or artist would, from anything.  Anything I hear or read or experience can and frequently will inspire me to jot something down to express what that moment or concept would be in beer form.  I usually bring writing pads or my laptop on trips and do recipe design anytime I’m not driving.  Sometimes the idea is just an idea and sometimes it’s a really exciting idea, good thing we have the pilot to brew on weekly!

I was really impressed by it. Tell me more about your TEDx talk.

I actually didn’t know much about TED when it was presented to me by my friend who helps out with the local TEDx Charlotte.  I looked into it and found Sam Calagione’s (Dogfish Head) talk first thing and thought, “I don’t know what I’m going to talk about, but if it brings any attention to our local craft beer scene, craft beer on a whole, or just simply make people feel inspired I’ll do it.”  I met with the organizer of the event and just talked for about 45 minutes about anything she wanted to know about craft beer.  I’m happy she enjoyed the talk because I had just finished brewing our high ABV Double Rye IPA and was tired and pretty filthy.  She liked our talk and thought I was enthusiastic enough and had enough material to work with to be part of the talk.  Later it was released that our theme for the talk would be “Unlimited” so I worked on the general concept to tell my story of believing in a dream of getting into craft beer anyway I could and how our success has been based on the concept of “craft” as an expression of self and this really makes our creativity unlimited.

I was extremely nervous for the talk, I do interviews on TV and radio frequently and give tours all the time but those sorts of situations have a pretty continuous feedback from an interviewer or an audience, so coming up on stage and talking for over 15 minutes straight in front of about 500 people with cameras on you the whole time was a nerve racking thought.  I felt fine on stage once I got up there though and I’m very lucky to have been a part of it, all the speakers were great and it was a great chance for to give a little personal insight to the industry I love and that simple concept of just working hard to achieve your dreams.

Zen & The Art of Craft Beer: Chad Henderson at TEDxCharlotte

What is your favorite style?

I actually appreciate every style but I think my overall favorite style of all time is English barleywines.  Following closely behind are sours, imperial IPAs and imperial stouts.  I love high flavor complexity beers but I still love a nice balanced pilsner or mild ale as well.  We’ve actually been very proud of our more sessionabe beers we’ve been putting out and they make a great choice for a longer evening when a whopping 11% beer will just be a little too much to start out on!

During your TEDx talk, you talk about Dogfish Head. Tell me a little bit more about your history with that brewing company?

I really have very little professional relation at all with the Dogfish Head company.  As a consumer before being officially in the industry I had a great relationship with them, I bought the crap out of their beer!

It was Dogfish Head’s unique approach to beers and the production of beers that really didn’t fall into clear cut styles that really broke down my last reservation about getting into brewing.  That’s my main connection, I probably wouldn’t have brewed with the philosophy I brew in without that inspiration, I could argue I may not be brewing at all for that matter.  I also highly respected the public persona and attitude that their owner Sam gave and how the product was represented by himself and as a whole.  The staff at Dogfish Head and Sam himself are just as great of people in person as well and my story I shared in my TEDx talk about receiving the bottle of Olde School from Sam I felt was a good representation of both the community that our industry has and also as the definitive celebration when my dream of being a brewer was realized on our opening day.

Do you cellar beer at home?

Indeed I do.  I keep more boxes than I care to admit scattered in different closets and in the basement to stay a little cooler.  I’m a huge beer geek and love collecting the rare bottles to open in the just right occasion.  I don’t however do a lot of trading.  I know many friends who do but I’ve always loved the story and journey to find that special bottle.  The few trades I have done were actually done on trips to different release parties and festivals so they had their own story anyways.

We’ve not been… yet. What can people expect from the Great American Beer Festival?

Expect to take a lot of advil and expect to actually try stop people from pouring you more than one ounce.  In all honestly though it’s the best; I absolutely love going to the GABF and the staff that puts it on work their butts off to make it the best showcase of craft beer that they can.  I’ve been 4 years in a row and each year it gets better and better.  Expect to be overwhelmed by all the recognizable faces in the industry that you never see outside of your computer screen and also all the legendary beers pouring as if they were a year round pale ale at the booths.  The whole city, and surrounding cities like Boulder and Fort Collins are all pouring over with special events and tours of breweries and special releases.  I told someone after my very first visit that if you were a moderate craft beer fan, the GABF is your beer nirvana.

What is the highest ABV beer you have tried?

I’ve had the 41% (I think that’s right) Sink the Bismark from BrewDog.  It was pretty intense and was gifted a taste of it from a wonderful waitress at a taproom in Charlotte who had received a bottle from a friend.

There are a lot of trends in craft beer, from canning to overloading a brew with hops. What trends are you seeing in North Carolina? What are some trends you would like to see in the coming years?

It honestly looks like the biggest trend in NC is actually starting a brewery!  We have a ton of breweries in talks of opening all over the state.  As far as beers are concerned, I think we are seeing a lot more Belgian influences overall, new saison concepts, new yeasts being utilized and even sour production picking up.

I’d love to see the sour beers become a full blown trend but I’d also love to see the high flavor session beers become more of a reality.  I’ve worked hard on several brews that are 5.2% and below that offer a lot of flavor from our simcoe and citra hop based pale ale that only has about 30 IBUs to a 4% milk stout.  I think it’s a new challenge to brewers to make beer as flavorful as a high ABV beer without that massive sugar load from grain and other sugars.

Is there a lot of competition between breweries in your area?

Its a good type of competition, really.  We have more than doubled the amount of breweries and brewpubs in the Charlotte area over the last year but are all making our own concept of who we are and what we produce and have a good collaborative and neighborhood spirit.  I’d much rather have my neighbors in my own town keep the fire lit underneath me to make great beer than other breweries from across the country or ocean to compete for our local taps.  It’s nice to see our area really embracing craft and also LOCAL craft.  Many of our awesome bars have started to section off large portions of their tap lines to hold only Charlotte produced beers and that’s a huge step in my opinion.

Have you ever made a bad batch of beer?

I guess that’s ultimately a matter of opinion of the consume,r but as far as what I consider beer fails, yes.  We had early issues on a batch due to it not attenuating the way we wanted.  We were still dialing in our equipment and realized that the mash was too hot.  The beer didn’t taste bad at all but it wasn’t consistent to what we wanted put out on the market so it was dumped, which when you start out, it’s something you’ll have to do and if it’s not up to par you should do it.  In my home brewing days I am reminded of a batch that didn’t have the right IBU calculations on it and ended up so unbelievably resiny that I couldn’t drink it for two months.  That was a bad batch but I learned from it.

Do you drink beer every day?

Just about.  I like to say I do product research, it makes me sleep better at night. (Laughs.)  Through producing the beers we do have to make sure they taste and pour the right way so I’ll drink our beers daily at some point simply to check on them.  I also try to make it out to our accounts as often as possible and enjoy a round with dinner etc to see how the reception to the beers are and of course there are festivals and what not so I do consume beer nearly daily.  I wouldn’t necessarily say I “go drinking” every day though. I think there’s a subtle difference.

What would you be doing if you were not brewing beer?

Probably working somewhere in the medical industry.  I worked in the medical industry for literally my entire professional life and throughout college so it would be the most obvious choice.

NoDa Brewing Company hasn’t been around for long, but you have already won some medals. What do you contribute your early success to?

I think we at NoDa have such a sincere longing to make the best possible beer that we can that we go to every extent to make the product the way we want to present it.  I feel any success we have at this point is due to our understanding of what makes “craft” beer is that you as a brewer are using the beer as an extension of yourself.  This beer is us, and we wouldn’t be putting anything out that we didn’t feel embodied our spirit as individuals and as a team.  The medals we have won are great to receive and I’m glad we had brews that fit into the categories well enough but ultimately my goal is to make great beer in the intent that we have for it, it may not perfectly fit a style but it will be as close to the identity we had planned for it.

There is a really good craft beer community here in Arizona. What is the community like in North Carolina?

It’s great.  I’ve been a proud citizen of North Carolina since before I opened my eyes.  I will argue that our state is also one of if not the spearheading state in the South East for craft beer acceptance and advocacy.  We are around 70 craft breweries with more on the way along with 3 huge breweries now setting up shop in our mountain area with Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues.  We also have nice consolidated communities in regions such as Asheville, the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill triangle, Greensboro/Winston Salem triad area, the coastal area and now Charlotte with multiple breweries and general craft beer acceptance in all of those areas in their own unique ways.  There are also pockets between those areas sprouting out new great breweries.  We also have a well established number of homebrewing communities throughout the state.  We are still a good bit behind a good portion of the country, especially when you look at areas such as Oregon, California, Colorado or Michigan but we have come a long way over the last couple of years and are helping to lead the way for many other southern states.

What are some bars in North Carolina that have a good craft beer selection?

It’s really hard to answer this one because if I start listing them off I’m gonna need a ton of room and still forget a spot that will cut my head off for not mentioning them the next time I step in their place.  I think the best thing to do is what I do when I visit a new area and just do a quick search on my phone and see what comes up or read forums or go to BeerAdvocate and look at the reviews on stops in the area.

If you come down and want to see our NoDa brews outside of the taproom, you can visit the website and it lists all of our accounts and their location.

Can people tour the brewery?

Yes, they can and we encourage it!  We do tours daily.  The tours are free as well and you can bring your beverage with you.  The brewery side is not very big but the information we give is highly detailed and our average tour lasts between 20-40 minutes depending on questions and who’s giving the tour.  I and the rest of our brewing staff give the majority of tours so we usually go pretty deep on the process and also can usually answer any questions pertaining to the beer.

Speaking of trends, and you already mentioned this, but barrel aging is a big trend right now. Are you guys aging anything in bourbon barrels?

I love barrel aging!  We are one of the first breweries in our area to offer a barrel aging program.  We currently have bourbon and red wine barrels and one chardonnay barrel.  The bourbons are currently empty but will be filled back soon.  The red wines are home to our quad and the Chardonnay is filled with our Belgian pale ale and has a special purpose down the road…

Your review, if I can call it that, of the Hop, Drop ‘n Roll is… well, hilarious! You do a lot of videos. What other ways are you promoting the brewing company and the beers you are so proud of?

I had a fun time with the Imperial Hop Drop n’ Roll video and the videos are probably my favorite way to alternatively promote the brand.  One they let you see us and a side of us that we don’t usually get to let out and it therefore gets you in touch with the brewery and the beer on a deeper level.

I’m also really proud of our social media presence.  We have our president and co-owner Suzie at the helm and have a dedicated social media member on staff to promote through multiple streams of social media and also be responsive for questions and comments.

To top that off we have fully embraced the concept of brewing as a community and since NoDa Brewing is named for the NoDa neighborhood we dedicate as much time as we can to have special events at the taproom and work in charities and festivals to really help out and promote our own back yard.  Nearly every day of the week we have a special event or theme.  One Monday a month we have trivia, one Monday a month I’ll teach a beer 101 class, every Tuesday we release or NoDable series small batch, our social media staff member has spear headed what has amassed as an extremely successful NoDa Brewing Run Club that meets with anywhere between 70-125+ runners every Wednesday (which many times corresponds with charities of all sorts and types), Thursdays are usually left open for a more low key environment or are kept open so we can use it for individual special events or charity functions when they come up, Fridays we have live music, Saturday… is Saturday and it’s always just plain busy, and Sunday is our Bring Your Own Meat day where we will roll out the grill on the dock and if you chose you can grill up your own meat cook out style.  Ultimately we strive to show as many sides to the brewing community as possible and with such as great group of supporters we like to embrace them through activities as often as possible.  I’ve said it many times, many will come into craft beer for the beer but they’ll stay for the community, I did!

Thank you so much for doing this. I wish we could get a few bottles to review, because just based on what I know your beers are incredible! In all of the interview I do, I always give the artist the last word. Go.

Thank you for thinking of me for a review. Maybe we can work something out on the bottle end. My last words are simply this; educate yourself in craft beer, and never stop learning because this industry never goes stagnant, we are always challenging ourselves and each other.  Consider yourself NoDaFied!

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