Don Richardson didn’t take long to regain his Southern roots. An employee of only eight months, Don was still learning the intricacies of the 15 barrel Cottonwood Brewery brewhouse when his very first batch of Low Down Brown received a bronze medal at the 1997 Great American Beer Festival. The Boone, NC brewpub had just re-opened following a lengthy move from its original location, about a mile away. But Don hadn’t even hit stride. GABF medals were waiting for Cottonwood twice more, resulting in a rare (even for the big micros) three-peat performance. Horton’s Irish Stout took silver in 1998 followed by bronze for Great Pumpkin Spiced Ale in ‘99. The crafty brewer also owns three World Beer Championship medals, including a gold for his hefeweizen, and a 2000 World Beer Cup silver for the Pumpkin ale. Though Richardson didn’t learn to brew in the South, his beers and enthusiasm have generated a posse of Southern true believers.
Obviously, Don did not learn the trade overnight. His beer history is unique. Following several visits with friends in Boulder, in 1991 Don moved from Atlanta, his birthplace, to enroll in the University of Colorado. The eager student was denied a delivery job at Rockies Brewing Company because he was too small to handle kegs, but was hired to work on the bottling line. Six months later, a job in brewing opened up. Spending time at nearly every position, the cross-trained though still-fledgling brewer was working his way up the corporate ladder when he finally began homebrewing. That’s when the beer bug really bit. And it bit hard.
Assistant brewer Richardson departed Boulder under friendly terms in January 1997. He still calls Rockies head brewer David Zuckerman for advice. Little did Don know when he accepted the head brewers title at Cottonwood, that it would be more than eight months before his first brew. He spent his time moving and reassembling the brewhouse instead. Closed almost one full year, Cottonwood Brewery and Howard Street Grill reopened in September 1997.
Richardson, aggressively bold in his beer design, has never been afraid of a challenge. When he sensed a change of direction at Cottonwood in mid-2000, wheels began to turn. After several attempts to rally financial support to establish his own brewery, fate landed the teddy bear-like brewer in the hands of Mike Smith, owner of Carolina Beer & Beverage in Mooresville, NC, a Charlotte suburb. Not only did Mike hire Don as head brewer for his three year old microbrewery, but he also acquired Cottonwood’s labels and recipes, expanding his existing product line of Carolina Beer regulars: Carolina Blonde, Carolina Light and Charleston Brown, Wheat and Pale Ale.
So now, instead of a small brewery in an isolated mountain college town, Don is in a much larger pond, a microbrewery with big, bold aspirations. From a staff of two in Boone to a team of nine in sprawling suburbia; from hand bottling one at a time to a 300 case-per-hour bottling machine; the scenery has changed but not much else. Carolina Beer has not only given Don the thumbs-up, by promoting his successful Cottonwood line, but they’ve given him the green light to improve upon their tried and true Carolina and Charleston recipes. The changes have been subtle, but improvement in quaffability has not. A change of yeast here, a alteration of malt bill there; even training wheel beers like the Carolina Light now have more character. His touch is, well, golden.
That’s just what Carolina Beer needed. With seed money from divesting a non-brewing company he founded several years prior, Mike Smith spent most of 1997 trying to get into the brewing business. Failing twice at enlisting other companies to contract brew Carolina Blonde, a name and recipe he’d acquired from Southend Brewery, he took the only logical course, just as any serious beer lover would have. If you can’t buy it, brew it. With advice from the folks at Full Sail Brewing in Mt. Hood, Oregon, he did, installing a beauty of a steam-fired 50 barrel brewhouse, complete with ten 100 barrel fermenter, two equally-sized bright tanks and four more with 50 barrel capacity. From this picturesque layout, which includes a roomy tasting area, exudes craft beers of note.
Lager-esque and pale yellow, a citrus aroma introduces Carolina Light. Thin but tasty for a lawnmower brew, Richardson added a touch of lemon and orange peel at the end of the boil, altering the flavor profile by replacing typical tartness with a more rounded, almost fruity taste. Carolina Blonde, the big seller comprising 60% of sales, is crystal yellow. Light in body, it is malty throughout with a short but noticeable hop finish. Charleston Wheat, a filtered American wheat ale, is medium-bodied, starting tart before turning malty and leaving with a citrusy bitter finish. Charleston Pale Ale is a good session beer, medium mouthfeel and moderately hopped, while Charleston Brown is done English style, malty sweet and smooth.
And then there’s Cottonwood. Unlikely to displace Carolina Blonde as top dog, these newly added beers have already made an impact in Mooresville and beyond, in kegs and bottles. Cottonwood Low Down Brown works a smooth sweet story line, but departs from the Charleston version with deeper notes of burnt caramel and chocolate. Very drinkable with low hops profile, it’ll be interesting to see if Charleston Brown mutates to more of an American hoppy Brown. Cottonwood Endo IPA, a tribute of sorts to Don’s Colorado days, is nothing short of wonderful. A hoppy front yields to sour-bitter mid-taste, departing with lip-smacking bittersweet sensation that only begs for more. Hopheads arise: do not take Endo lightly.
For the first time, Carolina Beer has started a revolving series of keovides relief during the humid heat of Southern summer months.
Carolina Beer is distributed throughout North and South Carolina and can be found in every wet county. You’ll also find their brews in Savannah and the Norfolk area, thanks to sales manager John Stritch’s hard work. They’re also big in Boone, Asheville and Knoxville, Tennessee, Cottonwood’s old strongholds. Future plans include expansion of the territory into the rest of Georgia and Virginia. Look out world!
Don Richardson may be short in stature, but he’s big in heart. Married and a father of one, he recognizes that “you have to have passion” to stay ahead in the high pressure microbrewery business. He does. And he loves to “chase after making great beer,” almost as much as he loves his family. He succeeds quite often. Though he readily admits that his move to a larger facility limits creativity somewhat, Don has no regrets. Besides, he “still has [his] babies,” the Cottonwood beers. Given credit by many as “bringing a crafty attitude” to Carolina Beer, he literally loves to “play with different styles.” That’s his definition of “having fun.” Whenever he can, Don hits the road. Working with the Carolina sales force and distributors to grow the brands. Festivals are special for Don. He thoroughly “enjoys talking beer with fans.” His enthusiasm is endless.
Not many brewers win GABF medals, much less three. Even fewer in number are brewers with a trio of consecutive awards. And practically nil is the count if the sort field is reduced to only Southern brewers. Carolina Beer has a winner in Don Richardson. Southern beer drinkers do too.
Carolina Beer & Beverage (micro)
18525 Statesville Rd.
Cornelius, NC 28031
Don can be found at his current company here Allgood Brands www.allgoodbrands.com/contact.html