Dark Beer With Discipline

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Photo by Matt Dick


Exhibit A in the case for why the Duck-Rabbit Brewery, a three-man operation in tiny Farmville, N.C., is destined for greatness: They like the boring parts of beer-making.

Too many craft brewers never get beyond the experimental stage--they learn the techniques, only to get caught in the dazzling web of brewing possibilities. Wild creativity is critical to beer-making progress--we can't drink just IPAs for the rest of our lives. But too much creativity, at too early a stage in a brewery's life, impedes the mastery of all the things that wildly creative people often hate: consistency, repetition, and process.

Instead, Duck-Rabbit, under the ever-watching eye of founder, owner, and head brewer Paul Philippon, does a few things, and it does them well. Actually, Duck-Rabbit does just one thing--dark, high-alcohol beer--in a handful of ways: amber, brown ale, milk stout, and porter, along with the occasional seasonal expression. A doppel-bock is on the way. Nothing too fancy, nothing too gimicky. "We could make a bubblegum beer, but that'd get old," says Philippon, a burly ex-philosophy professor with the build of an ex-linebacker. "For a lot of people, they say, 'Hey, I've got some kiwi, what'd that be like?' That's cool and fun, but it's not what we do."

Phillipon is a true beer nerd, and he spent the better part of an hour relating the specs on his equipment, weaving us around, over, and under hoses.

Philippon has been making beer for over 20 years, but it was only after a few years trying to climb the academic job ladder that he realized his real love wasn't analytic philosophy (though he admired Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations enough to use a cryptic image from the book, which depicts either a duck or a rabbit, as the basis for the brewery's name and logo). He apprenticed at a few breweries around the country, then opened Duck-Rabbit in 2004.

I got a chance to visit Philippon during a recent road trip through North Carolina, having been tipped off by the good folks at Lagerheads. Farmville is like a lot of small Southern towns--laconic and a little run-down, with an above-average population of beauty salons and late-model muscle cars. The brewery is located in a warehouse near the town limits, with enough empty land around it to accommodate several years of rapid growth.

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Photo by Ken Hilton

I had called ahead to make sure they were open, but I hadn't made a reservation or even given an ETA. Nevertheless, Phillipon gave us--I was with my wife and a friend--the full tour. Duck-Rabbit's facilities are about 1/100 the size of a Coors plant, but Phillipon is a true beer nerd, and he spent the better part of an hour relating the specs on his equipment, weaving us around, over, and under hoses even as his assistant, Ryan Witter-Merithew, went about making the day's batch.

Philippon realized early on that craft beer was a crowded business, and that if he wanted to make a viable operation he had to distinguish himself with a reputation that mixed originality with reliability. He had always enjoyed brewing dark beers, so he settled on a short menu of heavy ales, flagshipped by a milk stout.

Still a rarity among American brewers, milk stout is brewed with lactose, which resists fermentation and thus gives the beer a sweet, smooth flavor. Some milk stouts have strong coffee characters, while others veer toward hot chocolate. Duck-Rabbit's milk stout is somewhere in between, and its pleasant blend of comforting flavors and textures make it Phillipon's best seller (he recently released a limited run of milk stout aged in 20-year Pappy Van Winkle barrels, to rave reviews).

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Photo by Clay Risen

When it came time for the tasting, Phillipon ducked into a walk-in fridge at the back of the warehouse and pulled out bottles and five glasses; at Duck-Rabbit everyone joins in on the samples, even the guys running the machines. We sampled the amber, the porter, and the milk stout. The amber is not particularly dark; Phillipon says he wanted a lighter beer as a hook for skeptical drinkers. I liked it a lot--it is balanced and light, with nice caramel notes (though also a little watery for me).

The porter was surprisingly refreshing and likewise balanced; I respected Phillipon's decision not to brew a coffee-and-toffee bomb, like so many craft porters these days. Dark as these beers were, I could easily see myself cracking any one of them open after a long day sitting on the beach (which, later that day in Wilmington, I did).

Duck-Rabbit only recently expanded northward into Virginia, D.C., and Pennsylvania; otherwise, it can only be found in North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Which is too bad; in some of the bars I visited along the Carolina coast, their limited-release beers, like Paul's Day Off--a Bourbon-aged strong ale that Witter-Merithew made when Phillipon was on vacation--are spoken of in near-mystical terms.

But Phillipon has clear plans toward expansion--a tasting facility and a grain silo are not far off--even if it comes slow and methodically. Because while beer-making is a business, and while Philippon is as much about consistency as creativity, it's also a passion. "In the end, I just wanted something I could be proud of," he says.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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