Homebrewing beer requires respect for a certain formula, a centuries-old outline concerning temperatures, treatment of hops and the needs of yeast. Yet, there’s an element of alchemy not lost on Dan Morgan, an award-winning homebrewer and the founder of Leveneleven Brewing in Greensboro, who’s been tinkering since high school.
“I used to drive to Greensboro to get my ingredients and stop at Schoolkids Records which is now the Walgreens on the corner of Spring Garden and Aycock,” he says. “Dark, dark times for homebrewing; it was foul stuff, basically a glorified Mr. Beer kit so all you had to do was dissolve the… pre-hopped liquid extract, which was slightly less viscous than tar.
“You dissolved that in water then added 3.3 pounds of corn sugar, which we now know makes the most horrible alcohol,” he continues, reveling in the memory. “You brought those to a boil just to sterilize it and as soon as it foamed up you’d kill the heat, cool it down. The yeast came taped onto a can that was part of kit. Just about everything was wrong but it did technically make alcohol.”
He’d sprinkle in some sugar for the yeast in his aunt and uncle’s kitchen and ferment the questionable concoction in the back of his closet for 10 days and store bottles in the ceiling crawlspace. Now, his baseline process lasts about five weeks and he’s moved it to the back of the brewery and taproom he opened next door to his homebrewing shop last February. Both face the Greensboro Coliseum Complex on Coliseum Boulevard.
Morgan’s foray into beer-brewing as an adult began with a back injury that forced him to slow down in 2005. The man needed a hobby.
“I walked into Triad Homebrew on Market, bought a [homebrewing] kit and lost my damn mind,” he says. “It was a passionate hobby for a year or two and then I started doing competitions.”
He opened Big Dan’s Brew Shed, a homebrew shop, about eight years ago to fund his own adventures and share in the thrill.
“It opened at exactly the right time, in exactly the right market but those days are long gone,” Morgan says. “The majority of home brewers are college-educated, middle-aged men and 2008/2009 is when a lot of those men had their careers snatched out from under ’em. And in North Carolina, we’re slow to everything so craft beer is boomin’, people are starting to drink better beer and getting curious.”
He says teaching others “high-end nerd stuff” feels like his calling.
“Teaching felt like what I should be doing, I feel like where I’m supposed to be. It’s probably my favorite thing to see the joy it brings them.”
Many of Morgan’s former mentees went on to open breweries of their own. He sold Mark Gibb of Gibb’s Hundred Brewing a 10-gallon brewing system for his pilot batches and mentored Andrew Deming, who founded Four Saints Brewing in Asheboro, their shared hometown.
He’s mentored three state champions.
“Derrick [Flippin] who works for me now was an amateur champion in 2016,” Morgan boasts. “He went from walking into my shop… to being national champion in like two and a half years. He’s won about everything an amateur can win. We have a good track record.”
And they have the hardware to show for it. Last week, Leveneleven took home three gold medals at the beer competition at the NC State Fair, including Best in Show for the first beer they brewed professionally in collaboration with Wise Man Brewing, the Right Proper Tropical Stout. He says the stout has placed in every competition it’s entered.
But Morgan insists the trade isn’t half as sexy as it’s perceived.
“It’s boring honestly,” he says. “It’s a lot of cleaning; it’s do the mash, get your starch converted to sugar, boil it, don’t infect it, let the yeast do the hard work. But you get closer with the ingredients by repetition and you get a lot of insight. Then just troubleshooting stuff with people, drinking a lot of flawed beer… scooping a lot of ingredients and just working with the stuff all day really pays off when you encounter [problems] on a larger scale.”
So, despite rigorous cleaning sessions and stuffy noses from histamine-packed hops, he absolutely loves the process that taught him patience.
“Homebrewing… is like fishing,” he says. “You get up really early… you might not catch anything, you come back sunburned and dehydrated, but you can’t wait ’til you can do it again.”
When he lays down at night, he’s thinking about beer, dreams of it, and awakes with a fervor to tinker with recipes.
“It’s beer first with us,” Morgan says. “I like to say we’re pushing the envelope, but backwards. These are styles that have been overlooked in the mad rush [to create novel brews].”
“We’re trying to find 49 people — that’s our max occupancy — who appreciate what we’re doin’ and we know they’re out there,” he continues. “People who love good beer and know beer, they don’t typically care about what’s on tap but what else is on tap and that’s how we are, too.”