Getting to know your brewer is so important, you can understand their passion for brewing your favorite beers. I sat down recently with Peter Skelton, owner and brewer at Levee Brewery and Pub to hear his story.
A little background on Peter, he currently lives in Valdese, NC, but originally grew up in the White Cliffs country down in Dover and Kent (England.) He has been in the States a little over nine years and has been residing in Valdese for three of those years.
As I sat down to talk with Peter I asked why he decide to start brewing and how he got into craft beer.
Peter: Sounds slightly tacky, but I've always liked beer ever since I was a legal age (18) in England. In England we don't really have the same sort of craft beer divide that you do in the US, there is the, I guess what is the equivalent to the domestic product that is cheap beer, then there is everything else, like cask beer, etc. There are a lot more local breweries doing unique flavors so that is what really got me into drinking good beer. Once I moved to the States, I realized American beer is quite different. I was living in Maryland at the time and a six pack of craft beer was $13. I was like, “well okay I'm a scientist, can't be that difficult to make beer let's give it a go,” so I started homebrewing. I started emulating British beers that I liked that you couldn’t find in America and the rest is history.
What is the the history of the Levee, when did you start it, and how has that been?
Peter: So, it's one of those things, when people find out you homebrew, and you give people beer, sooner or later somebody starts saying well, you should open a brewery. My response for years was always no, that's too much hard work, too much red tape, too much regulation, etc. At the time I was very happy in my previous career, and I was on the up and up so you know, no need for a change. Suddenly some wheels turned, essentially, I found myself at a point where I stopped liking my job, I didn't want my boss's job, and I definitely didn't want my boss's boss's job. I was also in a very niche field within the industry as well so there felt like there was no way out- like I had hit a plateau. So I decided it was time for a change and I kept circling back to making beer professionally. The craft beer market was still growing so there was plenty of space for new entrants and I had some background with beer. I wanted to brew some English and European style beers and I realized there was space for it since it wasn’t your traditional, typical thing that would set me apart from the others.
So were you in Valdese at that time or did you move here after?
Peter: I was in the Raleigh area at the time, and I think it was around about that time Bond Brothers just really starting to spread their wings in Cary. They were one of the people that I reached out to when I first decided okay, I'm going to give being a professional brewer a shot. Everybody said, go and volunteer at a craft brewery, tell them that you're interested in getting into the industry and you want to seek out some real advice. I was willing to work for free on a volunteer basis to really get a sense of working in a large-scale brewery compared to small home brewing operations. They were very welcoming and were the first real hands-on experience I had. People think that being a brewery is glamorous but it's a lot of hard work. There is a lot of manual labor, chemistry, trial and error, and more that goes into a batch of beer. It's very rewarding though when people taste your beer and comment on how great it is, it makes it all worth it. The craft beer community is also very welcoming and is often willing to help right away no questions asked. We love being a part of this community and hope that we can help people just as much as others have helped me. Competition is much bigger than small brewery to small brewery, if we all stick together and do our own individual thing we can continue to grow as a craft beverage community.
We have so many different size breweries on this trail, how many employees do you currently have?
Peter: There are three of us at the moment but are potentially looking to add one or two more if they are the right people.
What is your thought process when you're coming up with new flavors and styles? How do you come up with names?
Peter: If you want to make something new, go out and drink a ton of different beers. Go and see what other people are doing, where are they going or where are they not going. Sometimes, you've got to stay with the crowd, and sometimes you can find a space to go off and do something very different. We're not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel yet we want to stand out and put our own spin on things to make us unique. It's one of those things where an awful lot of the devil is in the details. I'm gonna bring a certain set of knowledge, I know what I’ve used in the past that worked, then you play with that to create something new. That is what is interesting about small breweries, you are dealing with one person who makes the beer and that person has their own set of tastes, some of which is inherited from stuff they've had in the past, some of which they've developed based on chasing what they like. So, every one of us has got a different sense of taste and what they like. For example, if you were looking for a base malt to go into a beer, there are easily 20 different varieties available to us here in our particular corner of North Carolina. We all have our favorite tasting malt and that is only one of the many ingredients that go into making each beer. On top of that, even just the simple stuff like the fact that we get very good, very clean water coming in here, particularly in valleys, since our water is mostly rainwater runoff in the mountains. Just the different water used can push up certain flavors and push down others so everything I tweak can create a different experience which is exciting. Being a small brewery operation we make small batches so we have a lot more flexibility in our ingredients and can quickly recreate or discontinue beers based on what the sentiment is. Those details are what makes people come to anyone specific brewery if you find the person that clicks with your taste then they will keep coming back.
The first beer that you made, do you remember what kind of beer it was and what inspired you to make that kind of beer and get interested in it?
Peter: Realistically, there was one particular beer in England that was really unique and I wanted it here in America. When I started homebrewing I decided to buy a couple of kits, buy something that's pre-assembled and see how it turns out. It went pretty well actually and that's what kept me brewing.
Have you emulated that beer in the brewery here at the Levee?
Peter: Yes, I broadly say so, the Daylight Robbery that is on tap right now is loosely based on that beer, I want to bring it back to the original version sometime soon and put it in a cask which means it will naturally be carbonated and is pulled by the beer engine rather than being pushed through with CO2 like normally beer is through a keg.
Is working at and owning a brewery different than what you thought it would be? Seeing that you had already familiarized yourself with the process before jumping right in, but I am sure it is different owning one.
Peter: Yeah, it definitely wasn't a leap in the dark. I felt like I had mostly worked in the brewing aspect so the front of the house has been different but very rewarding. When people are coming in, they don't know you, they've got no reason to think anything good or bad. It's exceptionally rewarding when somebody comes in and says this is the first time I've been here, and maybe they asked for a couple of samples or they just dive in and get a pint of something, and they say “Oh, I really like that.” It makes you realize, this is the right thing, this is the thing I'm supposed to be doing. It is a big leap to start your own business so the little affirmations here and there make it all worth it. It's why you do what you do. Then you may have people that come in and try five things and can't find anything they like, which happens, and is why we carry wine, a domestic beer, some sort of seltzer as well as a few nonalcoholic drinks so people don’t feel excluded if they aren’t interested in what’s on tap. That's one of the fun things about beer is that it is such a broad spectrum. There's probably something that almost everybody likes, you just have to find it.
What is unique about your beer specifically? I love that there's a lot of British roots with your beer yet not all of them are European style. Tell me more about that.
Peter: What sets us apart goes back to things I mentioned previously like we all have our own individual preferences and tastes on what kind of malts and hops and things we like so naturally my tastes are going to be different than other brewers. I started after a lot of these other people so I got to go and talk to a lot of very well-respected American brewers, modern and classic. A lot of those people have helped me hone my craft by teaching me the basics and what to do and not to do. My basic philosophy has two points to it, obviously, I only put beer on tap that I enjoy drinking. That is rule number one, if I wouldn’t want to drink it I wouldn’t expect others to want to drink it either. I lean into particular flavors, just like everybody likes their own balance of things I try and push for a beer that is balanced, all the way around, even something with extreme style like a triple IPA. A triple IPA is supposed to punch you in the face with hops, but our triple IPA is not just a one-note, there's always a lead layer or two or three layers of complexity under there which we get by choosing different ingredients. As a small brewery, we can work more easily with different ingredients for every beer, whereas a big brewery wants to use one yeast for everything because they do everything in bulk. We have 12 different taps and we can make 12 different and very unique beers.
What steps do you take to give back to the community?
Peter: In the past, we've done a couple of different things where we've brewed a beer and then donated a portion of the proceeds from sales to various causes. We were also one of the breweries in 2018/2019, I think it was, that brewed the Sierra Nevada Resilience IPA. All the proceeds of that went to the people that had suffered from the campfire wildfire. We brewed an IPA supporting the local Asheville chapter of the Pink Boots Society which supports and provides funding and guidance to women in the brewing industry. We have an upcoming Beer for Brain Cancer Awareness event and we've also done fundraising events to support Friends of the Valdese Rec. for the Valdese Lakeside Park project here in town, where we also donated our old benches to the Valdese Lakeside Park.
To learn more about Levee Brewery and Pub or the Catawba Valley Ale Trail click here!