Talk to Joe Vogelbacher for just a few minutes and one fact becomes undoubtedly clear: The Sugar Creek Brewing Company head brewer is quite passionate about craft beer.
During a wide-ranging interview he talked about his personal craft beer epiphany, returning to his Charlotte roots, studying for the Master Cicerone exam, and what Sugar Creek has in the works.
However, it’s hard to imagine anything in the craft-beer world meaning more to Vogelbacher than the “a-ha” moment of introducing new drinkers to craft’s potential. That journey is one he knows well.
“I didn’t realize beer could taste like this,” he said of the first time he had Sierra Nevada’s flagship pale ale.
He was attracted to craft beer because of “the breadth of flavors and the story behind it,” but it was formative experiences at Eulogy, a Philadelphia watering hole renowned for their selection of Belgian ales, that solidified his passion.
“You didn’t realize the broad spectrum of flavors till you started seeing what the Belgians offered,” he said.
It makes sense that, several years later, he’d be opening Charlotte’s first Belgian-inspired brewery.
He credits the patience and guidance of those Eulogy bartenders with aiding him on his journey, and carries those lessons when interacting with his own brewery’s patrons.
“It’s about embracing their experience,” he said, “educating the people in craft beer to be as passionate about craft beer as we are.”
Coming back home
Vogelbacher grew up in Charlotte.
“All the houses I lived at in Charlotte were on Sugar Creek,” he said.
After spending several years away, personal events led him home.
In 2011, his sister Michelle was diagnosed with Cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer. Vogelbacher packed up his family and moved from New Jersey to be closer to her during her treatments, which involved 65 percent of her liver being removed.
Just last year, the family received bad news: Michelle’s cancer had returned after four years of her being cancer-free. Further complicating matters, Vogelbacher, a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, was being deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan.
The other folks at Sugar Creek stepped up. They hosted a fundraiser, Michelle’s Mighty Mission, to assist the family in their difficult time. (A second event will be held on Sunday, Oct. 8.)
Since opening Sugar Creek Brewing nearly three years ago, Vogelbacher has successfully turned a passion for homebrewing into a professional career in brewery-running, but he’s far from content. He’s studying for his Master Cicerone designation (the craft beer equivalent of Sommelier), a title currently held by only 13 people worldwide.
He’s been preparing for it since the brewery opened. He passed the Level 2 (Certified Cicerone) in February 2015, then achieved Level 3 (Advanced Cicerone) in August 2016. In October, Vogelbacher will travel to Chicago and undergo the arduous two-day testing process involving written, oral and tasting components. A panel of 12 industry experts judge each applicant.
So what does the future hold for Sugar Creek? They recently installed two massive grain silos at the brewery, each holding 60,000 pounds of their base malts, but there’s one word that sends anticipatory shivers down Vogelbacher’s spine: Gueuze (say: gooz).
This is a time-consuming style, created by blending three threads of lambic into one musty, biting, and highly-sought-after sour ale.
“I’m really excited for that one,” said Vogelbacher. “It’s one of my favorite styles, really complex and interesting.”
The process is already underway, so keep your eyes peeled for a spring 2019 release.
Any advice for homebrewers looking to follow in Vogelbacher’s shoes, and take their hobby pro? “Hire a good brewery consultant to help you make the transition to the professional trade,” he said.
Photos: Courtesy of Sugar Creek Brewing; Jonathan Wells