WAKE FOREST — Ian and Harmony VanGundy make some of the best beer in the Triangle. In North Carolina and beyond, for that matter.
People who know beer, who drink beer, just, well, know.
Blackbird Brewery makes myriad styles. With patience, care and precision, right down to the glassware specific to the respective style.
The VanGundys know what they’re doing. Simple as that.
The brewery, part of Wake Forest’s Wheatfield shopping center, is comfortable and inviting, both inside and out. All are welcome — the gleaming tanks, the soul of any brewery, adding a metaphorical exclamation point.
It’s possible, all of this — the great beer, the bright space — could have become something radically different. Or, twisting the imagination a bit, might not have happened at all.
The couple, said Harmony, were at a “crossroads.”
Faith and fate intervened.
Well, so did McCartney and Lennon.
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night.”
When the VanGundys met, says Harmony, Ian had a go-to list of songs he would play on his guitar, his cat often folded in beside him. Ian and Harmony for years had worked in the industry, touching it in various ways and roles.
The VanGundys, who have three children, planned to open a brewery of their own, going all in with the complicated, expensive and often arduous process of starting a business.
Anyway, they figured, let’s first find something to call it.
Harmony recalls a day some years ago, when Ian was working for another brewer. She was driving.
Someplace, somewhere. It was time, she thought.
“This was the third time of helping someone start something and grow really big and watch them get really successful and not see those successes passed down,” Harmony says of Ian.
“He was feeling really burned out and he wanted to quit, not just the job but … brewing altogether.”
Can’t do that, she told him. You make the best beer. Who’s going to make good beer if you don’t brew? You’re passionate about it, she told him. It’s what you love to do, and you’re just burnt right now.
“So, we were kind of working on things a little bit and really starting to consider doing it ourselves, and the song came on the radio,” she said. “I think I had just gotten off the phone with him, and he had just kind of had it.
“I’m done and I want to quit,” he told her.
The song — that song — came on the radio as she drove.
“You were only waiting for this moment to arise,” wrote the legendary lyricists.
“Oh my God, that’s it,” Harmony recalls. “We’re going to call it ‘Blackbird.’ I called him back and was like, ‘We’re going to take your broken wings and we’re going to fly, we’re going to do this. We’re going to start this brewery, and that’s gonna be it.”
The VanGundys began the process of starting the brewery in 2019. It opened in December 2022, joining a group of Wake Forest breweries that include White Street, Fortnight, Norse and Lonerider.
The Triangle has dozens of breweries. The state now has more than 400, with more coming.
No worries, say the VanGundys. We’ll make space.
“I think there’s room for excellence,” Harmony said.
Blackbird is tucked into a corner of the shopping center bordered by new homes about 10 minutes south of downtown Wake Forest.
“I actually went in with the mindset of this area being underserved,” says Ian, who studied brewing in Germany and has traveled throughout Europe tasting and learning about great beer.
Blackbird’s menu is international and diverse, a reflection of the vibrant, growing communities thriving throughout the Triangle. Belgian dubbels and tripels, a Dusseldorf-style altbier, a Czech pilsner, IPAs, pastry stouts, sours and a hefeweizen that quickly sold out but will return.
“I feel like there’s a lot of room to expand on those classic styles and improve them. … That’s one thing that’s important to us, continuous improvement,” Ian says. “I’m never going to say, ‘I did it, I nailed it,’ but it’s something to shoot for.
“We’re just now starting to do the weird stuff.”
Ian, seated along one side of a picnic table beside Harmony, points to half a glass of purple, pulpy concoction across from them. It’s filled — was filled — with Barbie’s Dream Beer Blue Razz Sour Ale, a “smoothie sour.”
“We brewed a pastry stout last week, which is going to end up being doused with flavors, as well,” he said. “We knew we were not going to lead with those and that we needed to build a foundation first, which is why we’re just now getting to some of those more exciting styles.
“I think my strength as a brewer has always been drinkability, and I think that ultimately what pays the bills in a brewery are familiar beers that are just well brewed, and most people just want to have an enjoyable beer. They don’t necessarily want to dive in and, you know, find all the complexities.”
The VanGundys don’t discount the esoteric and intricate nature of starting a new business, especially in the midst of a pandemic that confined people to their homes. Blackbird cans and sells its beer in the brewery and self-distributes throughout the area, focusing on higher-end restaurants and bottle shops.
“Eventually, you … realize that, like for Ian, he is the commodity, his recipes,” Harmony says. “After watching him help three different companies go from nothing to success, we were like, why do we keep doing this for other people?
“We decided it’s time to just do it yourself.”
Beer is an obvious focal point for Blackbird. So is the community, the proverbial heart and soul of any brewery.
Harmony, in part because of her own experience, is “really passionate” about blood drives, which the brewery holds quarterly. About Christmas in July, a shoe drive in August and September. About supporting the local Boys and Girls Club and Wake Forest Fungo, a local amateur baseball team that’s also responsible for draining the Hefeweizen.
“We wanted to create a space for community,” Harmony says.
A fun, comfortable place for families, friends and dogs. Elevating the community and mirroring its diversity, whether that’s through helping people and groups or brewing transcendent beer.
Ian’s knowledge of beer and brewing is vast and thoughtfully overwhelming. While talking, he stopped for just a second, looked at his wife and said something about lagers, a style of beer that’s several hundred years old and became a favorite of macro brewers when they came to the U.S. a couple of centuries ago.
“When lagers are truly great … I think it’s the only style that can actually give me goosebumps.”
Or, perhaps, a smoky bock or uber-clean pilsner.
“Into the light of a dark black night.”
The Beatles. Again.
“It can actually take all my worries away,” Ian says of drinking wonderful beer. “We’re all set for a moment. I’m just in, like, total relaxation.”
John Trump is editor of The Wake Weekly and Butner-Creedmoor News and author of “Still & Barrel: Craft Spirits in the Old North State (Blair 2017)