Unknown Brewing in Charlotte, North Carolina
It’s easy to be unknown in Charlotte’s exploding craft beer scene.
From the time Brad Shell, Boss Man at Unknown Brewing, decided to open shop in Charlotte and the taps started pumping beer, the brewery count jumped from one lone brewery to five. Today, a little more than a year after opening, the city boasts ten plus breweries with weekly announcements of additional breweries in the works.
Up until I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with Larry Suggs, Head Pusherman at Unknown (Yes, these are their titles. They even have a Marketing Assassin. How cool is that?), the brewery was relatively unknown to me (Pun intended. Expect more.). Sure, I ordered an ale or two from Unknown while out at some of my favorite craft beer bars but nothing stuck to memory. I don’t blame the beer as most occasions were in the company of friends and lively conversations took precedence. However, I always ordered another which is the mark of a good beer – that last sip which begs another pint in a sea of choices. Thus, I was curious. Who was Unknown Brewing?
Unknown Brewing entered the Charlotte craft beer scene with a bang, boldly declaring that Charlotte lacked a regional craft brewery.
Unknown aimed to be that craft brewery. Unknown’s web site continued the taunts stating, “At The Unknown Brewing Company we are more than just a name. A name does not mean you make good beer, and good beer does not have to have a name. Our job is to stand out. We are the open road with no destination. We are your first kiss or your last time jumping out of an airplane, or whatever your wildest adventure is. We are The Unknown.” And stand out they do with a fluorescent green question mark for a logo adorned on tap handles, t-shirts, and even the tasting room floor.
That’s a lot of energy put into marketing. I was skeptical by such a bold stance from a young brewery. Claiming to equate the heartbeat of my first kiss (Carrie Brkich, 6th grade, and she was hot.) is rather ballsy. I asked Larry about these strong statements. Did Unknown fear looking too corporate, too crafted, in an industry that heralds independence and artistry? “We don’t fear anything at Unknown. We’re not scared to be well put together.” As Charlie Sheen would say, it’s called “winning” and that’s what Unknown planned to do.
While such a strong stance may run a tad counter culture to the craft beer industry, I cannot chide Unknown for boldly stating what they set out to do. We as craft beer drinkers mock Goose Island for selling out and Sam Adams for growing too large, but we celebrated Sierra Nevada opening their East Coast brewery by attending beer festivals all over the country and following the progress of the Brew Bus. As craft beer continues to gain steam, the definition of what is a craft brewery will have to be addressed as beloveds like New Belguim, Sierra Nevada, and Stone grow to Sam Adams size and notoriety. No doubt, Unknown will be in that mix. But that’s a different topic for a different post.
I believe Unknown’s heartbeat for success fits the culture of Charlotte as a city that pushes limits by striving for greatness and heralding its creative spark. But still, I wondered if Unknown could live up to these words in terms of beer. It’s true that Stone Brewery claims that they are the most “arrogant brewery” in the country, but they back their claim up with stellar beers. Could Unknown back up their words of “Living without boundaries. Trying new things. Stepping into the Unknown”?
All you have to do is watch Brad in action to see that Unknown Brewing is more than just marketing.
In the tasting room and around town, Brad is jovial and boisterous. But behind the glass in the brewery, he is a serious artist at work. I had the opportunity to visit on a brew day which is why I landed little time with Brad other than a handshake, but I’m okay with that. To see the artist at work is far more valuable. He was Picasso monitoring temperatures and levels and timing his next stroke of hop addition.
At the time he was brewing Vehopciraptor – a Double IPA with a 9.9 ABV, 99 IBUs, and 9 hops. This beer is truly art that pushes the limits of craft beer completely maxing out what a DIPA could do. Like a true artist, Brad doesn’t dump the hops in all at once and walk away. Instead, hops are added at uniquely timed intervals to make the nuances of each hop pop and shine. Unlike most DIPAs that are in your face. Vehopciraptor is designed to deliver both high gravity and drinkability. It sounds unknownly dangerous, and I look forward to trying it.
I find the combination of Brad and Larry interesting. Before joining Unknown, Larry was Beverage Manager at Duckworth’s Grill and Taphouse. For those of you unfamiliar with Charlotte, Duckworth’s is one of the area’s premier craft beer bars. Larry knows his stuff when it comes to craft beer. Brad boasts over ten years of brewing experience with flagship breweries such as Terrapin, Sweetwater, and Rogue. Together, they both know what consumers want and how to make it. However, I still had to ask if there was ever any head-butting over what is sellable versus the creative art of the brewer. His answer was not political but honest. At first, yes, but now they talk about what people want before designing a beer. At least for the most part. Any craft brewery worth it’s slogan of “living without boundaries” must push limits. And Unknown is doing just that with its upcoming release of 99 Scorpions – a Mexican imperial lager brewed with agave nectar, serrano peppers 99 real scorpions and aged on oak staves from tequila barrels.
Enough already! Tell me about the damn beers!
Unknown brews American ales. As defined by Larry, “We’ll take any style that’s already been made and make it our own. And that’s what American brewers are known for – pushing those limits… It’s freedom in brewing.” Beyond pushing the limits of beer, Unknown also strives to push the limits for those unfamiliar with craft beer by offering two year round gateway beers. Does Unknown accomplish their claims? Well, the beer speaks for itself.
I began tasting my way through Unknown’s portfolio with Pre-Game, one of the two gateway beers and a damn good session ale. Weighing in at 4.5% ABV, the flavor was anything but watered down. I would expect most gateway beers to resemble a tired pilsner or blonde, but Pre-Game is more like a junior varsity pale ale. The hop presence lingers in the background while the ale remains light and refreshing. A beer perfect for the long haul!
Next was the second of the two year round gateway beers, No Shame Wheat. Most craft breweries seem to think wheat beers can only be consumed in the summer. I never understood this thought process. If Blue Moon could be a hit year round, can’t an American craft wheat also share popularity? Wouldn’t breweries want to win those consumers? Unknown agrees with me, and this is exactly why No Shame is brewed year round. The 5.1% ABV unfiltered wheat is the perfect hybrid of both the German and American styles. The nose is big with strong esters of bananas and cloves while the mouth is fruit forward full of citrus with a dry wheat finish. Move over Blue Moon lovers (that means you Keith). This beer is for you.
Third was the Head First Pale Ale diving in at 5.6% ABV. The nose was surprisingly malty and toasty – a departure from the first two beers. But the flavor was all pale devilering strong piney hops on the palate with a hint of grapefruit and a dry finish that had me begging for another sip. I had a hard time putting down the glass to take notes. Head First is the varsity version of Game Day and the next step for those new to craft beer.
The seriousness of the beers took a giant leap with Over the Edge American IPA. This big boy, with a 6.9% ABV, is brewed with 6 unique hops and 4 different grains. In the crowded market of IPAs where newcomers tend to be different, trend big malt additions to stick out, Unknown went all cascade hops on both the aroma and the tongue with only a slight malt backbone. Over the Edge is all hops with a strong citrus from start to finish – exactly what I prefer. Most impressive is the freshness of this beer.
The last two beers were seasonal offerings – Hospitalitea and Ginger Wheat. Hospitalitea, an amber ale brewed with black tea leaves and orange blossom honey, has been a local crowd pleaser this summer. This truly unique offering is an example of where Unknown is beginning to push the limits. The brew reminded me more of tea, than a beer. But not an overly sugared sweet tea. More like a medicinal tea with a touch of honey to take off the edge. Ginger Wheat was strong on the ginger with lots of citrus from the wheat. It’s the Moscow Mule of beer.
Something was still missing in Unknown’s offerings.
Where was the color? Where were the browns, stouts, and porters? How can a brewery push the limits without any malt bombs? Doesn’t that make them just a West Coast brewery living on the East Coast? Well, unfortunately for me, they just ran out of Silverback Stout – a 6.5% ABV stout with 7 different malts. Larry said to think big chocolate and coffee flavor coming only from the malts and no “extras” to enhance flavors. Another reason to return…
Unknown Brewing is located in between South End and Uptown in a neighborhood now being called Charlotte’s Gold District.
With plenty of room for expansion (the building used to be a soccer field house), expect a bright future from this brewery. If you live in Charlotte but haven’t been to Unknown yet, you must go. Add it to your game day tailgate plans as the brewery is a stone’s throw from Panthers Stadium. If you’re passing through Charlotte, be sure to add Unknown to your itinerary. You won’t be disappointed when you step into the unknown (Yeah, I had to go there).
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Disclosure – Muchas gracias to Unknown Brewing for inviting me to learn more about their brewery and product. Sometimes breweries and wineries invite me in, often including a complimentary tasting. Sometimes, I stop by anonymously as I follow my passion. Regardless, readers receive my honest opinions as unlike Yelp, my opinions are not for sale.