I have to admit, sitting on the back of a Harley going 65 miles an hour across the 21-mile stretch between eastern North Carolina breweries 3rd Rock and Mother Earth, was not how I’d ever envisioned a Saturday beer crawl playing out.
But I thought what better way to get to know the Growler Howlers, the year-old New Bern, N.C.-based bikers-and-brews group rolling through the American Southeast, than by holding on for dear life on the back of a hog?
North Carolina has emerged as one of the great brewing states in the country and the Growler Howlers have resolved to ride to most of the breweries and other beer hotspots contained within its 53,818 square miles—not to mention many more beyond its borders. It’s a mission that was born—how else—over a pint at New Bern bottle shop and bar Brütopia, which has since become the regular starting point for the club’s rides.
“We’re all about riding and craft beer,” says California transplant Marisol Schultz (road name: “Hop Ho”), one of the group’s founding members, as well its secretary/treasurer. “We had one friend who was talking about joining a riding club in Jacksonville [North Carolina] and we said, ‘we like to meet and have beers, why don’t we just start one ourselves, rather than joining someone else’s club?’”
I should mention at this point that there are certain nuances when it comes to biker-related nomenclature.
“We’re a riding club, as opposed to a motorcycle club,” says founding member and president Daniel Hand (road name: “Max”).
To the non-riding layperson (myself included), that may seem like semantic hair-splitting. But there is a very important distinction.
“If you want to form a club here and you’re a motorcycle club, you’d have to get permission from, say, the Pagans or Hell’s Angels,” Hand explains. “As a riding club, you don’t have to ask permission.”
(Who knew that a culture so tied to its outlaw image had so many rules?)
Such independence has enabled the Growler Howlers to chart their own course and given them free rein to develop events like the Poker Run, which the group hosted this past May. Participating riders each paid $20 (passengers paid $10) to motor to five locations—a round trip of about 100 miles—on a single Saturday. The itinerary included Brütopia, Promise’ Land Market (Morehead City), AB Bottle Co. (Atlantic Beach), Bake, Bottle & Brew (Swansboro) and Harrika’s Brew Haus (Cedar Point).
Each rider pulled a random playing card from a deck at each stop; if they completed the ride without skipping any stops, they had a full hand of poker. The best hand won. Breweries and local businesses also donated a variety of prizes for charity raffles during the event. Proceeds from the Poker Run benefitted the local non-profit, Heartworks of Pamlico County, N.C., which provides mental and physical health services for underprivileged youth and their families.
A more typical ride involves stops at two breweries (and the occasional distillery) after assembling at Brütopia on a given weekend day. Sometimes the Growler Howlers embark on longer excursions, such as the group’s three-day journey to the Asheville area, the epicenter of North Carolina brewing in the western part of the state, a good 360 miles from New Bern. Burial Beer Co., Wicked Weed and Catawba Brewing Co., as well as New Belgium’s and Sierra Nevada’s east coast breweries were just a few of the stops on that particular jaunt.
The Howlers kept things much closer to their home base the day I rode with them. The team at 3rd Rock Brewing in Trenton, N.C., rolled out the red carpet for the club—well, they rolled up the large bay doors, anyway, inviting the dozen or so riders to zoom right into the brew house. (The bikes parked in a row adjacent to the array of stainless steel fermentation tanks made for quite the shiny, metallic still life). The scene made 3rd Rock head brewer Steve Parks a tad envious.
“I’m thinking, ‘why don’t I have a bike?’” admits Parks, a self-proclaimed fan of classic beer styles—the crisp, bready Gravity Munich-style helles lager is proof of that. He’s also an avid hophead with an affinity for emerging antipodean hop varieties. The brewery combines New Zealand’s Wai-Iti hops with Magnum, Citra and Mosaic in its year-round IPA, The Rock, giving the beer a bit of stone fruit and lime-like character.
After mingling with over pints of The Rock, Gravity and Continuum coffee porter, the Howlers re-mounted for the 20-minute trek to Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston, N.C. In hindsight, I probably should have said no to that second pint of Gravity because that’s when I agreed to make the trip on the back of a motorbike.
And I may have even taken a moment to appreciate the miles of idyllic farmland and tree-lined, seemingly endless country roads along the way if I wasn’t more concerned with my nose freezing off of my face (I should mention that it was February and about 40 degrees—which is more like 5 degrees Fahrenheit when you factor in the air resistance at 65 miles per hour. I struggled to keep my scarf tied around my face the whole way).
The ultimate destination made up for the ravages of the elements on the ride, as Kinston’s one of those small, post-industrial American cities (the industries, in this case, being tobacco and….) that experienced a stretch of depressed years but whose downtown is in the midst of economic revitalization. Celebrity chef and North Carolina native Vivian Howard opened Chef & the Farmer there about a decade ago and business partners Stephen Hill and Trent Mooring opened Mother Earth Brewing (now also a distillery) in 2008. The tap room at the downtown brewery—which repurposed the brick, wood and steel from the original structure—is 100 percent solar powered and has become quite the eastern North Carolina hotspot.
The space gets a great deal credit for the Growler Howlers’ existence, as it was a regular hangout for some of the group’s founders long before they made the club official.
Jeff Schulze (road name: “Foodie”), another founding member, as well as the club’s road captain, recalls connecting with Marisol Schultz (no-relation, despite similar last names) at the tap room. “We didn’t even know Marisol at the time buy my wife and I kept running into her at Mother Earth, probably for a good year,” Schulze remembers. Eventually, the like-minded from both the riding and beer communities converged. And, ultimately, the organization hopes others around the country and, possibly, the world, will hear the howl.
“I just want people to drink beer and wear this patch,” Schultz, aka Hop Ho, says, pointing to the club’s official insignia on her leather jacket, a growler pouring beer into the mouth of a howling wolf. “I want more people to join, I want to give back to the community, I want the Growler Howlers to expand and I want it to go worldwide.”