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Something is Brewing in Pinehurst

Pinehurst Resort's continual evolution now includes the Pinehurst Brewing Co. And brewmaster Eric Mitchell, whose golf game is on par with his beer crafting abilities, appears to the ideal man at the tap.
Pinehurst Brewery

Brewmaster Eric Mitchell says the Pinehurst Brewing Co. has the type of feel that any neighborhood drinking establishment should.

The nice little six-hole course back home in Birmingham, Ala., designed by Rob Collins of Sweetens Cove fame, comes with two holes heading back to the clubhouse, which doubles as a farmhouse brewery. This way you’re never too far away from some more beer during the round.

Some kind of dream, this course.

The dream may happen some day for Eric Mitchell, but his waking gig at the moment isn’t too bad. He’s the head brewer at the Pinehurst Brewing Co., meaning he’s now more or less surrounded by the Pinehurst Resort’s 171 golf holes — counting The Cradle. And golf was certainly one factor in drawing Mitchell to the job.

The Birmingham native was already brewing up a storm at Heist Brewing in Charlotte, N.C., when he learned that the famed golf resort was looking to install a brewery into an abandoned steam plant that had been on the property since 1895 and once supplied power to the village of Pinehurst. The resort was in need of a brewer.

Mitchell, 32, began at Heist as a floor manager but barely a year later, at age 24, was asked to take over the head brewing position. He had homebrewed for years, but recalls thinking, “Sure, I can brew on a small system, but look at all these valves. I contacted an old homebrew buddy of mine, Josh Johnson, who was a shift brewer at Monday Night Brewing in Atlanta and said, ‘Can you come up here for about a year and help me figure this out?’ He said, ‘Sure, sounds like fun.’”

At the time, Heist’s reputation was pretty much at the bottom of the barrel. On the Beer Advocate website it had the lowest rating of any brewery in North Carolina. “That was the hole we were in. Which was actually kind of reassuring, since I knew we had nowhere to go but up,” Mitchell said.

Up they went.

“It took us about five to six months to hit our groove, working 70- to 80-hour weeks, learning by going," Mitchell said. "But from the get-go the beer was an improvement. Heist now still has the number one beer in North Carolina, the Citraquench’l IPA, and when I left six of the top ten ranked beers in the state.”

It wasn’t an easy decision for Mitchell to leave Heist, where he had become a part-owner and which had opened a second and larger production brewery. But the Pinehurst brewery held some ultimately irresistible promise.

“Working for such a prestigious resort was alluring and frankly being a community-driven brewery was alluring,” Mitchell said. “Charlotte is a ginormous city and while Heist was a significant part of its neighborhood, it wasn’t a Cheers episode. This is, in a sense. You see a lot of the same faces, some come in every day, and that’s pretty neat. Pinehurst is a small community; since we opened our doors our philosophy was the thought that you could plant this brewery anywhere, that it could be a success even if it weren’t in the resort. And I think we’ve done that.”

Birdies And Brews

Not hurting matters in Mitchell's decision-making process was the fact that Pinehurst has a few golf holes. Mitchell is a single-digit handicap who hits the ball a mile, if not always straight. We initially met on the first tee of the Gil Hanse/Jim Wagner redesign of Pinehurst No. 4, where we walked and talked through 18 holes and Mitchell made it plain he was a big Hanse fan. Tom Fazio, who had previously redone No. 4? Not so much.

Mitchell has two MacKenzie golf bags, one filled with odd-numbered clubs, the other with even. We had some swing oil along the way, Duck Hook Cream Ale from Southern Pines Brewing — the Pinehurst brewery, which opened in October 2018 hadn’t yet begun canning its beers. Today it cans two — 1895 Lager, a 4.8 percent alcohol by volume brew named after the year of the resort’s founding, and the hazy Pivot IPA, 6.4 percent ABV.

“My first real job was as a cart boy at the Pine Tree Country Club near Birmingham,” Mitchell said.

The teaching pro at the course was Dave Ragan, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour. In 1963, Ragan finished second, two strokes behind a young Jack Nicklaus, at the PGA Championship and was a member of the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup Team. Another pro, Chris Cunningham, gave him the kind of pointers — “lower your shoulder … choke down” — that stick in your head.

Mitchell played on his high school golf team in his freshman year, but had too many other things going on. Today, Mitchell just concentrates on golf, disc golf, parenting — he and his wife have two young children — and brewing.

“It’s easy to make decent beer," he said. "But it’s hard to make extraordinary beer.”

Luckily, Mitchell had a brewing mentor, too, an Auburn attorney named John Little. When Mitchell was at Auburn University he and Little were both in a mountain biking club.

“We had a deal that I’d show him how to mountain bike and he’d teach me how to homebrew. He had an incredible system, homebrewing five 55-gallon kettles of beer on a setup he called the Bluto 555. We eventually used it as a pilot system at Heist.

“John told me something that I still believe: ‘Everybody likes craft beer, they just don’t know what kind yet.’ For me that turned out to be hefeweizens. He handed me a Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse (a cloudy, yeasty German wheat beer) and I was hooked. He showed me the way. He really pushed me to learn all the styles, to not to brew the same style twice until I had tried others."

Open For Beerness

The Pinehurst Brewing Co. opened again on May 22 after the shutdown period of only take-out orders. It’s quickly filled to a limited 50 percent occupancy with other pandemic regulations in place. It has a beguiling old-fashioned feel with the brick walls of the old steam plant building still in place and the interior adorned with its artifacts and antique photos.
A smokehouse out back delivers some terrific barbecue slow-cooked over local oak and hickory. A sampler plate of all the meat offerings and sides can challenge the most dedicated trencherman. Since Pinehurst more or less straddles the state’s east-west divide, it also straddles the ongoing BBQ sauce debate — both vinegar based, but with a touch of ketchup to the west.

There’s no debate about the beer, though, as Mitchell and team offer a rotating list of styles with some regulars, like the canned brews. Some have a golf-themed name, like the Oscar Brown Ale (as in OB), Lateral Hazard Amber Ale, or the Wire to Wire Dunkel Weizenbock (referring to Martin Kaymer’s 2014 wire-to-wire U.S. Open win on Pinehurst No. 2). Smooth Isolation, an 8.4 percent ABV Imperial Stout should have precisely that effect on any sheltering in place, as would Ode to Donker, an 8.8 percent ABV Belgian-style Quad.

Mitchell, always aiming to improve things, said Ode to Donker was one of a handful of beers he’s made in the last eight years that he wouldn’t change a thing about.

“That’s the biggest complement I can pay a beer,” he said. “In terms of what I set out to create and what the end product is, it hit the mark. I was proud of that one.”

One beer that never quite made the official list was a beer made in honor of the re-do of the No. 4 course, a saison called Tarnish and Polish, since that’s how Wagner (Tarnish) and Hanse (Polish) sometimes characterize their working selves.

The beers are mostly named by Mitchell or his assistant brewer Hunter Downing, who was taught to brew by his father-in-law, and had an epiphany that he would become a brewer some day instead of the classical guitarist career he was practicing for.

“There are only so many things you can spend four to six hours a day on,” Downing said.

The time is being well spent by the brewers, and visitors can do the same.

“It’s been a fun ride,” Mitchell said. “And we’re actually just getting started.”