converging thoughts – conclusion

And now for the “so what do I want to do with these thoughts”.

I have a farm and I have resources.  I may not have time for a full time second job, but I think I have an idea that I can act on.

Today in the US there are about 200 micro-distilleries and in North Carolina there are currently 8.  If you think about the micro-brewery business, there were a handful about two decades ago and now there are many.  It is not usual for a major city to have several. With beer and wine, the laws allow for small level production for home use.  This is not so for distilled beverages.  There are still many rules and regulations that exist for distilling and you have to go through quite a lengthy approval process with the federal and state agencies.

The core of my idea is to re-furbish one of the out building on the farm, a former metal shed workshop, into a small facility capable of providing for early trial and pilot production of distilled spirits.  The facility would have space for the fermentation of the mash, the distilling and storage.  The intent would be to provide a micro-distillery incubator for start-up distilleries.  As part of the vision, I would work with or encourage the formation of local farms (maybe even initially utilizating some of our land) to product the raw ingredients.  And I would like to power the facility as much as possible from solar sources and recycle the bi-products into compost, feed etc.  Focus on local, sustainable and providing opportunity for the local community to benefit from the business success of the micro-distillery start-ups that I incubate.

I have done research on the basic processing of distilled spirit production. I have downloaded The Home Distiller’s Workbook and The Making of an American Small Batch Micro-Distillery on the Kindle reader on the iPad. I have spent a lot of time reading the Home Distillation of Alcohol and American Distilling Institution websites. I have found small batch stills at milehidistilling.com and hillbillystills.com.  I have started researching all of the requirements for licensing such a facility and have commissioned my brother, the architect, to put together a rough scoping of the work for refurbishing the metal shed into a facility that we could successfully get licensed.

This idea grew out of a set of discussions that I had with my former boss, who retired from Netapp last fall.  She was Netapp’s first employee in RTP and it was through her efforts that the site has grown to one of Netapp largest sites away from the Sunnyvale, Ca headquarters.  She had plans to travel and spend time at the spa getting herself back into shape upon retiring.

She contacted me in January to see if we could go for a lunch date and talk. I think for someone who was used to being on a crusade for the last decade or more to grow the RTP facility, she was finding travel and fitness didn’t exact provide the same thrill as her former crusade. I told her that I had an idea for her next crusade and we set a date for lunch.

I had long been thinking about production of alcoholic spirits of some sorts.  I find the notion of a vineyard and a winery to be incredible romantic.   I have even read a lot about what is required. The “From Vines to Wines” book and the tales in Ferenc Mate’s “A Vineyard in Tuscany” where he planted his own vineyards and made award winning wines  are certainly inspirational. I will say it is important to balance the romance with the reality.  It takes several years for the vines to mature and then even more years for the wines to age. The realities come back to mind once the inspiration wore off or after one of those “share the dream” conversations with the (always practical) wife.

However my son, the chef, kept suggesting the distilling idea because there were un-aged spirits that could be produced from ingredients that did not require years to grow.  Finally this idea clicked when I thought about my suggestions for the “next crusade” pitch that I was going to share over lunch.

My former boss is a native of Poland and she is pretty legendary with respect to spirits, especially Polish Buffalo Grass Vodka. It seems that every party at her house has had an ample supply of bottles in the freezer and late at night the bottles and shot glasses come out.  So taking my interest and research into spirits and her natural abilities to appreciate fine Polish Vodka, I thought what she needed to help form was North Carolina’s first Polish Vodka micro-distillery, aimed at premium product made from local ingredients in a sustainable fashion. I pitched the idea over lunch and by the end of lunch she was enthusiastic about the idea.  In fact the next weekend was her annual holiday party and she had me pitch the idea to all our fellow workers at the party, of course after the first round of shots from the Buffalo Grass Vodka.  Everyone thought this was an absolutely perfect idea!

A few of us have been meeting regularly to work on the idea and a lot of my research has been directed in support of this idea.  My former boss was researching potatoes that could be the basis of the Vodka, of course heirloom potatoes came to mind.  She found Blue Heirloom Potatoes online and thought they might provide a potential foundation for the vodka.  I have ordered some. There are about 7 pounds in the refrigerator and I took 3 lbs and sliced them into seed potatoes.  As you can see the blue potato bed is doing wonderfully.

So this is an idea that I can start small with and I think it has a potential to grow.  Ceratinly a local community will need other things in the future, more organic produce, organic proteins raised in a humane fashion, cheese, bread, compost, heirloom seeds, sustainable energy and …

Having set on this course for myself, I am reaching out to the community to find other like-minded people who might participate and pick up pieces of this vision.  I have amazingly found one of my neighbors, who is an investor, to be very focused on the notion of a more sustainable, less vulnerable food supply. I have reached out the sustainable agriculture program coordinator at Chatham Community College.  She has pointed me to Earthwise Company, a private enterprise with offices very close to where we live in Raleigh and to the farm incubator program at NCSU.

My neighbor and I have been visiting with these people.  We had an amazing meeting with Mike at Earthwise Company, who laid out their vision, their passion, their business focus. It was a fascinating experience to meet other with exactly the same thoughts and with lots of fascinating ideas.

I know that I want to pursue the micro-distillery incubator idea because it is a manageable step that I can take.  The wife is even enthusiastic about the idea. And it is a blast to be meeting and sharing ideas with others.  Who knows exactly where this goes, but my deep hope is to build a better world, a sustainable, profitable community for our kids to grow up in.

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