Interview with Todd Ford of NoDa Brwewing
I spent some time in Charlotte, NC this past week, and got a chance to visit NoDa Brewing in the North Davidson Arts District. While I was there, I got opportunity to sit down with one of the owners and brewers, Todd Ford, and chat with him about the brewery, casking, and what he thinks about the ‘Craft vs Crafty’ debate. I was also able to sample their Hop, Drop, ‘n Roll IPA (7.2% ABV). It pours a golden-orange color, and you can definitely smell the sweet citrusy-ness of the citrus hops used in the brew. It tastes sweet right off the bat, which gives way to a nicely bitter hops flavor, wrapped up by a organic hoppy finish.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Todd Ford, I’m one of the owners and brewers here at NoDa Brewing Company in Charlotte, and we’ve been open for about fifteen and a half months. Before starting the brewery I was an airline pilot for about 24 and a half years, my wife is the other owner, and prior to opening the brewery she was a banker here in the Charlotte area.
Could you explain the name ‘NoDa’?
It’s simply that we stole the name from the neighborhood we’re in. It’s the North Davidson Arts District here in Charlotte; it’s been called that for as long as I can remember. We saw this as being a fantastic place to found a brewery, the culture of arts and creativity kind of fit into the brewing scene. Also, because it was an old mill part of town, there were a lot of warehouses for rent or purchase that fit the requirements of a brewery, and most of them were vacant at the time.
How did you get your start in beer? Was it homebrewing?
Exactly. I was a hobbyist home brewer for quite a while; I think I started back in 1995. I was a chemistry major in college, and was pretty interested in chemistry and how things worked together, processes, things like that. I see home brewing is a big challenge to me, but also a great love because I love beer so much.
What motivated the jump from your garage or basement to opening the brewery and brewpub?
Brewing has always been something I’ve liked and always considered doing, and I think the time was right in our lives. Most of our kids were towards the end of or out of college, my wife was looking for a change of pace given that she was downsized in a banking consolidation, and my job as an airline pilot left me working more hours for less money, spending a lot more time away from home, and traveling across many different time zones. The schedule was just getting more brutal as I was getting older. It was getting really tough.
Why did you choose to open in Charlotte?
I’ve lived in North Carolina all my life. I’ve lived in Charlotte since 1986, so I really didn’t consider moving at all for this particular business. The climate was right for a brewery, or at least we thought so, so there was no need to move. I traveled a lot of the world as a pilot and I just didn’t’ see any reason to leave the city. It had a burgeoning beer culture. We were very jealous of Asheville for the longest time, and now we’re starting to get off our tails and do something about it. Charlotte is a good fit.
What is your philosophy on brewing?
I love a variety of different beer styles. I like a lot of Belgian styles. As a home brewer I was making a lot of West Coast styled ales, a lot of hoppy IPAs, porters, stouts, and a lot of Belgian styles as well. When we came into the professional brewing world, we looked to make a lot of those same types of styles. They weren’t being done on a large scale here in Charlotte. There were only two other breweries here at the time, one was focusing on more English ales and mild IPAs, and the other was doing strictly German styles. It seemed like the whole arena of West Coast IPAs, stouts and porters, and Belgian styles was just wide open.
How do you decide on what goes into the tanks next and what ends up on tap?
Well, you guys decide that! By and large our customers dictate what we brew next and the order that we brew in. Often we’ll do it depending on what yeast strain we’re using. Certain yeast strains need to be used more often, or you discard them, buy new ones, and start all over again. The more often we brew with a particular yeast strain, the better it is for the yeast. Up to a certain point. We try to plan styles based upon the fact that you don’t take a high gravity, high alcohol beer and use that yeast again. We’ll try to not spend it on the first or second generation of beers that we do, so we’ll do a couple sessionable IPAs, and then make the stronger beers. The beer we’re brewing today is a 10% beer. After that the yeast in that beer is going to be discarded. It’s just too stressful for that yeast to go into another beer. So a lot of that will determine fermentation and how we schedule the production process.
What’s your involvement like in the community?
We do our best to be as connected as possible. First to the NoDa neighborhood because that’s where we reside with the brewery, we’re connected to both the neighborhood associations for NoDa and Villa Heights. We participate in fundraisers for the parks here, the spay and neuter clinic down the street (which is special to my wife and I because we both love dogs), and also for artists in the area. There are some social issues coming up in our area, and we also try to support them. We typically do a fundraiser once a month in the taproom. We are deeply embedded in the craft beer scene, and if we’re not here brewing or talking to guests in the taproom, we’re at one of the restaurants or bars talking to them about beer, whether its our beer or another beer from the area. We try to represent not just ourselves but also all the breweries here in Charlotte to some extent.
Something that is starting to get bigger now is casks and barrel aging beers. What are your thoughts on that?
We like anything that adds to the creativity of our product, so we enjoy doing it. We have 4 bourbon barrels that we’re using, 5 red wine barrels, and one chardonnay barrel. All but two are in use, and I think those two will be put into use this week. We enjoy doing it. It’s not going to be extremely profitable for us because we are doing it on such a small scale, but it adds a whole different element to any beer style. It takes an interesting beer and can make it really interesting, or it can change its personality entirely. As for barrel aging, we do a lot of casks. It’s very popular with some of our commercial clients, restaurants and bars. We like British ales as well, some of the sessionable pub style ales from Great Britain. That’s where the cask originated. Here in the United States we don’t use the cask in the same manner. When we do cask, usually we add other ingredients to a base beer to make it somewhat unique, where the British add nothing to the cask. It’s naturally fermented in the cask, and once it’s tapped, it’s good for about two days and that’s about it. It’s a completely different philosophy for using a cask. We enjoy both.
What do you think about the big brewers (Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium) making their way into the state?
I think it’s about time. I’m very happy that they’ve decided to do it. The only one that’s open at this particular time is Oskar Blues, the other two are quite a ways from opening. It’s already given us a lot more attention as to what our beer culture is in North Carolina. The legislators in Raleigh are now paying attention to beer a little bit more, and hopefully they’ll be a little more sensitive to crafting legislation that helps us take our next steps to let us grow bigger. So I’m excited about those big guys coming in. Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman has been an idol of mine, ever since he came out with his pale ale back in…the late 80s early 90s. Kim Jordan from New Belgium has also been inspirational. They’ve been very nice to us; every time we’re in the Colorado area they invite us up to Fort Collins and treat us really well. We’re looking forward to heading out to Brevard and meeting Oskar Blues, we’ve heard a lot of good things about those guys.
What’s the future looking like for NoDa?
I’m excited! We’re continuing to add additional fermenters, and we should be getting another one in a few more days. It’ll be the largest one we’ve purchased to date. We’ll be adding a larger cooler shortly, to accommodate our greater volume. We’re looking at several distribution opportunities outside of North Carolina and into South Carolina. I think as our production catches up and we feel that we’ve covered the Charlotte area as well as we can, we’ll look outside of Charlotte and more towards The Triad and the Raleigh-Durham. I think we’ll continue to grow, God willing, and as long as the beer quality stays up and we have the energy to, we’ll continue to grow.
What’s your view on ‘Craft vs Crafty’ debate?
As craft beer producers we only produce about 7-8% of the beer consumed in the country. We’re small potatoes next to the giants that produce the American light lager, and do so in a very consistent way. They create a high quality light flavored product. I’m impressed with how they handle brewing across so many different factories, dealing with organic product like malts, yeasts, and hops, and make it so consistent. There’s something there that we can strive to do ourselves. Obviously our recipe is going to be significantly different. We want as much flavor in the beer as we can possibly get, so our goals are going to be different but a lot of the goals in the process are the same. I do support all of our craft brewer friends in the area. Obviously we hope that we do well, but by other brewers doing well, it helps us too. As for the big American breweries, I say American but international conglomerates own them now, they’ve been purchasing craft brands to try and keep up. What we’re finding is that a lot of those ‘craft’ brands were originally craft brands, but now that the giants own them I don’t know if they’re really considered craft brands any more. In order to take some of that 8% away from craft brewers they’re using some of their heavy handed techniques that they’ve used against each other, and I don’t like that at all. I feel like sometimes its on the edge of being unethical, but it’s a business, and they’re job is to make as much money as possible for their stock holders. Our job is to protect our brand, our product, and our people as well. We’re all doing the same thing essentially. I think there’s room for all of us. For the longest time the big breweries have left us alone, but I don’t think that will last forever. Even 8% of a huge market is a substantial number. I think there will be a time when they say “That’s just about as far as we’re going to allow them to grow, and we’re going to do everything we can to take their legs out from under them.” I hope I’m retired by then, because that’s when I don’t think it will be quite as much fun. Brewing is fun, marketing is fun, meeting the people who enjoy your product is fun. But having to go and fight lawsuits in court because some corporation didn’t like some words you used in your name that you have been using for ten years without a problem, but now suddenly it is a problem; that’s not going to be fun. But that’s the nature of business, and we’ll see what happens.
Any final thoughts?
My wife and I are the owners, however, NoDa is a team. We surround ourselves with people who not only have a love for beer, but for the craft beer culture. We have a very energetic and very talented brewer, we have two assistant brewers that are fantastic, and a taproom staff that nobody else can touch in my opinion. We want to surround ourselves with people who enjoy beer, who like talking about it, so that it’s not so much work, but play all day long. It can be a long day at times, but it feels better coming to work when you like what you do instead of dreading it. That was the whole goal with starting this. We had other jobs, but we were hoping we could found something that we really enjoy, that other people would like as well and really enjoy the experience of coming to work every day.