This story was picked up by the state wire, appearing in North Carolina newspapers from the coast to the mountains. Which stoked my pride, of course, though it also stoked great interest in Duck-Rabbit beers outside of eastern North Carolina, which stoked my beer-lovin’ happiness. Because I do dig me some Duck-Rabbit beers.
Also, and not to say I told you so: Within a short time after this article came out, Duck-Rabbit began winning national award after national award for the quality of its brews.
Oh, and one more thing: Told you so.
Originally published March 29, 2005 in The Daily Reflector | (c) 2005 Cox Newspapers, Inc.
Born and brewed in a small town
Farmville’s best-kept secret is resetting the bar on beer, one bottle at a time
FARMVILLE — Try this: Ask the next few people you bump into about the brewery here.
Just prepare yourself for a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me look, and what will quickly become the routine response: Yeah, right. A brewery? In Farmville?
Yeah. Right. A brewery. In Farmville.
But what may be more surprising still is the beer itself. All of it is dark, some black as oil. The least distinctive is very good.
As for the best — the best is great.
The new brew in town
A well-crafted beer is a complex thing — different flavors crowd the palate at different times; distinctive bodies give distinctive feels within the mouth.
Each of the Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery’s four staples — an amber, an American brown, a porter and a milk stout — reminds you, even before you sit down at night to crack one open, that you will still respect it in the morning.
Sure, those Miller Lite Girls are kinda hot, and that donkey that wants to be a Budweiser Clydesdale is pretty funny, but every Duck-Rabbit bottle contains a nod to Ludwig Wittgenstein, the dead Austrian philosopher. The Farmville brewery’s logo is based on an illustration originally found in one of Wittgenstein’s classic texts.
Notice the duck in the label, facing to the left. Now look again: It’s a rabbit, facing right. What you see depends upon your perspective.
So, some perspective:
Stop in at the Farmville Public Library seeking a copy of the Wittgenstein, and you’ll have the same success as you would asking for a sixer of Duck-Rabbit beer at the nearby Piggly Wiggly. While the Pig can set you up with a loaf of barbecue-infused white bread, inquire after a “milk stout,” and you’ll likely get confused directions to the dairy section.
Over in Greenville, things are a little better. Six places now either carry select Duck- Rabbit brews, or are adding them: Christy’s Euro Pub, Boli’s Pizzeria, Plum Tree Bistro, Mesh Café, a Tavola! Market Café and Lopaus Point Market; the latter two also are slated to sell some Duck-Rabbit styles by the six-pack.
A locally made beer — almost certainly to become a nationally award-winning brand in the coming months — and you’re hard-pressed to find but smatterings of it around here to drink.
Duck-Rabbit beers are, however, distributed widely across the state, and demand has recently begun to exceed the small-batch brewery’s ability to get its product to vendors. So last month, Duck-Rabbit signed on with the Charlotte-based Tryon Distributing Company.
Things are really taking off for the little local brewery no one around here seems to have heard of.
“Holy Moses!” owner and brewmaster Paul Philippon, 38, said back in mid-February. “Two weeks ago was our biggest week ever, and last week we kicked its butt.”
Brewed with politeness
The Farmville brewery is about as easy to find as is one of its beers east of
Raleigh. Duck-Rabbit sits across from a tobacco warehouse at the end of West Pine Street, about a mile from downtown. Nothing about its nondescript exterior suggests what’s brewing within.
The small sign near the office door, which the state required Philippon to put up, is barely visible from the road.
But step inside. Immediately, a Duck-Rabbit poster on the wall proclaims: “Made by polite brewers in NORTH CAROLINA.”
Nice local guys, good beer.
Philippon is, in fact, unfailingly polite. You see it especially when he discusses the mass-market brews from The Big Three (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors).
“They do what they do beautifully,” he says, when pressed. “It’s just not what I’m after. I also think McDonald’s does what they do beautifully, but that doesn’t mean it’s the type of hamburger I want when I want a hamburger.”
De-brewing the beer myths
• Myth No. 1: Serious beer-making is some gentlemanly pursuit involving wood barrels and finely dressed dandies hoisting frosty steins at day’s end, dabbing their fancy handlebar mustaches with linen napkins, and saying things like, “Hear! Hear!”
The reality of the brewing business, Philippon explains, is “concrete and stainless steel and guys in dirty jeans.”
During your average midmorning, Philippon’s face is soon streaming with sweat as he stirs malt into a massive, steaming cooker atop an elevated metal platform.“
You can imagine that this is not quite as much fun in August,” he quips.
He typically puts in 60-70 hours a week. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Philippon says.“
I like the idea that the owner of the company is actually directly involved in making the beer,” he explains. “People see that (he) isn’t just a pencil-pusher, a financial guy or something like that.“I got in this ’cause I brew beer.”
• Myth No. 2: The flip side of Myth No. 1. Upon finding out what Philippon does for a living, people often picture him working out of some cluttered little corner of his home, like the beer-bozo buddies on “The Drew Carey Show.”
“We’re not just a little thing in the garage,” says Philippon. “This is a significant industrial operation.
“Though nothing like the big guys … “ he adds.
Duck-Rabbit is really just two people, Philippon, 38, and brewer Brandon Cubbage, 29. Typically, these guys are running back and forth across the building, between steel vats and the capping line, bags of grain and stacks of packing boxes, doing a bit of everything.
• Myth No. 3: Brewers drink all day.
“Almost everybody has that perception,” Philippon confirms.
And while he does love him some beer — and is an avid customer of his own brands — Philippon doesn’t bend his wrist during his lengthy days in the brewery.
“It’s work,” he says. “It’s labor. There’s a lot of physical parts to it.
“It’s important to me that people understand that while this is fun, I’m serious about it.”
• Myth No. 4: Below the Mason-Dixon, we don’t drink no dark mess.
Duck-Rabbit’s biggest sellers are, in fact, its two darkest brews, the porter and the milk stout.
As editor of the Durham-based All About Beer magazine and beer critic for the Raleigh News & Observer, Julie Bradford couldn’t be more pleased.
“People will say that Southerners drink wussy beer,” says Bradford, a vocal fan of Duck- Rabbit’s porter. “Paul Philippon has challenged the cliché that we in the South won’t drink dark beer.”
“That’s partly why I did it,” Philippon admits. “Not just to be contrary, but I think it’s an underserved part of the market.
“It’s a niche within a niche.”
And no one else in North Carolina was even trying to serve it.
Brewed with thought
Before becoming a bona fide beer maestro, Philippon gave serious thought to becoming a professional philosopher. Which means, of course, that he planned to teach.
So when he started his own company, he says, he wanted it to “have some reflection of his former life.”
Thus, the Duck-Rabbit name.
A Michigan native, this is Philippon’s fourth job as head brewer since launching his formal career in 1998. His last stop was a brewing company in Louisville, Ky.
While there, he got an offer from a man named Bob Cabaniss about opening a brewery in Farmville. Philippon took the job in 2000 with what was then the Williamsville Brewery, most known for its Dergy’s line (the one Williamsville brand Duck-Rabbit still sells, though only in Florida).
Philippon’s assistant brewer, Brandon Cubbage, 29, came with him. They’re it for the brewing operation’s crew.
The master brewer was working at BrewMasters, a brewpub in Cincinnati when he first hired Cubbage, who then had no brewing background. Now, the younger brewer is irreplaceable, Philippon says.
“I couldn’t do what I do here without him. He cares about quality. He’s absolutely my right hand.”
Currently, the brewery also employs three sales reps out pounding the pavement, trying to sell the brand.
By the end of 2003, Williamsville’s Cabaniss wanted out of the brewing business. Philippon elected to buy the equipment and the building, but not the Williamsville company — he didn’t want the brewery’s recipes.
“We started from scratch,” he says. “I wanted this to be its own thing. I don’t want to be beholden to anything that had come before me.”
Loan assistance from East Carolina Bank gave the venture legs, and Duck-Rabbit’s first beer rolled out last August.
“We are very, very new,” Philippon says.
Zen and the art of adding the grain
Philippon’s passion for brewing hasn’t changed much since back when he cooked up his very first batch of brown ale in a college apartment in 1987. Only the primary motivation has shifted.
“Boiling stuff up in the kitchen, the emphasis is on experimentation,” he says. “Here, the emphasis is on the consistency.”
Brewing, he explains, is “the confluence of art and science.” Experimenting to find new, or improved, recipes is the art part; achieving the same beer daily is the science.
Here is a man who gets emotional on the subject of consistency.
“I love the consistency part every bit as much, maybe even more, than the experimentation side,” Philippon says. “It’s a great challenge; I find it intellectually stimulating.”
Which is to say that this guy adores his job — which might have as much to do with the quality of his beer as does anything.
He jokes that his favorite part of brewing is “loading up the truck and sending it out the door.” In truth, Philippon gets a charge out of the brewing process itself.
“I like just gettin’ in with the grain,” he says.
He even loves the mundane stuff, like equipment maintenance.
Before Philippon got into commercial brewing, he was never all that handy, he says. Now, if something breaks, he fixes it.
“When you’re bottling, there’s always some bit of machinery that acts up, and it’s always different than it was last time,” Philippon says. “I take great satisfaction in being able to fix it; I really love it.”
But his overriding satisfaction, Philippon admits, comes from knowing people are appreciating beer that he’s made.
“This is something I did,” he says, “and they’re liking it.”
Brewing to live
As recently as 15 years ago, you were lucky to consistently find Heineken in local stores. Now you can not only kill a fair amount of time pouring over the beer selection at Lowes Foods, but Greenville has its own brewpub with an exceptional brewmaster, T.L. Adkisson.
Philippon believes that this surge in interest in craft-brewed beers in the last decade or so is part of an increasing appreciation for quality across the board.
Yet he harbors no delusions of competing with The Big Three.
“I don’t have a plan for converting people who are committed to the mass-market products,” he says.
He’s targeting, as he puts it, consumers “who already have it in mind that they’re gonna think for themselves in matters of taste. And that’s a growing group.”
Not huge, but growing.
And while Philippon jokes that he’s particularly fond of his milk stout, since it’s the top seller, he says he doesn’t care which Duck-Rabbit styles that people choose, so long as they give his beers a chance.
“It’s not important to me that anyone like every one of the beers,” he says. “I only hope that you like at least one.”
For a guy versed in philosophy, this hardly seems a very effective outlook toward buying himself a Lamborghini anytime soon.
Philippon guffaws at the thought. His only aim, he says between laughs, is to make a living, and for the people working for him to make a decent one as well.
“And by decent, I don’t mean get rich,” he adds.
“No one who understands what’s going on in the brewing industry gets in it to get rich,” Philippon says. “You’re in it because of the passion.”
(SIDEBAR) All their Duck-Rabbits in a row
AMBER: Strong representation of the style. Straddles the line between light and dark – hop after-bite of the former, caramelly malt sweetness of the latter. Medium in body, bronze in color.
BROWN ALE: Full, malty roundness, but with early hop bite that jumps into bitter overdrive at the back of the tongue. Mouth feel is excellent. Head pours, and stays, creamy.
PORTER: Dark, but not too heavy. Strong roast flavors of both coffee and dark chocolate. Pleasant hop finish tangled up in caramel accents. Complex, robust, highly smooth. A superb beer.
MILK STOUT: Full-bodied, deep black, with an exceptional, creamy mouth-feel. Distinct, lingering sweetness balanced by sharp over-roast grain flavors. One of this state’s finest beers.