It may feel like Charlotte has gone the way of central Florida with perpetual summer temperatures despite knocking on the door of the midway point this NFL season. Though our forecast is sure to cool down, four consecutive wins shows us this Panthers team is heating up and there’s a new brewery in town suited perfectly for game days: Pineville’s Middle James Brewing.
“I knew I wanted a sports-themed brewery,” said Clemson grad, Cleveland native, homebrewer and co-owner and founder Mike Smoak. “I also knew I needed a brewer who could make it happen,” Smoak continued.
Enter Andrew Viapiano, the South Burlington, Vermont native who came into legal beer-drinking age at the height of the legendary Heady Topper’s popularity, rode the swell of world-class Vermont beer to brewing school and then launched a spectrum of beers for a Charlotte brewery before Smoak approached him with a co-ownership proposition. The two fortuitously met through a Cheers Charlotte Radio homebrewing competition Mike won back in late 2015. The duo clicked and along with sharing a passion for live sports, great beer and the middle name James, plans were pitched to open a brewpub.
While Middle James Brewing makes its debut at QCBF 2020 on Saturday, Feb. 1st, you have a bye week in the Panthers schedule and half a season (plus playoffs. Playoffs?) to plan your visit to the taproom located at 400 N. Polk Street in Pineville. Here’s our recent Q&A to prepare your game plan.
Pineville is no longer without a brewery thanks to Middle James Brewing filling that void. How would you describe your first couple of months in operation?
Mike: The first two months have been great. When we opened, we set up a Facebook event, which is standard procedure, and well, it seems everyone came [laughs]. Then they came back the next day, which is awesome. On top of it all, the city of Pineville was fantastic to work with to get the rezoning done to open the brewery. We really couldn’t be happier.
Andrew: Even the optimistic end of projections, beer-wise, were met opening weekend. On our second day of business, I was welcoming guests to the taproom obviously thinking it was their first time, and they were like, “no, we were here last night,” [laughs]. So that was a nice early indicator.
Mike, your roots to QCBF go back to late 2015 when you brewed what became the winning entry in Cheers Charlotte’s Capture the Crown homebrew competition. You then brewed that recipe commercially with Andrew who’s now co-owner and head brewer. How did that connection evolve into a full-fledged brewery operation?
Mike: I had never met Andrew prior to winning that competition. So we brewed the beer together, became quick friends and I got to know him well enough where I was comfortable asking, “Hey, would you ever want to do this on your own?” I told him I had an idea to open a sports-themed brewery, and he said, “I’m in.”
In the two plus years we’ve worked together, there’s been little we’ve disagreed about, which makes sense since Andrew is a laid-back guy and I’m the one who tends to stress over things [laughs]. Plus, I knew in Andrew, here’s a guy who went to school to become a brewer; made everything from light lagers to barrel-aged stouts in his previous gig and could clearly operate a 15bbl brewhouse. I might be able to run a 10-gallon homebrew setup out of my garage, but this guy knows his shit. So, it wasn’t that I just liked the guy, I knew he was good at what he did too.
Andrew, you hail from Vermont which is known throughout the brewing world as the birthplace of the New England IPA. How have your ties to world-class IPA breweries shaped your brewing philosophy?
Growing up in Vermont, I feel like I pretty much only drank Vermont beer once I reached beer-drinking age. There is just so much great beer from that state. When I turned 21 it was just about the height of Heady Topper’s popularity so it definitely contributed to a style of beer that at the time was just scratching the surface. But before there was this supply of world-class Vermont IPAs, there were so many other iconic beers I enjoyed. Switchback pale ale, for instance, was on in literally every bar in the state. It was the strangest pale ale at the time: murky, malty, kinda hoppy and delicious. It was so great to have exposure to these kinds of beers early on and definitely an influence on the beers I like to brew today.
Middle James embraces live sports as a taproom draw while some breweries have stiff-armed TVs altogether. What made you decide to go all-in on game days?
As a Clemson grad, my friends and fellow alums were always challenged with finding a bar that had the game with the sound on, and had good beer. That pursuit kind of defines who we are. Yes, we’re the only brewery in Pineville, but I’m pretty sure we’re also the only brewery in the Charlotte-area that has the NFL ticket. Side note: we’re also the unofficial Cleveland Browns game watch location. Plus, you’re going to have an incredible food experience at Middle James. Our executive chef, Perry Saito, is a pro and he’s creating events that spotlight our food program like sushi nights, food and beer pairings and soon-to-come beer dinners.
If demand is there, we’ll absolutely sign up for the NHL and NBA package too. The hockey team we sponsored, the year before we opened [laughs], would appreciate it.
Bonus question: Naturally, we’d argue there’s no better weekend than Super Bowl weekend. What is your go -to food and beer pairing for the big game?
Andrew: It has to be wings and beer, and the wings Shannon and Perry serve up here are no joke. They have this multi-step process that goes into preparing them, and they’re awesome. Definitely cranking out our kolsch to go with them.
Mike: I’m going with our Reuben Sammie, which is made with house-cured corned beef and our Hourmark American IPA.