Last week I had the opportunity to take a tour of Fair Game Beverage Company and talk with Chris Jude, the head distiller. I’ve been interested in talking to Chris for a while now. I attended the Fair Game Beverage Company circus-themed grand opening last summer and it was such a good time! I knew I had to meet the minds behind Fair Game and get a better sense of what’s going on in their distillery. Fair Game Beverage Company is having a spirits release this weekend, Saturday March 28th so it seemed like a great time to visit and learn a bit more about Fair Game Beverage Company.
Chris Jude, Fair Game Beverage Company’s head distiller, went to Appalachian State University where he studied biofuels. He was curious about bio diesel and ethanol as fuel sources and he wanted to reduce the dependence on foreign fuels and non-renewable fuels. While attending school and studying distillation, Chris and his friends also started home brewing. Chris’s friend from college built a still for his senior project to potentially make ethanol, but of course they played around and starting experimenting with sorghum with hopes of making fine spirits. Sweet sorghum is a grass similar to sugarcane that you can make syrup or molasses out of and in turn a product similar to rum.
After college, Chris ran the fuel production at Piedmont Biofuels for a couple years where he worked with Lyle Estill, the founder. During Chris’s time at Piedmont Biofuels, he also designed some biodiesel production systems. Even though Chris had a background in chemical process and production equipment from working at Piedmont Biofuels, he also had a passion for exploring agriculture. He has done everything from his own backyard gardening and composting to working with local farmers and learning a bit more about local food production. Trying to move away from fuel production and into food and agriculture, Chris started growing sweet sorghum with his friend Bobby of Okfuskee Farm. Chris and Bobby ended up receiving a grant to purchase processing equipment for sorghum syrup all the while with a sorghum rum in mind.
While I asked Chris a ton of questions and then half of those questions again, he was busy measuring the alcohol content of the previous day’s batch that had just been distilled. Chris is bottling for the first time and he has a whole host of federal regulations to abide by. Let me tell you, The Code of Federal Regulations of Alcohol will not show up on my reading list this summer. I felt a little dizzy just looking at that thick book of rules, but Chris didn’t seem too phased by it. “So it’s all very precise. I just received the hydrometer back from the calibration lab. It’s amazing how precise the feds want you to be. Reading it down to the 100th percent.” Chris used a hydrometer to read the density and then he correlates that figure with the temperature to determine an accurate reading, which turned out to be 125 proof. The next step would be to put it into the barrels to age. This had me thinking about what Chris does when I’m not around and for that matter how he even came to work at Fair Game Beverage Company.
Fair Game Beverage Co. is a new company. The amazing circus-themed party last summer was their grand opening! All startups require a ton of time and money invested and Fair Game Beverage Company is no different. From our conversation alone, I can tell that Chris takes on a lot in his role as head distiller. He has his hands in every aspect of the business and feels a lot of pressure to succeed. Remember Lyle, Chris’s old boss? Well he paired up with Andy Zeman, a local wine maker, who had always dreamed of producing fortified wines and together, along with others, they created an investment plan that brought Chris on as the head distiller of what would become Fair Game Beverage Company. Chris had been interested in wiggling his way into food and agriculture for years so it was a natural fit for him and because of Chris’s extensive background in biofuels he was also the perfect man for the job. He did a lot of the rebuild at the distillery along with the installation, equipment and electrical. At the same time was also able to start fermentation as a production.
Chris takes on a lot, he works at least ten-hour days during his busy times (at least eight when it’s slow) and he always finds himself at the distillery on the weekends. Chris does have some help and he’s quick to tell you that. Chris has the support and collaboration of the founders as well as that of the craft distillers’ community. Fair Game also brought on Kevin Bobal (a founding partner of Larry’s Beans) last June to take care of sales and offer tastings on sight. Because the company is so young and there’s a lot going on at any given moment it can feel a little crazy. Chris explained it as ‘excitingly scary.’ To me that’s a great sign. I love feeling hopped up on uncertainty. Chris added, “there is pressure because it’s a start-up. Of course it is lots of responsibility but I get support. I’m doing something fun that I enjoy and that hopefully brings enjoyment to other people’s lives. So it’s worth it.”
Keeping it Local:
Fair Game Beverage Company cares about locality. It’s evident in where and how they source their ingredients and it’s written into their business plan. Fair Game Brewery Company thinks about availability and proximity before developing new products. “We’re trying to source from NC. I’d say 70%-80% of our feedstocks come from NC,” says Chris. It helps a little that most of the grape wines are sourced from Andy, the dreamer behind this operation and one of the founder of Fair Game Brewery Company.
Apples were also an obvious choice for product because Fair Game can create both a wine and a spirit. Chris said he is always searching for the perfect apple suppliers. He would love to find some cider specific trees, but Virginia tends to have more. North Carolina on the other hand has a lot of standard dessert apples like Red Delicious and Fuji but you can’t find any Newtown Pippin, Stayman, or Arkansas Black.
As you can see on the map, the peaches are from an organic farm in Sanford. The apples are from western North Carolina and grapes from the Haw River Valley and Alamance county. Remember the sorghum Chris was originally interested in way back when? Well him and Bobby have been growing it for five years and they currently provide more than a third of the sorghum syrup for Fair Game Beverage Company, the rest comes from a farm in neighboring Tennessee. While there are other smaller farms in North Carolina that harvest sorghum, it just makes sense to purchase the syrup from the larger farm at a price point that is comfortable for the business. A little bit of sugar cane comes from South Carolina and some is imported from an organic farm in Columbia. Chris is always on the lookout for more supply and he’ll continue to seek out the right partners for future products. Fair Games leans strongly towards local produce and Chris tries to source organic fruits whenever possible. One of the reasons I truly admire Fair Game is because they have the power to create community among both farmers and consumers in North Carolina. The Fair Game Beverage Company continually pairs up with other local groups to host great events. Farm-to-table dinners, Wind Down Wednesdays complete with wine and massages and even the occasional Art Bazaar. The amazing events lead to even more brand awareness, but more importantly it shines a light on a blossoming local food movement.
Come have a taste!
If you’re in the triangle please stop by the tasting room. You can saddle up to a beautiful wooden slab bar and have Kevin tell you all about each fortified wine. Not everyone is familiar with sherry wine and port wine (I definitely wasn’t) therefore customer education is key. Tastings are a great way to introduce your palette to fortified wines and you can get a better feel for how they’re each used. You can also buy the wines straight out of the tasting room. Unfortunately, there are some restrictions on fortified wines so they can’t be sold at farmers markets like regular old wines. We think that’s a bummer! You can find Fair Game Beverage Co. products in North Carolina ABC stores and online as well. Look for the sweet labels, which were designed by Good South, a couple out of Raleigh.
The new spirits that are being released this weekend will be a little more familiar. I’m sure you’ve tried or at least heard of rum and brandy, yes? Funny thing, because of regulations and whatnot, Fair Game Beverage Co. can’t actually call the new No’Lasses Sorghum Spirit a rum, but that’s how everybody is using it, so get on the
rum Sorghum Spirit train.
If you decide to spend the day in Pittsboro, NC you can grab a bite to eat at The City Tap. Word is the produce is local, the sandwiches are delicious and there’s North Carolina beer on tap. If you’re in the mood for fine dining, try Oakleaf restaurant where the chef also shops at the local farmers market. You can also browse around in the thrift shops, antique store and used book shop. If you have the kids in tow, check out the Carolina Tiger Rescue. If your pup is waiting in the car, treat him to a hike in white pines, which is part of the Triangle Land Conservancy and right where the Deep and Rocky Rivers converge.
If you’re in the area this Saturday, March 28th join us at Fair Game Beverage Co.’s spirit release party! Fair Game is introducing No’Lasses Sorghum Spirit (think rum) and an Apple Brandy. There will be food trucks and music and Abundance NC is stirring up custom cocktails! Sounds like a sweet Saturday night to me!