When NoDa Brewing asked fans which small-batch beer it should brew on a larger level in 2013, Head Brewer Chad Henderson campaigned against one particular beer.

“I was actually begging people to not vote for Hop Cakes,” Henderson said. “I knew sourcing the maple syrup was going to be hard and really expensive, and really sticky and hard to work with.”

Henderson’s efforts were in vain. NoDa Brewing’s fans voted overwhelmingly for the popular double IPA brewed with maple syrup, and the brewery brewed a production batch the following February. They’ve brewed it every year since.

The beer is now more difficult and expensive to brew than Henderson ever imagined. For the initial 10-gallon batch, he grabbed two big bottles of maple syrup at the grocery store.

Now, a 30-gallon, 365-pound drum of syrup from Vermont goes into every batch of Hop Cakes. Since Henderson says he’s not willing to risk his fellow brewers’ lives trying to hulk one of them up the 13 steps to the brewhouse, they use a pump to fill several buckets with 60-80 pounds of syrup, and then carry those up. Last year, a couple of the pumps cracked after syrup clogged them.

This year, they have a new stainless-steel pump and have produced more of the popular seasonal than ever. Yet despite the 1,000+ gallons of syrup they have used, don’t expect to detect much of it in the finished product.

“The original intent of Hop Cakes was just to see how much the maple was going to carry over from adding it to the boil,” said Henderson, who notes most of the syrup ferments out while adding to the ABV and color. “It never really was meant to be a maple syrup beer, it was an imperial IPA that was fortified by using the maple syrup.”

Legion Brewing Maple Canyon

It’s an atypical approach to a maple beer, since the hops (seven varieties in total) steal the show. If you’re looking for something with more of a maple punch, consider Legion Brewing’s Maple Canyon brown ale. Like NoDa, Legion released a maple-syrup-infused beer shortly after opening. And like NoDa, theirs proved popular enough to warrant a comeback.

“We’ve resisted some pretty strong pressure to put it out right away because we wanted to stick to our guns with seasonal ingredients,” said Phil Buchy, co-founder of Legion Brewing in Plaza Midwood. “We came out with it when we first opened up the brewery and it was a hit.”

Noting that he could nerd out on some syrup, Buchy said Maple Canyon uses a darker syrup than you’d find in a store.

“The syrup that we want for our beer is the dark, dirty stuff,” he said, “because it’s more intense and has more flavor.”

Unlike Hop Cakes, Legion adds syrup (55 gallons per batch) after the beer’s primary fermentation is complete. This way, the syrup isn’t completely consumed by the yeast.

Free Range Brewing recently collaborated with Pure Pizza to brew a porter with pecans from Central Food Hub (the pizzeria’s in-house partner) and maple syrup from Free Range employee Rita Welder’s uncle, who makes it at home. Look for a release date soon, with Pure Pizza creating pizzas to pair with the beer using the same ingredients.

But what would maple syrup beers be without breakfast or brunch? Legion Brewing will tap Maple Canyon at the brewery this Saturday, Jan. 28. From 9-11 a.m., while ROOTS Catering will serve a breakfast buffet with coffee from Nova’s Bakery.  

On Sunday, Feb. 12, NoDa Brewing will tap Hop Cakes at the brewery and also have cans for sale at $15.99 a four-pack. The Tin Kitchen will be on-site preparing a hot cakes brunch with “a special surprise.”

Sugar Creek Brewing and Southern Tier Brewing Co. collaborated on a maple-syrup-infused IPA called Southern State of Mind last October, and several other breweries have brewed with maple syrup. Some — like Salud Cerveceria, Sycamore Brewing and The Unknown Brewing Co. — have brewed with actual waffles. Look for Unknown Brewing to release a small-batch beer brewed with waffles, maple syrup, and bourbon soon. 

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Photos: Jack Hargrove, Legion Brewing, Sycamore Brewing, Salud Cerveceria

Sip Charlotte is a weekly email newsletter for beer, wine, and cocktail enthusiasts across the region. Click here to subscribe. Have a story idea? Feedback? Connect with editor Caroline Portillo at cportillo@charlotteobserver.com. Cheers!

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