By Bobby Bush
His German-made brewing equipment was on a ship steaming westward from Europe when Uli Bennewitz first learned that what he planned to do was illegal. In fact, his brewhouse was on the water before he even spoke to the Alcohol Beverage Commission in Raleigh, who informed the German immigrant that brewing beer in North Carolina was permissible but that retail sales of his product was not. An understanding ABC commissioner had pity and actually helped him change the law. Uli calls it a truly unique event. This 1985 amendment was the "only law ever passed without a lawyer involved."
When it opened in 1986, Weeping Radish was the East Coast's very first microbrewery. Imagine the courage in opening a traditional German restaurant serving house-made traditional German beers in the rural Outer Banks of North Carolina. Thanks to "consistency and quality," the brewpub quickly became a tourist attraction by word of mouth alone.
And so this interesting story evolved at the sixth Lake Hickory Country Club beer tasting. The beers of Weeping Radish and the founder himself were greeted by a healthy crowd of tasters. Uli was escorted by beer savvy Tryon Distributing rep Heather Nelson.
The program began with Weeping Radish OBX, a light lager made with ale yeast, targeted toward hot weather tourists. We drank small samples poured into wine glasses. Next up was Corolla Gold. A pale, golden lager in the Munich Helles style, each swallow entered malty sweet before fading into a pleasant floral hop exit. Weizen was an unfiltered Bavarian wheat beer, with plenty of yeasty, estery clove spicy taste and aroma. Fest Amber offered smooth malty sweetness and crisp hop finish in Oktoberfest style, while chestnut brown Black Radish played tunes of roasted and chocolate malt goodness.
Born in Lima, Peru, Uli's family moved to Germany when he was seven. He attended college in England, where he earned a degree in agriculture, then headed to the US to ply his trade. Pastoral Manteo was selected for his first farming venture.
The hardworking entrepreneur, who has never been a brewer, now manages 14,000 acres of farmland in several states, raising corn, cotton and potatoes as cash crops. Uli's latest dream is under construction in Currituck County. Weeping Radish Brewery & Eco-Farm is designed as a tourist attraction. Along with a tour-friendly brewery, containing two 14 barrel brewhouses, this facility will house a Country Store, a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, a Butcher Shop, staffed by a German butcher offering only North Carolina hormone free beef and free-range hogs, and Uli's pride and joy, a 5-acre demonstration farm where visitors can observe crops growing, see greenhouses produce flowers and watch farm livestock grazing. The energetic German also plans to distill Potato Vodka, which must be sold to ABC for resale. There will be no change of law this time.
The original Weeping Radish, named for a salty German snack, will continue as is, though with a smaller brewery. Already announced is a day-long Brewing School, where participants get to brew for a day with professional instruction. See www.weepingradish.com if you're interested.
For the first seven of Weeping Radish's 18 years, Uli employed German brewers. He tired of their contrary nature and hardheadedness and soon developed an alternative program to keep his beer authentic. Instead of bring German brewers here to brew, he brought them in for six months to educate his American employees. Andy Duck, who started on the bottom rung, is now the Weeping Radish head brewer.
Uli Bennewitz is a man of motion. He spoke more of his plans and eco-farm than he did of his beer. Sipping water (he was driving to Raleigh after dinner), he gleefully answered questions, smiling as he discussed history, grinning even bigger as he depicted the future of Weeping Radish Brewery.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush