Collaborating in the House of the Unknown

Brad Blackburn, September 16, 2015

Brewing is a traditionally delicate process only undertaken by the most careful of artists and scientists. Popular wisdom dictates that the process must be observed and controlled from beginning to end to maintain a consistent product. The stereotypical brewmaster, a tyrannical genius, handpicks the ingredients and watches his boil and minds his tanks and keeps all his numbers to make sure the beer comes together according to his vision.

But sometimes, in some places, brewing is instead a process in which something like 60 different homebrewers get together one morning and cook up a variation of the same recipe on their own rigs and then dump their product into a big tank to be fermented and canned together with only a general idea of how the beer and its 250ish hop variations will taste in the end. Sometimes that happens, too.

Or at least, it does at the Unknown Brewing Company in Charlotte, NC.

This past weekend, Brad Shell, owner and head brewmaster at Unknown, invited homebrewers from all over the region to undertake this "supermegaultra collaboration". Shell says he got the idea while sitting in a meeting of the BrewMasters Association. "They were talking about how they were having a group meeting at somebody's house where they could all brew. Like four or five guys would meet up and brew together. And I was like, 'Man, I wish they could all come to my house and brew.' And by my house I mean my brewery."

And that's what they did. The Unknown opened the doors of its home Saturday morning and 60+ brewers came over to brew the day away. Shell and his team came up with the recipe for the Garage Warrior Collab IPA. Each of the Brewers unloaded their own systems into the Unknown's brew room and set to work on it in their own way. The recipe given to each participant included the encouragement to use some of their own hop variations. A few brewers chose to stick to Brad's choice of hops. Others brought their own favorites, including some grown at home or even by family members across the country.

The result? We won't know for sure until it comes out in October. Brad Shell isn't worried, though. He trusts that these brewers knew what they were doing and he welcomes the excitement of the variation. And, as he said, "Worst case scenario, you just dry hop the shit out of it."

Hanging out with Shell or the other brewers, most of whom are members of the American Homebrewers Association and/or the Carolina BrewMasters, I got a shared sense that the finished product is almost secondary in importance to the collaborative effort itself. "If you get to brew with somebody else," Shell remarked, "they're gonna teach you something that you didn't know. Not that you didn't know it, but like they've got a way."

Talking to a number of the brewers, I could see this idea materialize in a number of ways. Each homebrew rig was different--varying from a simple one pot set up to multi-tiered monsters with computers and sensors. As the Unknown's owner drove his forklift around picking up each pot while shouting and pumping his fist to blaring music I got a chance to talk to some of the individual brewers.

Their ideas and dreams were as varied as their rigs. Some just liked making beer for themselves or their friends. Others had ideas of opening their own larger brewery one day. Some were brewing this way for the first time. Yet each mentioned the same thing in their own way. They were there in the home of the Unknown to learn from each other. And they were there to have a good time connecting with each other around beer and catered tacos.

That shared ambition is at the heart of the Unknown's place in the well-established and still growing Charlotte brewing scene. The city and its suburbs are home to around 30 fully operation breweries with a couple dozen more on the way. Each brewery brings its own personality to the close-knit guild.

For Unknown, that personality is summed up in the all too often forgotten notion that beer is supposed to be fun and even crazy. Their website talks about living without fear and pushing beyond any boundaries. And those aren't just slogans. The Unknown has been responsible for some crazy products such as a beer brewed with agave nectar, serrano peppers, and 99 real scorpions. There is also the forthcoming "Rise Against Clowns" (A non-supermegaultra collaboration with 7venth Sun in Dunedin, Florida) which is being brewed with cotton candy sugar and blood oranges. Shell simply hates clowns and wanted to brew something where he could show a clown getting beaten up on the can. Later this year The Unknown will host a "Strange Brew" festival where the winning beer will not necessarily be the best tasting one, but the weirdest beer that the brewer could put together.

This kind of cavalier experimentation is what leads to the weekly small batch releases and the ever-rotating set of taps in the taproom. If there is an idea for something different, Shell and his team are willing to see it out to its end.

But make no mistake, they don't half-ass any aspect of their work. They may be crazy, but quality is always at the forefront of what they do. Shell has a history that includes work with Sweetwater, Terrapin, and time spent as the GM of Rogue. He has traveled to Germany and all over America learning from brewers of all sorts. He knows beer, and he's good at making it. He's also quick to tell you he is sort of an asshole, but he makes up for that by hiring the nicest, most fun team of brewers and bartenders you could possibly imagine. He is a smart man who knows what he is doing.

This is evidenced by the fact that the Unknown is not even two years old yet, but has already established itself as a major player in the saturated Carolina craft beer market. Their fun-loving sensibilities fit in easily with the Charlotte community. Check out the tap room on any weekend and you are going to see people of all ages, families, couples, singles, and even dogs. Everybody is at ease and chatting while they get to know each other with the backing tune of live local music and the lubricant of beer (Except for the kids and most of the dogs, of course).

It is a culture that Brad Shell admits is not the result of any master plan but one that falls right in line with his views on beer. "I don't think the brewery can create anything." Shell explains, "I think a brewery is a lubricant, but I think you get a beer in peoples' hands and it's just a natural microphone so that people can hang out, loosen up, be themselves, and that creates the culture. I think breweries themselves in Charlotte and everywhere else just create a good environment for culture to happen...I don't create culture, I've just got a room that we painted and beer and rock music in. People create culture. Good beer doesn't hurt, though."

And you will always find good beer in that bright green painted room. The brewery is trusted in the community to know what they're doing. The strength of their brews such as the recently released Vehopciraptor is already leading to pilgrimage trips to the Charlotte area for many beer drinkers. Talk to any regular and none of them expresses any doubt that the Garage Warrior collaboration will be anything but outstanding. Shell has already ordered the can labels which will feature the initials of each brewer involved and plans to donate some of the proceeds to benefit the Carolina BrewMasters.

Unknown is an exciting success story for the Charlotte area and it owes that success to people who are passionate about making beer their way and for their purposes. According to Shell, "The whole point is this is beer, motherfuckers. It's supposed to be fun. Some people are taking this shit way too seriously. They're being like wine snobs about it. And you don't do that. It's beer. You're supposed to tell fart jokes and watch football and do crazy stuff and sit by bonfires with friends. It shouldn't be about going and rating and snarking at somebody drinking something that you're not drinking. It's just the community coming to life when you drink beer."

The community has come to life in the shadow of Bank of America Stadium where the Unknown Brewing Company is located. It's Brad's house, and the doors are open for people who just want to have fun and enjoy life with a good beer in their hands, or, as seen in the picture below, collaborate with 60 like-minded brewers.