Charlotte needs a soul. Or, maybe more to the point, it needs to bare its soul more. It needs to loosen its tie and let its hair down. It needs to get weird.
The Unknown Brewing owner Brad Shell is leading the charge — the “call to arms,” as he calls it — to give Charlotte an identity outside of banking and NASCAR and apartments.
Shell, an Atlanta native, started working at Sweetwater Brewing at 21 years old, worked his way through Rogue and Terrapin breweries before opening The Unknown in 2013.
When we came up with the idea for an April Fools Day story about a brewery mixing its beer with Bud Light, I immediately thought of Shell.
“The Unknown” name isn’t supposed to be mysterious or a placeholder because they never came up with a better name. It’s about venturing into the unknown and doing something that scares you.
Shell, 33, uses a quote from Hunter S. Thompson, the brilliant and crazy gonzo journalist, to describe the culture of The Unknown: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!'”
I sat down with Shell in the taproom earlier this week to talk about his beer, the culture and how we can give Charlotte some soul.
So why does Charlotte need to be more weird?
“I’ve lived in Charlotte now for three-and-a-half to four years. I’ve lived everywhere from San Diego to Seattle to Boston to Atlanta, and I’ve traveled to almost every major U.S. city that there is and every city has a feel. You know, you go to Memphis and it’s the blues, you go to Seattle and it’s the art and the rain, you go to Boston and it’s that New England pride, you know you go down to Austin and it’s the music and the tattoos. And you go to Charlotte and it’s great, but what’s the feel?
“You say, well it’s a NASCAR city. Yes, there is NASCAR. Or it’s a banking town. Banking is not a feel, it’s an industry. So what’s Charlotte’s feel? And I think for as much as Charlotte’s grown I think the culture has to keep up with it. I said, well shit, we should lead that charge. We’re a brewery and I’m crazy so I want to get Charlotte weird.”
What does it mean to get weird? What’s the culture of The Unknown?
“You gotta break that mold and get out of that comfort zone. … This week I’ve already ate silk worms, we went out with a guy who had ‘Fuck real life’ tattooed across the inside of his lip this week, I have partied with 300-pound strippers this week, that’s just this week, the last three or four days. And I’ve also did my job. I’ve got a newborn baby. I cooked spaghetti last night homemade for everybody, and watched new episodes of ‘Peaky Blinders.’ So all that happens, but at the same time I still have time to live. … Tired as hell, but loving it.”
How do you come up with new ideas for the brewery?
“My crazy queue is really backlogged. Every time I come up with (and) do one dumb thing, I have 40 dumb things in waiting. … Nobody tells me ‘no’ anymore and they probably should sometimes. But I’m just like, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea, we should do something really dumb,’ and they go, ‘That’s a great idea, Brad, but we should probably add gasoline.’ I’m like, ‘You’re right, we should add gasoline.’ So there’s no system of checks and balances.”
Whose job is it to give Charlotte some soul, some weird?
“I think it’s on everybody. I think breweries can create feel and places and things for that to happen. I think music venues can do that. But more importantly I think it’s on the citizens of Charlotte. You’ve got to stop taking Snapchats on your phone and saying ‘This just happened!’ when you weren’t the one doing it, you were just the one watching it. … We can’t be spectators, we have to be participatory. … I think we get so used to watching people do stupid stuff that we forget we’re people, too, we should probably do something.
“If there’s a water balloon fight, grab a water balloon and jump in. Don’t take a picture of it or a selfie. … Go to a restaurant where you can’t pronounce anything and eat something weird. Breweries are 1/50th of what a culture can create, but those are just venues of a culture. But if the audience isn’t right for the venue then culture doesn’t create. So it’s gotta be a change of mindset that like, alright it’s Friday, take the tie off, and I’m going to fuck my 9-to-5 job today and do something fun. …
“There’s got to be a call to arms that says, you know, we as a people in this city have to give our city soul.”
The Unknown will be celebrating its 2.5(ish) anniversary with a party Saturday, June 18, that’ll include an anniversary beer, live music, and much more. It’ll probably get weird — in a good way.
Photos: Kelsey Kline; Josh Strickland; Theoden Janes; Andrea Glagow