reports: Charlotte-area Breweries Unite for Court Shoes Only reports: Charlotte-area Breweries Unite for Court Shoes Only

By Todd Bowman

All photos by Jessica & Eric Gaddy.

With QCBF on Hold, Festival Organizer Puts a Creative Spin on Charity Fundraising

If beer writers share a set of common traits, the most annoying one is probably this: we love to drone on and on about unity within the craft brewing community.  As a species, we pound that drum with irritating frequency.  But this generalization is grounded in an element of truth.  Because fundamentally, brewing beer is a really tough way to make a living.  

Once you get past those romantic illusions about brewery ownership, what’s left is the daily grind of making and selling the liquid.  It’s a complex enterprise that rolls manufacturing, retail, public relations, marketing, supply chain management and more into a constantly shifting web of daily challenges.  But it’s those very complexities that engender such esprit de corps among brewers.  And that shared loyalty often extends to those who have helped share the gospel of craft beer.

If the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t already presented us with countless examples of beer community partnership and charitable congress, along comesCourt Shoes Only.  This ambitious collaboration brings together more than 40 Charlotte-area breweries, each brewing their version of a predetermined Double IPA recipe.  As with all things craft, creative interpretation is not only expected, it’s strongly encouraged. 

Proceeds from sales of the beer will help sustain ACEing Autism, the charity long underpinned by the Queen City Brewers Festival (QCBF), a veritable holy day on Charlotte’s annual beer calendar. This unique charity helps children with autism “grow, develop and benefit from social connections and fitness through affordable tennis programming, uniquely serving individual needs while filling a national void for this growing and worthy population.”

At the helm of this enterprise is a gentleman who really needs no introduction inside local brewhouses, Mr. Nils Weldy.  His importance in this story cannot be underestimated.  Because even with relentless community spirit as his ally, it still takes a special talent to get 40+ breweries and cideries to march in the same direction.  

I recently sat down with the man who organized QCBF for the past 9 years to learn how Court Shoes Only is helping turn pandemic lemons into a panoply of lemonades (or rather, Double IPAs).

The Festival Blues

It was late Spring of 2020, and Nils Weldy already knew that he had a problem, and its name was COVID-19.  “Everybody already knew that we couldn’t come together in the thousands, especially indoors.”  The seasoned festival director was faced with the unenviable challenge of determining how to outwit this unpredictable foe.  “For starters, there’s the physical aspect of handing a glass back and forth throughout the event.  It’s just unthinkable right now.”

If breweries and pandemics don’t play well together, the dynamic is amplified ten fold with beer festivals.  Close proximity to other festival patrons is largely unavoidable, as is physical interaction with servers, whose job it is to pour samples into your awaiting glass.  Add in a social lubricant like beer, which has the tendency to lower inhibitions, and the environment starts to resemble a dangerous petri dish.

For Weldy, whose event was entering its 10th consecutive year in a city now awash in beer-focused events, putting on the festival sounded like a recipe for disaster.  But falling off the local radar also wasn’t an option.  “There’s a lot of competition when it comes to events, not just beer, but social outings altogether,” he explained.  “As a festival, we needed to stay relevant, to stay top of mind.  But how can we stay there, knowing that there’s so much uncertainty with public gatherings?”  

2020’s Queen City Brewers Festival had gone off without a hitch, in spite of a brand new location, the Park Expo.  The festival, held on February 1st, squeezed in right under the wire before North Carolina’s statewide lockdown.  Historically held the Saturday preceding the Super Bowl, QCBF’s primary differentiator has always been its exclusive focus on breweries from the Charlotte area.  

But with the arrival of COVID, all NC beer festivals were faced with a similar dilemma: roll the dice by moving ahead with planning, knowing that pulling the plug later could be costly?  Or cancel months in advance and risk losing the relevance and loyalty built over previous years?  Given the considerable lead-time required to plan a beer festival, which commonly welcome 3000+ festival patrons and hundreds of support staff, it wasn’t an easy decision.

By Spring, chatter within the intimate community of beer festival organizers was growing increasingly concerned, especially given North Carolina’s spiking volume of COVID cases.  “If you’ve got 10 years of experience doing this, there’s no question that you’ve got the wherewithal to put the festival together,” Weldy illustrated.  “But what’s the response going to be like?  Will the appetite be there if COVID is still around?  Or is it going to be more of the ‘whoa, I’m not sure if I’m ready for this’ response.”  

But for Weldy, the most worrisome question was what the absence of a 2021 festival would do to ACEing Autism, the charitable organization dependent on QCBF for its local operations.  “QCBF is substantial for ACEing Autism, from awareness generation to volunteer development to fundraising.  And there were certainly programming implications to not having a traditional festival.”  What he needed was a new idea.

Brewing Up a Plan

Weldy admits that his first few spitball concepts for an alternative fizzled quickly.  First, there was the scaled down version of the festival, which didn’t really address the aforementioned safety concerns.  Then there was a souped-up “Brew Thru” in the Park Expo parking lot, complete with brewery swag and canned products to grab as you wove through the booths.  For Weldy, neither idea really captured the essence of QCBF.  They also missed the mark when it came to keeping the festival top-of-mind for area beer consumers.

“You need the spectacle, because that’s where a lot of the support comes from, from sponsors and from the media,” he explained.  He was also concerned about distracting attention away from curbside operations that many local breweries were already operating.  “If they’re already running a flawless brew thru process, why do I want to recreate it in a parking lot on a cold February day?”

But after the false starts, inspiration struck.  “What stuck was this idea of a specialty beer that’s collectible, unique and significant.  Something everyone could get behind.”  And after all, why not?  The past several years witnessed a series of highly successful, collaborative industry efforts.

The first was Resilience, a fundraiser for Camp Fire relief organized by Sierra Nevada Brewing.  Then came All Together, a fundraiser for out-of-work hospitality professionals, pulled together by Other Half Brewing.  And most recently, Black is Beautiful by Weathered Souls took a vigilant step towards ending police brutality, drawing the support of numerous Charlotte-area breweries.   

“That’s when the wheels started turning,” Weldy stated.  “That’s where the legitimate planning really started to bring pen to paper.”  The next step was a relatively simple one: determining what style of beer to make.  “What is the beer style of Charlotte, North Carolina?  What beer runs this town?  This is an IPA town.”  

And in this IPA town, who holds the IPA crown?  Naturally, the guy with the GABF Gold Medal for IPA.  So Nils picked up the phone and dialed Chad Henderson, head brewer for NoDa Brewing Company and creator of the brewery’s award-winning Hop, Drop n’ Roll.  “To make this work, I needed to have the IPA Godfather in town get behind this initiative.”

Old World, New World

With the easygoing Henderson on board, Nils introduced a wrinkle into his plan: why not collaborate on the recipe with another area brewer?  What came next felt like serendipity.  “Chad had been in dialogue with Tropes from Resident Culture, and so he was top of mind.  And that’s where the “it would be cool to make a beer with you” conversation came in.”  

The match made a lot of sense.  After all, if Henderson represents the old guard when it comes to Charlotte IPA traditionalism, Chris “Tropes” Tropeano defines the new shiny.  The former Russian River brewer started making waves locally in 2017 with his easy affinity for cranking out Resident Culture’s compelling and unique hazy IPAs.  “That was a huge, directional piece of the puzzle.  Chad’s the OG and now here’s the new kid on the block,” explained Weldy.

Much like it’s creators, the resulting recipe is a balancing act, a Double IPA that tips its hat equally toward West Coast and New England IPA brewing traditions.  The hop bill meshes the bitter with the juicy, pairing old school Simcoe, with its traditional piney-and-woody notes, with upstart Citra, a citrus-forward hop that has come to dominate the American brewing scene in recent years.  

The grain bill features both the clean, simplistic base malt profile favored by so many West Coast IPAs, and the creamy mouthfeel and murky cloudiness that oats provide for many modern New England IPAs.  In a divisive world of split IPA loyalties, Court Shoes Only seeks to bridge the brewing culture gap.

Diversity Rules

Similar to the Black Is Beautiful initiative, the Court Shoes Only recipe is merely a jumping off point for inspiration.  The list of upcoming releases simply drips with creativity.  Town Brewing boosted the original recipe into an 11% ABV Triple IPA.  Protagonist embraced the funk with a 100% Brettanomyces fermentation for their version.  And the mad chemists at Petty Thieves have spun up a Sour Double IPA with additions of carrot juice, blueberries and orange puree.  

For Legion brewers Scott Griffin and James Rutledge, the recipe also provided a rare window of imagination inside a brewhouse that’s been dominated by production brewing.  “Things have definitely changed with the pandemic,” explained Rutledge.  “It’s been a little bit harder to fit in as many one-off batches, since we’ve had more of a production focus on cans.”  Like many locals, Legion pivoted hard towards cans this Spring, leaning heavily into flagship beers like Juicy Jay, a brand that now represents more than 60% of the brewery’s production.

The Legion brewing team found their creative sweet spot in the recipe’s hops, where they’ve introduced the recently named Talus hop (formerly HBC 692) into the mix.  “James has had a lot of success pairing some of the really coconut forward character of those hops with a more traditional hop, like Centennial or Simcoe,” explained Griffin.  “Our Hopsteiner rep referred to Talus as a huge grapefruit bomb.  I’ve really enjoyed what we’ve done with it.”

For Griffin, the charitable focus of Court Shoes Only also struck a deeply personal note.  “Someone close to me is autistic,” he explained, “And the one thing that I didn’t expect was how much of a struggle the pandemic would be for them.  Routine is so important for this particular individual, and now they aren’t able to interact with people.  So the idea of this program that reaches out to people and gives them a chance to interact with others socially, and from an early age, is really awesome for people on the spectrum.”

Rolling Towards the Finish

With 40+ breweries slated to release Court Shoes Only from late January through the end of February, it’s already apparent that Nils Weldy has cooked up a rousing success, even if it isn’t a beer festival.  He’s even considering how the one-off could be integrated into future QCBFs.  “My hope is that maybe this becomes an element or wrinkle that we build into future festivals.”  

The idea isn’t a stretch.  QCBF has long encouraged area breweries to craft a thematic “super brew” exclusively for sharing with patrons at the festival, often resulting in an outpouring of inventive and off-the wall ideas.  Some of those beers, such as Unicorn Milk from 26 Acres Brewing, even made their way back into the brewer’s regular production cycle.

But while he loves the no-holds-barred aspect of past super brews, Weldy admits that pivoting towards a more tightly defined style could have merit.  “I like the idea of having a couple brewers put their heads together each year, and co-developing a cool recipe,” Weldy admits with a broad smile.  “I think we’ve proven that the idea has legs.”

With over 70 breweries (and counting) in the Charlotte area, the only difficult part might be choosing which brewers to tap on the shoulder first.  “Maybe there’s a baton passing from Chad and Tropes to Ben (Dolphens) and Conor (Robinson),” he offered.  “Perhaps Birdsong and Divine Barrel could pull a cool recipe together for the next Court Shoes Only.”  While it’s certainly not carved in stone, it sounds like a match worth pursuing.