Three’s Company: NoDa Team Touts ‘Small, but Deep Philosophy’

A pilot and a banker decided to open a brewery. They asked a medical equipment salesman to join in as well.
That’s not the lead-in to a punchline, that’s the simple truth when it comes to how NoDa Brewing was formed in Charlotte, North Carolina. The brewery, which turned seven years old on October 29, 2018, is one of the vanguards in brewing for the area. That still shocks husband and wife Todd and Suzie Ford, who hatched the idea ​after being downsized at their previous careers ​and added ​fellow homebrew club member ​Chad Henderson in their plans before even breaking ground on the first facility.
​That makes NoDa the place aspiring ​brewers come to for advice. And they are open arms about it.
​“We don’t keep secrets or try to put anyone at a disadvantage​,” Henderson said​. ​“​We were in that boat not too long ago and there were not as many people to ask when we started. And everyone was great to us and willing to give advice​.
​“​We don’t think we have all the answers, but we are more than willing to tell people what we know so far and what worked for us.​“​
​The brewery opened its second facility in 2015 after rapid growth. Henderson admitted it was a quick and tough stretch at that time to switch to a larger system that was much more automated than when the brewery began in 2011.​
“This is a whole different ball game,” he said, standing over the control panel on the brew deck. “Learning the language, like automatic and external vs. manual and internal. To someone that doesn’t do it, it doesn’t mean jack.”
That meant figuring out a new scaled-up version of its top seller, Hop, Drop & Roll. The West Coast IPA-style had some bumps in the road, Henderson explained.
“We were told our efficiency [on the brewhouse] would be in the 90-94 percent range. Our old site was 80-82,” he said. “So I could scale that part, but as far as the hops and the internal calandria — at the old spot it was a mash-lauter combo with a whirlpool/kettle combo. We added a dedicated whirlpool so we can do five batches a day on it. Everything about it is a different dynamic. How the grain is extracted … the boil, the isomerization … everything was different. We learned that something in the kettle for more than 20 minutes might as well be in there as a 60-minute addition.”
Learning the hop schedule was key. Henderson said consumers were getting mad when NoDa came out with Hop Drop & Roll out of the new facility at first because it was tasting different.
“And I had to tell people, we didn’t change it for us, I was trying to redesign it one thing at a time,” he said. “The tanks’ geometry was even different than in the two 40s. They were stouter and flatter and the yeast acted differently in there than the 60s and we had to learn to oxygenate differently.
“We finally nailed things back down to the ballpark, but we lost some fans in that. It wasn’t infected, it was just not on target, but we had to look through everything that could be done different and try to adjust it in the right direction. We had a few months of ‘Oh, crap’ but we have been able to bounce back from that.”
The Fords had experienced brands of beers from the West Coast and wanted to bring those varieties to Charlotte. At the time they started to look into the process, no local craft brewery was open other than John Marrino’s Olde Mecklenburg Brewery — which focused on German Lagers. Another brewery opened before NoDa, but it eventually closed, leaving the Fords and Henderson as veterans along with Marrino in creating beer to sell for consumers in the region. That has meant more than 30 breweries opening up in the Charlotte area since 2010.
Growth beyond the Charlotte area is thin for NoDa though. North Carolina laws cap breweries at 25,000 barrels per year if it wants to stay self distributed and the NoDa owners, along with other breweries in the state, are suing for the cap to be raised or lifted.
That doesn’t mean NoDa would race to the next limit. Henderson said the plan would remain the same since the brewery opened: slow and steady.
“We aren’t going to all of a sudden go from 20,000 barrels to 200,000,” he said. “We will keep growing organically. … We don’t have any intentions, even in the immediate future even if the law does change, to leave the state. I don’t like the idea of our beer being put on a truck and being shipped somewhere across several states, sit in a warehouse and go on a shelf and sit there. That’s a disadvantage for us.
“Plus, many of these places that are big beer places, they already have great breweries where they are. I’d love it if someone comes to the Carolinas, their friends will tell them, ‘You HAVE to get some NoDa!’ That’s all I really care for us. I want to be that super consistent, exciting, quality brewery that people tell their friends to come out for and visit. That to me is a lot more appealing and to be able to have that control of our product than saying we are in 30 states and 15 countries.”
Henderson said that the brewery has more than 500 accounts in Charlotte alone, but that doesn’t mean they are exclusive to the 45-mile radius. They do have accounts that come to them to buy beer. Raleigh, North Carolina, is one such area where bottle shops, other retail and on-premise buyers will come to the brewery to purchase beer wholesale.
“We could get 8,000-10,000 barrels in there, but that would put us over the limit,” Henderson said, as the brewery produced around 20,000 barrels, with its current layout able to create more than 40,000 with more room to grow from there.
Entering the craft beer industry was very different from the industries that all three were in prior. Suzie Ford worked for a bank, Todd Ford was an airline pilot and Henderson sold medical equipment.
Yet they were all a part of a Charlotte-area homebrew club and eventually connected with each other over the art and science of the hobby.
“It was not collaborative, it’s very competitive,” Suzie Ford said of moving from the banking world into the professional brewing community. “It was very refreshing to have Olde Mecklenburg and John come and take a look at our plans and answer questions about the city.
“He realized it was going to help him as more people could start to realize what craft beer really is.”
Suzie said that she and Todd didn’t want to have others involved financially to start.
“We wanted the decisions that needed to be made between the two of us,” she said of why they didn’t seek financers. “We didn’t want to answer to a third party.
“Unfortunately in 2008, the crash was going on, so we were told ‘No’ a lot for loans anyway.”
The Fords found a little-known provision in the 401(k) code that allowed them to self-direct their funds into their own business.
“We got a small equipment loan to make a deposit before we dipped into our 401(k) and then rolled all of our 401(k) into the business to fund it,” she explained.
They did eventually find a small lender that had worked with Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston.
“When we said ‘brewery’ they didn’t slam their book closed on us,” Todd joked. “They actually followed through for us and became a great partner. They lent us the money and would come visit us and be excited for us in the opening process.
“When it was time for us to borrow 10 times more money (to open the new facility in 2015), they were there. By that time, there were bigger people that we could have went to, but it was easy for us to make a decision. We went with the people who were there for us at the very beginning. It’s been nice to support the people, the industries and the companies that supported us first.”
The trio met by happenstance and soon after, Henderson was hired to first help build the brewery — even digging the drains — and then as the head brewer.
“Not only did he get to brew there, he knows where all the concrete is laid, where all the rebar is, drainage,” Todd said. “We have pictures of Chad in the ditches, up to his knees in there and he always had a smile on his face, because he knew he was just that much closer to getting to be able to brew.”
When NoDa first opened, Suzie said they just thought small.
“Just Charlotte,” she explained. “We had no clue how it was going to be, but we had a budget and some projections.”
For the first couple of months she said they had to keep re-doing the projections because it would ‘blow them out of the water.’
“At year one, we hit year three projections so we just quit projecting and just let things happen naturally from there,” she said. “We built the brewery with the thought of growth. We added more glycol lines than what we would need. We always up-sized. We had the infrastructure there if we needed it, because it would be cheaper to do it at the beginning than add it afterward. And we always needed it.”
​It was that growth the spurred a new production facility. Being that they only go out to about a 45-mile radius of the Charlotte metro area where there are about 2 million people, stocking retail shelves is the brewery’s business model. That meant upping its canning​ game, adding a 30-head filler that can do about 140 cans per minute. They have a five-head back up as well.
“It was important to us to have some redundancy because this is where most of our bread and butter comes from,” Suzie Ford said. “If this machine goes down — and it’s a German machine — they then have to come over and it’s not easy to do.
“We can’t just say, ‘Hey Harris Teeter, Hey Publix, we aren’t going to have beer for a couple of weeks, can you hold that shelf space for us?’ That’s not happening.”
With a portfolio of five year-round cans and seven total yearlies along with six seasonals and a new beer each week that comes out of the original facility on a 15-barrel system, NoDa likes to push beer to consumers via its taproom, but also makes sure outside its walls the purchasing continues.
​“​We want someone to come here and drink, find out what they like and keep drinking it outside the taproom​,” Suzie Ford said​. ​“They can find it at the grocery store​.”
Todd Ford said although there may be consumers that want NoDa beer in Ohio or Kansas, the brewery doesn’t have a connection there like it does in Charlotte.
“Having a connection with our consumers was the most important thing we can do,” Ford said. “Small but deep is the right model for us. But when I hear that some companies are having distribution problems with a place two or three states over, it’s not just the distributor.
“How are you going to make yourself a household name when no one knows who you are? We have been very comfortable keeping distribution very small, but we also want to make sure if someone comes to Charlotte they see us as a choice. So far that’s worked out well for us.”
The addition of a full lab with new equipment over the last 18 months is a part of the increase in consistency and shelf stability that the trio of owners is looking for.
Todd Ford said it was “triple the cost and four times the time,” that they had planned, but it was necessary.
“The lab has given us the opportunity to really hone in our recipes,” he said. “Our beers have always been good, but maybe not as consistent as we would have hoped. We could recognize if it was a great batch, or just a good batch. We wanted to get to the point where all the batches were great.
“We have been able to give [the lab] some new toys and they are figuring out the best use of them. Even the industry as a whole is struggling with the concepts of shelf stability and whether it’s wild yeast or whatnot. You can read all the textbooks there are; sometimes the answers aren’t in there and you have to work with other brewers to find out.”
Having all the extra info thanks to the upgrade in technology has been paramount for Henderson and his brewing team.
“There is so much more that you can quantify. The more you can quantify, the more things you can work at being consistent,” he said. “When you have a lab that can give you numbers … we can start seeing problems way before we even go into packaging and we can now troubleshoot from there. It’s just another set of things that can help guide you.
“The tighter you have your data, the finer and more accurate you can put everything before you package.”
Although one of the brewery’s biggest goals is to have variety, before that they needed to have the consistency to be solid.
“We have to have the reputation of having consistent beer,” Henderson said. “That way people can explore all the varieties we have. It’s fun and exciting to put new things out, but if you have the reputation that you’re consistently making good stuff, then they will want to try all the new fun things that you are putting out as well.
“If you make consistent products, then you can go and play and create great stuff afterward.”
Todd Ford reminds himself, his ownership team and his staff, that they all have come from different industries, and they chose this life.
“We want to be here. And we have to remember that,” he said with a laugh. “We have to remember that when the keg washer won’t work or it’s cold outside and you drop a keg on your toe. We chose this. We have to remind ourselves things like this on the bad days, but on the good days as well.”
Ford recalls standing on top of the brewhouse stand at the old facility a few years ago.
“A bunch of us standing there, lost deep in thought,” he said. “It was something we couldn’t figure out and we look up and see all these people looking at us and wondering what is wrong. At that point, we realized that they (consumers) could see us and we have to be careful that we don’t give off the wrong vibe.
“We like doing this and we enjoy it. We don’t want it to look like it’s painful. So since then, we hung up a sign that said: ‘Smile, we get to make beer.’ Sometimes we have to remember we chose this, we are lucky to do this and we might as well have fun.”

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