Local crops, brewers at heart of sweet potato ale

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When it came time to create the flagship beers at 217 Brew Works, the local prominence in sweet potato production could not be overlooked. Now the popular Vick’s Choice sweet potato blonde ale is going international to a customer in Germany.

“First of all, we are in violation of the Reinheitsgebot — the Bavarian Purity Law — that says only barley, hops and water can be used in beer,” said John Kater, head brewer for 217 Brew Works. “Vick’s Choice will definitely fall in the other category for them. This is a different animal but I think they’ll enjoy it.”

Kater and Brew Works founder Tom Curran said incorporating locally grown sweet potatoes was essential and they met with Vick Family Farm co-owner Jerome Vick, who set them loose with 20 pounds of sweet potatoes. The brew enthusiasts developed the ale in a 5-gallon batch in Curran’s man cave.

“We took a sample of the finished beer with me when I went to the Vick farm to talk about how much sweet potatoes we’d need to make the beer for production,” Curran recalled. “Jerome is not a drinker, but he tasted it and really liked it. That is when we came up with the name Vick’s Choice.”

Each 310-gallon batch requires about 200 pounds of potatoes, which are chopped, steamed and pureed through a partnership with Barton College. The sweet potato mash is added to the rest of the recipe and in about two weeks, the popular brew is ready for the masses.

“It is not designed to club you over the head with sweet potato flavor,” Kater said. “It is designed to be an undertone to balance out the beer. It is designed to be a really nice, complex blonde ale that accompanies food well and goes with just about anything.”

Jerome Vick said the beer’s flexibility mirrors that of sweet potatoes.

“It is a very nutritious vegetable,” he said. “Sweet potatoes are one of the few things that you can eat that is good for you and good to you, too.”

He said the soil in the central coastal plain is ideal for sweet potatoes. Vick’s more than 1,000 acres devoted to the crop are part of propelling North Carolina to lead production of sweet potatoes not only in the country, but the world, and as such, gifting beer made from their sweet potatoes is an obvious choice when working with German customers.

“We’re pretty excited about sharing our beer internationally,” Curran said.

Brew Works, which has been open for about three months, is expanding distribution of the popular beers beyond Wilson County as well as adding to the brews on tap, such as a Irish stout planned for a St. Patrick’s Day party at the downtown Wilson brewery.

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 265-7821