Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Anthony Harden
Andy Mason, of Boone’s Lost Province Brewing Company, is bringing an alchemist’s mind to the art of beer brewing.
These days, craft beer brewing is big business.
Smaller breweries have popped up from time-to-time over the last few decades, but recently, what was once a niche industry has been propelled to new heights, with micro-brew hotspots ranging from Colorado to Portland to Brooklyn—and to Western North Carolina.
A century ago, however, nearly every beer company was a craft brewer. Before the bottling industry came on the scene and they found a way to keep beer contained enough to transport and be stocked on store shelves without losing its fizz, the beer barrel was the only way to go. If beer barrels did take a trip far from the brewing company, they had to be kept cold all of the time, and that meant using ice from ponds, rivers, and lakes, even the Great Lakes.
Before electric ice-making technology hit the scene, ice was cut from nature: Barns and building were filled with it, caves and underground rooms were also used as ice storage facilities well into the summer months, and rail cars were packed to the brim with massive chunks of frozen lake water ready for transport.
Because of those limitations, most cities in America had multiple breweries. Milwaukee became known for being the beer capital of the United States. At one point in the 1800s, Cincinnati, Ohio, sported over 30 breweries making beer in town at the same time. By the turn of the 20th Century, Cincinnati had upwards of 40,000 people working in various aspects of the overall beer brewing industry.
These days, virtually every list of the top craft brewing towns in America features Western North Carolina in the top 20, and some in the top ten or higher. Asheville has led the way in that regard. But now, places like Boone have also stepped up with impressive breweries making high-quality beers of all stripes, flavors, and ingredients.
In downtown Boone, at 130 North Depot Street just 60 feet or so from the now-famous bronze park bench statue of late, local music hero Doc Watson, is the Lost Province Brewing Company. The on-site brewery, restaurant, and live music venue is run by the owners, Andy and Lynne Mason, along with daughter Carolyn and an enthusiastic staff.
What is cool about Andy Mason—also the head brewer—is that he was a man of two worlds that became one. He is a trained chemist who developed a love for brewing beer over two decades ago and that confluence changed his life.
“I’ve been a home brewer since 1989. There was a guy who lived across the street who was a home brewer, and I fell in love with the process of grabbing up the materials and just doing it.”
Turning a Hobby Into a Passion
Brewing is not an easy task, as there is a lot that can go wrong and a lot that can go right with the process. For example, you can take two identical sets of the same ingredients and—as you will read below—create two different kinds of beer with them. With Mason’s ability to think as an alchemist, combined with a love for the history and art of brewing, the result is a constantly changing lineup of unique beers at Lost Province.
“I was a forensic toxicologist, which came about after 15 years of training,” says Mason. “I did all of my graduate work at UNC at Chapel Hill and got a doctoral degree in medicinal chemistry. I worked in the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office [in Raleigh] from 1980 to 1992, starting out as a grad student, and I left as North Carolina’s Chief Toxicologist. That was before forensics became cool.”
In the late 1980s, he came across a friend who made his own beer and then he tried to do it himself.
“I’ve been a home brewer since 1989. There was a guy who lived across the street who was a home brewer, and I fell in love with the process of grabbing up the materials and just doing it. I kept on reading about it and studying and brewing beer and got more and more interested in it. Way back in 1992 I thought about doing something like this, but I never had the opportunity until later on in life.”
So Mason began to task of making his own specialized brews—a hit or miss proposition when one is a beginner.
“When I made my first batch, it was okay, but it wasn’t anything special,” he recalls. “But the beer wasn’t bad enough to discourage me, either. I thought, ‘Well, okay. I can do this.’ And that is where it went from there.
“Now, if I am known for a certain beer, one of our most interesting beers right now is the Tubby Monk. We have won some awards and gold medals with it in various competitions. It is seasonal, so it comes out around Christmastime or a little bit later. It is a Belgian dark, strong ale and it has strong flavors of sour cherry and roasted fruit in it. It is a lot of fun to make.”
Mason, clearly enthusiastic about describing some of the complexities inherent to brewing, continues, saying, “You can take those two same sets of ingredients and then modify things like time and temperature. You can adjust your boil time and produce light, golden-colored ale with one set—and if I boiled the heck out of it and did it at a higher temperature, I could produce an amber beer from the same batch of ingredients. It also matters when you add the hops. To get to a really dark beer, you tend to use highly-roasted malts and barleys. So, it is just about knowing the craft and learning to manipulate things.”
Recently, that dedication to innovative beer brewing paid off at the 2017 Carolinas Championship of Beer competition held on April 22, as the Lost Province Brewing Company won a Gold Medal for their Deep Valley Dunkel beer. They also won eight Silver Medals for their other beers, including the aforementioned Tubby Monk, Brothers Mason Dubbel, Mosaic IPA, Lost Sasquatch Stout, and more.
“There is a real feeling of camaraderie there and a real feeling of shared community in the brewing community of North Carolina,” he says.
Finding—and Creating—A Community
Mason and his wife had always talked about moving to Boone. After leaving his government job in Raleigh he had moved to Pennsylvania, where he managed a laboratory. “Lynne and I have been married for 35 years, and it has been the best and proudest accomplishment of my life. I spent a couple of years in Pennsylvania [but] I wanted to come back to North Carolina. We used to joke about moving to Boone when we retired, and then we had the opportunity to come back earlier. So, we just did it. Lynne found a job and I was able to move my business from Pennsylvania down here for the first couple of years, and then I started my own company. The stars happened to align in the right way.”
The biggest change for Mason was going from working for the government to running his own business and now having to deal with employees, shipments, business taxes, food and kitchen inspections, marketing, and so forth.
“It has been great, both on the fermentation side and otherwise, as it gives you the opportunity to more selective about what you do and how you do it,” says Mason. “There are a few less constraints, while on the other hand there are a few more constraints because you don’t have Big Daddy watching over you (as with government work). But, I really enjoy being an entrepreneur. I really enjoy the whole running-a-business concept. It’s been a real gas, but it is not easy.”
With a stage built inside their restaurant and bar, the Masons make sure that live music is featured at Lost Province at least four nights a week, which makes it an important venue for local and regional bands.
“Music has always been a big part of my life,” he explains, “and it adds to the entertainment of the facility. People get off work in the evening and want to enjoy music, and we are very happy to support local talent and pay them, and to pay them appropriately. We want to support that part of our community.”
Mason is also enthusiastic about being a part of the whole craft beer movement, noting that for him, not only is it a labor of love, it brings with it an ever-widening and growing community of enthusiasts and artisans, one which overlaps with other, similarly-minded communities.
“I think that more beer is better beer. I think that American society, and people in general, demanded more local food, demanded food with more flavor, and demanded food that is less processed and as free from pesticides and GMOs as possible. So our food is local, regional, and seasonal, and a lot of it really does come from up here in the High Country.”
The same approach is utilized in the making of local and regional craft brews.
“On the beer side, craft beer also has that flavor and has those intangibles. It is produced locally, produced fresh, and consumed fresh, and that is what people want. I am real happy about the growth of the craft beer industry in this state. I think that North Carolina has led the way in the Southeast, and Boone has been a part of it and will continue to be a part of it. I am thrilled, and I think it is good for the state—it is my understanding that there have been over 10,000 jobs created in North Carolina, in a 1.2-billion-dollar industry and growing!
“Craft brewing is one of the fastest growing industries in the state. So I think we make a real impact, especially locally, on the economic vitality of towns like Boone and many others. There are a lot of other towns that are trying to get a brewery in their downtown area because it tends to become a draw and a magnet and serves as an anchor for your downtown area. I just think it is a great phenomenon that is going on.”
Lost Province has been enjoying its own burst economic vitality, too, as the business currently finds itself in expansion mode: To meet demand, Mason is increasing the number of tanks on-site, and he’s only half-joking when he says that it is about to get crowded inside the brewery. This, however, is what we would call a good problem to have. “I’m almost having trouble keeping up because business is so good. Each month this year we have been up between 15 and 25 percent over 2016.”
Incidentally, last November, Mason went to the North Carolina Brewers Guild convention and was proud to represent the Boone area and its new brewing history.
“There is a real feeling of camaraderie there and a real feeling of shared community in the brewing community of North Carolina,” he says. “It is so much fun to go there and see these people that you know and like, and you get to taste some of their product. They [also] have some great presentations. There is technical information offered. There is a trade show with people [who] are in the business of selling products to breweries. It is a part of that continuous learning thing that you have to do if you want to be a part of the society.
“It is about the community and about the learning experience—and it helps to grow the industry. You have to be a continuous learner.”
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