Chapel Hill Festival draws crowd for food, beer and peppers

By Dathan Kazsuk

So, you haven’t heard of Abundance NC? Well, let me tell you a little bit about them. They are a local nonprofit organization dealing in bringing people together to celebrate great ideas and to help build an ideal community that we should all want to live in. A community based around being self-sufficient. A community where bringing local produce into school cafeterias could help our children with a healthier diet. A community where local farmers and chefs work together to give us farm-to-table meals on our plates.

And for the past seven years, Abundance has hosted the ever-so-fiery Pepper Festival. This year the event took place on Oct. 5 at Chapel Hill’s Briar Chapel neighborhood. Tickets for the event started around $20-$30 in advance and $35 at the door, and once inside, you can taste samples of all the local, gourmet food from over 20 chefs – all infusing locally grown peppers into their dishes.

From sweet to hot. From smoky to creamy. If you like peppers this was an event that shouldn’t have been missed. Usually events based around peppers, the chefs or contestants try to make the “hottest” dishes imaginable, but that was not the case here. These chefs thought out their dishes, and the peppers accommodated every ingredient in the dish. Nothing here was going to make you breathe fire and run for a gallon of milk.

Lilly Den Farm of Goldston, N.C. was serving at the 7th Annual Pepper Festival.

Lilly Den Farm of Goldston, N.C. was serving at the 7th Annual Pepper Festival.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, I was there to be part of the judging of the pepper beer competition. It was myself, the N.C. Beer Guys (Dave Tollefsen and Glenn Cutler) and 99.9 The Fan’s radio host, Joe Ovies.

Along with clipboard in hand, Jen and myself slowly made our way around to taste all the beers. First was Pittsboro’s Carolina Brewery. Though I do enjoy the beers the gang at Carolina Brewery craft like Sky Blue Golden and Oatmeal Porter, I thought the contribution to this year’s Pepper Festival fell slightly flat. Carolina Brewery infused peppers with its Flagship IPA – which normally is a great IPA, but the peppers had next to no ‘zing’ in the overall flavor of this beer.

Next up was newcomers, Regulator Brewing Company, out of Hillsborough. There we met co-founder Ryan Dodd, who gave us a couple samples of the Pepper Pale Ale. This beer was refreshing and it had the right amount of heat in the back of your throat. I could have easily kicked back a full pint of this pale ale.

Glasshalfull is a restaurant and wine bar based in Carrboro.

Glasshalfull is a restaurant and wine bar based in Carrboro.

Now it was time to sample some food. At Carborro’s Glasshalfull, we sampled a pepper soup with sweet corn and shrimp. Cary’s Tribeca Tavern served up a peppered polenta with shredded peppered confit pork and a pepper jelly. And Top of the Hill Restaurant, out of Chapel Hill, had carved roast beef with several pepper condiments (from mild to hot). Of course I went straight for the hot!

At Top of the Hill, we picked up sample No. 3 of my beer judging, and that was the Habanero IPA. Wow! Did this one pack a punch! You felt the heat in your mouth, and moments later after you took a swig, the heat still lingered. Jen, who generally isn’t a fan of most IPAs, also enjoyed the flavor of this beer. By the time we came back for seconds, the beer was tapped out! Way to go.

A couple booths over we tried some N.C. grits and peppers with house made Italian sausage and bacon tobago jam from Raleigh’s 518 West. There I ran into blogger/author Johanna Kramer (a.k.a. the Durham Foodie) and 518‘s chef, Serge Falcon-Vigne. It was nice to see the two of them again. I haven’t seen Chef Serge isn’t his last stint in the annual Fire in the Triangle competition.

Food blogger/author Johanna Kramer and 518 West's chef Serge Falcon-Vigne.

Food blogger/author Johanna Kramer and 518 West's chef Serge Falcon-Vigne.

The next beer on my list was from Carrboro’s Steel String Brewery. It was the Spicy No Quarter Coffee Stout – infused with three different peppers. A nice hint of heat resided towards the finish of this beer that made this another great beer to have on a nice Fall evening. I could have taken a growler of this home with me to enjoy out by the fire pit.

We could have spent a lot more time at the Pepper Fest on that day, but we had to get ready to head towards another event that evening, so we made our way towards the last beer to sample for the afternoon. Last up was another newcomer in the craft beer world, YesterYears Brewery, out of Carrboro.

At YesterYears we sampled the Fiddlehead PJB (pepper jelly beer). Another great beer! This beer had the heat from the peppers, but also sweetness of the jam. The guys also had 5 other beers available to sample that afternoon, including a peppermint stout and a citrus hefeweizen. Their brick-and-mortar taproom will be opening up by the Cat’s Cradle venue in Carrboro in early 2015 … definitely worth checking out.

This afternoon I only sampled the pepper beers, but there was more than enough food and beverages for all ages. Crude Small-Batch Bitters & Sodas had a variety of sodas to sample, such as the Habanero Lime Soda. Fair Game Beverage Co. had a Tobago-Scuppernong Spritzer. Larry’s Coffee had a Mayan chocolate with pepper flakes, and Durham’s Mystic Bourbon Liqueur was on hand pouring samples of its sweetened, spiced bourbon. That reminds me, I need to pick up a bottle of that.