Doing Things The Right Way, with Tobacco Road Sports Cafe


There’s a reason why they call it “bar food.” Sports bars tend to place an emphasis on their accessories rather than their eats: cheap beer, big screens, high tech HD — maybe even extra skimpy orange shorts for the wait staff. Unfortunately, the menus of cheap frozen wings and pre-made appetizers are usually just along for the ride.

But Tobacco Road Sports Cafe is trying to change all of that. Of course, anyone who has been to either of the three locations in the Triangle knows the place has everything a sports fan could want (HDTVs, premium sports channels, beers, bar space), but executive chef Patrick Cowden is ensuring that they stay true to their name, as a sports cafe, where fresh food is still the centerpiece of what they do.

It all starts with Cowden’s philosophy. He not only calls for everything in the restaurant to be scratch-made, but that the ingredients come from nearby as well. “Local” is certainly the chic term right now, but it’s something Cowden takes seriously. The list of local and North Carolinian ingredients that populate his menu changes so often that its reprinted online almost weekly, and it’s nearly a job in itself just keeping his staff updated on all the restaurant’s farm-to-fork eats (Cowden even keeps a map of NC in all three locations so servers — and therefore customers — are informed of where their ingredients are coming from.)

The chef gets his bison from Carolina Bison in Asheville, his eggs from Latta’s Eggs in Hillsborough, and most of his herbs from Chef Patrick’s Garden in Raleigh. The stone ground grits, cornmeal, and flour used in the restaurant all come from Lindley Mills in Graham, and that’s just the tip of the North Carolina-sourced iceberg.

Perhaps the coolest aspect of Cowden’s locally-driven strategy is using already finished products from locally-owned businesses. He gets pita bread from Med Deli right on Franklin Street, egg roll wraps from Weichen Noodle Company in Charlotte, ice cream from Lumpy’s in Wake Forest, cream and dairy from Maple View Farms in Hillsborough, and honey from Busy Bee Apiaries. The obvious benefits here are the taste buds of Tobacco Road’s customers, but what might be even more important are the benefits for Tobacco Road in general — the region itself. By using local ingredients and local businesses, Cowden is helping to foster a network that keeps the local economy growing.


The whole idea behind the local approach is that it’s supposed to be “simple.” And in theory, that will one day be the case. But with old, cheaper, ways of making food still the prevalent infrastructure available to most restaurants, doing what Cowden does isn’t easy. Though, TRSCs are perfectly fine blazing their own path (a theme here), and they’re looking to change the status quo.

“I made it clear early on with our national distributor that if they wanted our business, they were going to have to pick up local ingredients that we wanted,” said Cowden, who’s actions are igniting a change that benefits everyone who deals with major food distributors. Chefs like Cowden are helping them become more focused on improving local networks and the farm-to-fork mentality.

It’s important to note that none of this is for show or publicity, or Tobacco Road wouldn’t use five different locations alone just for their dairy products: Chapel Hill Creamery, Elodie Farms in Rougemount, Milko in Asheville, Maple View Farm and Lumpy’s. It does make a great story, but most importantly, it just makes for great food. The menu is one of the more interesting you’ll ever see, made up of simplistic ingredients that still form fantastically creative dishes. The genius of Cowden’s menu is that he’s found a way to supply his diners with all of their southern favorites while somehow feeling like they’re trying something new, or even inventive.


The Hoppin John, Southern Caviar, Tobacco Onions, Buffalo Chicken Egg Rolls, Ranch Style Beans, and Sweet Potato Mash are just a few of the familiar but unique sides and starters that keep the customer feeling like they’re in an Iron Chef competition — but homestyled. Country Frizzled Chicken, the Black Eyed Pea Burger,  and Georgia Peach BBQ are entrees that demand to be not just savored, but appreciated — turning every customer into a professional Foodie for the evening. The Arrogant Burger even forces one to consider the attitude of their beef — it’s an experience.

Of course the key to all three locations is that despite the gourmet food, Tobacco Road still remains a high tech sports bar in every sense of the word. At the Chapel Hill location there are too many HDTVs to count, every sports channel imaginable, a 100-inch projection screen for big events, two outdoor patios, private dining, and a huge domestic, foreign, and craft beer selection, all immersed in the East 54 community.


There’s a cliche in the sports world—especially on Tobacco Road—about doing things “the right way.” It implies doing something not for profit or self gain, but simply because it’s the right thing to do, for everyone. That seems to be the philosophy at Tobacco Road Sports Cafe; fostering a community of good eats, good sports and good times while bringing local businesses together instead of worrying about competing.

In a way, Tobacco Road feels like an experiment — an attempt to mesh delicious food in an environment more known for high definition technology, all while staying locally sourced even as they remain efficient with their business model.

And with the success of the recent expansion into Chapel Hill, it’s safe to say the experiment is working.

Photos by Tobacco Road Sports Cafe and Christin Hardy

Breaking Down Fedora’s Offense, Illustrated

Slide #1 – The Classic Spread Offense
The basic objective of Fedora’s scheme is no secret. In slide #1, four wideouts (and no tight ends) are on the field with the intent of “spreading” out the defense to create man-to-man coverage. The general idea is that UNC’s talented offensive players will consistently win these one-on-one situations — like tight end Eric Ebron. Below, Renner hits Ebron for 10 yards with a quick slant that is nearly impossible to defend.



Slide #2 – Using the Spread Offense to set up the run
Here’s where the spread play in slide #1 creates more opportunities. It’s third down, and the defense — wary of the quick slant to Ebron again, or any of the other four wideouts — is spread across the field and generally outside of the box. Renner simply hands off to Khris Francis for an easy three yards up the middle for the first down. (You’ll notice one MTSU linebacker is even making a move towards the line to stop the run, but ultimately his attention is on the three wideouts at the bottom of the screen.)

2 3rd 3 spread pick up Francis


Slide #3 – The Full Spread with motion
With a totally empty backfield and five wideouts, the defense is as spread out as it’s ever going to be. Ryan Switzer will go in motion — receiving a pass from Renner in the flat — and use his quickness to pick up an easy eight yards.



Slide #4 – The Full Spread (no motion) sets up a run
Renner (while certainly athletic) is no running QB to say the least. But again, note how spread out the defense is with five wideouts on the field — when the play breaks down Renner easily scrambles for six yards on the ground.



Slide #5 – Variable sets – Running QB
Fedora has already brought a record-breaking offense to Chapel Hill without even fully recruiting players for his system yet — which anchors on a dual-threat quarterback. In slide #5, we see how dangerous that could be (Marquise Williams is on the field for Renner). There are FOUR players in the backfield that can all run the football (keeping the defense guessing), and two players who can throw the ball (Williams and AJ Blue). The defense has no idea what’s coming and the result is an eight yard run for Blue.



Slide #6 (animated below) – Two passing/running threats in the spread
Here we see some trickeration that again involves players that can run and pass — the key to Fedora’s future success at UNC. Blue goes in motion and Williams throws to him out in the flat. Blue then reverses the field and throws it back to Williams for a 23 yard gain. (Animated below.)

6 marquise to blue to marquise pic

marquise gif


Slide #7 – EXECUTION?!
The play above is perfectly set up. Blue throws a fantastic spiral and Williams (after making a clean catch) starts heading up field with no less than FOUR Tar Heel linemen ready to block for their quarterback.


Of course, were it not for #60 Russell Bodine and #78 Landon Turner tripping over each other’s feet (below), this play would have likely resulted in six points instead of 23 yards.


In a sense, this play is a microcosm of UNC’s issues this year. All the talent and play calling is there; now they just have to execute.

“Program Elevating” Game for Tar Heels in Columbia

Tonight’s contest in Columbia is what you might call a potential “Program Elevating” moment for the Tar Heels. An upset win for Fedora (in just his second campaign) against a top ten SEC team could change the entire perception of his program — for longer than just a season if the Heels were to finish the year strong.

Beating an SEC team is a statement win and borderline season-crowning accomplishment in almost any context (even for some teams in the SEC — looking at you, Kentucky). But Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks also bring their highest preseason ranking in school history into Williams-Brice Stadium Thursday night at #6 (as high as #5 in some polls), and there’s even been national title talk among SC faithful just south of the border ever since their squad finished with a program-best 11-2 record in 2012.

Magnifying the importance of the matchup for UNC, the game is slated as ESPN’s signature nationally televised opening game, and to boot, South Carolina will be showcasing what might be the nation’s most talented player (and certainly most highlighted this offseason) in Jadeveon Clowney — who many think is the best defensive player coming out of college since Julius Peppers. (Some scouts wondered if the freakish defensive end is so good that he should sit out the entire season simply to avoid injury until he’s eligible for the NFL draft.) Point being: the Heels find themselves amidst some big-time football Thursday evening and the masses will be watching coast to coast.

Of course, Clowney isn’t the only talented player on Spurrier’s ball club (even if the media doesn’t realize it). Like any winning team from the Southeastern Conference, the Gamecocks are big, fast and talented top-to-bottom. Their defense is one of the best in the country and no Spurrier-coached team has ever been without an ability to score.

If — if — the Gamecocks have a weakness, it’s their quarterback play, which the Heels will have to exploit to have much of a chance to come out of Columbia with a win. Starter Connor Shaw is a dual-threat QB who can be dangerous at times, but has hardly separated himself from backup Dylan Thompson — a situation that generally bodes well for the Tar Heels considering their defensive woes of last year. Spurrier has even hinted that both might play in the season opener, and that’s never a good sign for any offense.

Fedora’s “4-2-5” defense which relies on speed and assignments has yet to slow many teams down since his arrival in Chapel Hill however. Having lost defensive leaders Kevin Reddick and Sly Williams to the NFL, veterans like cornerback Tre Boston and defensive end Kareem Martin will likely have to force a few turnovers to give their team a shot at the upset in which Vegas is picking the Cocks by -11.5.

The Heels do have plenty of offensive talent to bring to the table Thursday night; Fedora’s scoring attack is coming off one of the best seasons in UNC history statistically speaking. And even without Gio Bernard in the backfield, UNC still has third-year starter Bryn Renner and an All-American candidate in James Hurst at left tackle to line up against Clowney.

With offensive weapons like Romar Morris and tight end Eric Ebron, Fedora should have no problem putting up some points Thursday night; so the real question will be how many points the Heels give up themselves. UNC scored 30+ nine times in 2012 and will certainly have to do so again to have a chance this evening — it would be far fetched to imagine their gutted defense keeping South Carolina in the 20s.

If UNC can limit their turnovers, and force a few of their own — the viewing public could be in for a great border-rivals game tonight. But if UNC gets down early or blows a special teams play, allowing  Clowney to pin his ears back against UNC’s young offensive line, it could be a long night for the Tar Heels. Nonetheless, if Fedora can catch a few breaks and keep things close until the fourth quarter, it might be the start of something special in Chapel Hill.

Coach Mike Fox: Past, Present, Future

insidetheacc mike fox

As fall ball and the first days of school start up again for the Diamond Heels, Rogers takes a look at the State of the Program with Head Coach Mike Fox.

In one of his final press conferences of the 2013 season, UNC Baseball Coach Mike Fox remarked that “the end of the year always hurts…it never gets any easier.” This wasn’t an earth-shattering quote. Anyone who has played or follows sports knows the feeling. What was interesting about Fox’s comments, however, is that they came after a win for his ball club. One might expect a different sound bite after a Super Regional that would send his team to — yet another — College World Series.

Perhaps Fox was sympathizing with the losing squad, the South Carolina Gamecocks — coached by Fox’s friend and former assistant, Chad Holbrook. There’s likely some truth to that. Having been there before, Fox was no doubt ultra-aware of the pain that comes with losing on that stage. But even Holbrook himself remarked in his postgame quotes that he already owned two national title rings and smirked, “I’m a big boy, I’ll be fine.”

Much more likely is that Coach Fox was simply offering a metaphorical glimpse of where he has taken his program — to a level where all the games at the end are big. And they can all hurt.

The roaring success of Carolina Baseball over the past decade (the winningest program over that span) can no doubt be a double-edged sword. Victory brings expectations. Success breeds demands. It’s a paradox in a way — especially for the fans. The more you win, the more it hurts when you lose. No one remembers the end of a mediocre season.

Of course, this is a dilemma any program would accept. “It’s better to have loved,” after all. But that doesn’t make it any easier. And it certainly doesn’t make it any easier on the head coach himself. Fox has produced a #1 ranked team in almost every season for seven years, and in a backwards fashion that success somehow brings as much scrutiny as it does praise. The head coach was questioned over his pitch count management last season even though he has been putting pitchers into the big leagues over the last decade seemingly at the rate Carolina Basketball sends point guards to the NBA.

Fox has even attained the status of what might be the most gratifying criticism there is for a head coach: having not won “the big one.” It’s almost flattering — the media’s way of saying you’ve become so successful that they’re going to start nitpicking everything about you just to find a story. It isn’t much different from when Tyler Hansbrough had become so unstoppable in college basketball that pundits started criticizing the prospects of his professional career that hadn’t even happened.

But if you know Coach Fox, you know this criticism means nothing to him. He’s just happy to be there — at that level. That’s all he talks about, “just be there, and we’ll have a chance.”

That kind of attitude takes discipline, which the coach has earned over a long career. He started at second base for the Tar Heels from 1976-1978 (helping his team to a College World Series) and played a year in indy pro baseball. While at UNC he even played on the jayvee basketball team.

Mike Fox

In 1979, Fox came back to UNC as a graduate assistant, where he crossed paths with another future Tar Heel head coach, Roy Williams, who was an assistant to Dean Smith at the time. It might be from Williams where Fox learned to tune out criticism and simply coach his team.

“Mike and I have a great relationship — we both love Carolina and UNC athletics. I’ll always support and help his program.” – Roy Williams

There are a lot of similarities between the close friends: the same stubbornness, the same ferocious intensity in anything resembling a competition. Williams’ competitive fire is no secret, and there are enough stories floating around Woolen Gym of Mike Fox’s intensity in pickup basketball games to believe that at least a handful have some truth to them.

“A lot of my coaching comes from my playing days in basketball and baseball. Being undersized, I always had to be aggressive. I think a coach’s mentality always stems from his past.” – Fox

Specifically, both coaches’ programs are renowned for their relentlessly aggressive tendency to put points and runs on the scoreboard — and often lead the nation in those categories. It’s a major reason they’re both such great recruiters (Newsflash: athletes like scoring). Fox and Williams each have the same mindset in coaching: they’ll absorb a few turnovers (or throw-outs at home) if it means having a deadly offense. Fox writes notes to himself before every game based on his competition, but one is always the same: “Be aggressive.” He wants his kids pushing the envelope, and you can’t argue with the results.

“Kids want to be aggressive and run bases — we encourage that. They like to play that way, and we try to allow them some freedom in the batter’s box.” – Fox

Coach Williams’ philosophy isn’t much different, both while running his team and even when watching the Diamond Heels. “I love it when [Coach Fox’s] teams take the extra base, hit and run, and put pressure on the other team’s defense,” said Williams.

The aggressive nature of Fox’s game plan invades all aspects of his coaching. Like most successful coaches, he does everything with an underlying intensity and focus. This can be off-putting to the media and pundits at time, but this attitude endears a coach to his players. And of course that is what makes a great manager and brings players to a program.

When Fox gets a runner thrown out by (mistakenly) telling him to round third base, you could argue he made a poor decision. But what does this say to the player? “My coach believes in me. He thought I could make it.”

“I think our style really loosens kids up and allows them to play better. I never want errors or outs, but once you build that trust, giving them the green light frees them up to make plays.” – Fox

Chase Jones came into UNC’s program in 2006, just when Fox was starting to take over the ACC and make Omaha his yearly vacation spot. Having had a few years to reflect on Carolina Baseball’s success since then, Jones’ comments on the state of the program had more to do with Fox and his players than on any win-loss records:

“He’s so great off the field,” Jones says. “He builds you up after a loss, and has no problem chewing you out after a win, like all the great ones. He’s always telling us: Be aggressive. Fine, get thrown out, but always be aggressive. Go for that extra base. Go for home. ”

“Coach instills confidence in his players.” – Jones

When asked about Fox and UNC Baseball finally having an ending to a season that doesn’t “hurt,” Jones said what everyone who has played on that stage knows: “It’s basically a crapshoot at that level. You hope your pitching is there, you hope your bats are there. But the real key is just being there — eventually it will happen.”

And if you know Mike Fox, you know he understands. He says it nonstop, “We just want to be there.”

Of course, this is also an aspect of coaching Roy Williams knows a thing or two about:

“I remember Coach Smith saying in 1982, ten minutes after the national championship game was over, that he didn’t think he was a better coach than he had been two and half hours ago just because we had beaten Georgetown. I made the same statement in 2005 after we beat Illinois in St. Louis. Mike Fox is a fantastic coach… He is winning so many games and I want him to keep knocking on that door for a national championship… and one of these days, he’ll win one.” – Williams

As Jones says, “Omaha is no longer the vacation spot. It’s the standard.”

Photos courtesy, and AP Wire

Carolina Brewery Event Builds Burgers, Builds Community

matt clements build a burger carolina breweryI was lucky enough to be on the panel of judges for the Carolina Brewery’s Build A Brewery Burger competition this past weekend, held at their Pittsboro location. I’ll first admit that I’m not usually a fan of columns written in the first person, but sometimes it’s necessary — like when telling a story. And that’s exactly what a recap of the Brewery event deserves: a great story.

In its third year, the competition asks locals to submit recipes for a beef burger, with the winner’s design finding its way onto the fall menu at the restaurant. There are hundreds of submissions every year, which are eventually whittled down to six finalists. The ultimate selection is not only based on the judge’s panel, but also with a “people’s choice” element, based on which burger customers like the most. If this sounds like a community get-together as opposed to just a publicity stunt, you’re starting to understand why it’s such a cool event for Chapel Hill and the surrounding area.

A portion of the proceeds even go to the Sunrise Theater Charity in Southern Pines, in memory of Mary Rice — a founding member of the Carolina Brewery, and the mother of Chris Rice, one of the original owners of the Chapel Hill establishment. Mary was a devoted contributor to local arts and the theater in her hometown of Southern Pines — where the Brewery hosts a golf tournament every year in her memory. And what better way to celebrate Mary than by supporting her hometown and hometown-in-spirit of Chapel Hill with fantastic food, beer and arts.

Carrying on this connection to the surrounding community, Restaurant Director of Operations Matt Clements makes sure the beef is all natural and local — partnering with Lilly Den Farm in Goldston, NC. The Brewery donates their spent grains to the farm, which then repays the favor by supplying Matt (and more importantly, his customers) with hormone and antibiotic-free beef that is raised responsibly, humanely, and locally.

And, my goodness, was this beef good. The burgers were just fantastic (cooked perfectly by the Brewery’s chefs no less — remember, because the beef is locally sourced it can be cooked medium-rare). Of the six finalists, there were ultra-creative choices likes the Asian Persuasion (delicious Portobello/umami mixture) and Sweet & Spicy (peach chutney!), gorgeous presentations like the Mac & Bleu (blue cheese macaroni — the judge’s eventual favorite) and Caprese (fresh mozzarella and basil), and classic savory concoctions like the Tar Heel Tex (a chili-esque flavor with cumin) and the San Antonio (refried black beans, salsa and fritos).

carolina brewery 3

I could have delved much deeper into the actual ingredients and judge’s critiques, but that wasn’t really the point here — which was perfectly illustrated by the runner-up’s response to the final tally. The San Antonio Burger (my favorite!) came in a close second, and naturally the designer was disappointed. But not for why you think. Did they want to win? Sure. But what they really wanted was just to be able to eat their favorite burger and share it with friends when they went to their favorite brewery! That was way more important than any sort of award. How cool is that?

carolina brewry burger 3

For everyone involved, it wasn’t really about the prize or pride in “winning” — it was about contributing great food and great times to their loved ones and local hangouts. And if you haven’t already guessed it, maybe they weren’t actually building burgers at all, but community.

And that right there is a great story.

Update: The Mac and Bleu Burger won the Judge’s and People’s Choice voting in the closest contest yet!

All photography via Matt Clements and the Carolina Brewery

Pay-For-Play: Has Johnny Manziel Saved the Game?


The purported amateurism of the NCAA took several more serious hits in recent days. This was nothing new. But with conference realignment and the explosion of TV contracts beginning to fully strip naked the idea of the student-athlete, the public’s disdain for the lack of player compensation is reaching a breaking point.

(For a moment, I’ll sidestep the irony of the fact that while most sports fans are horrified that college athletes aren’t seeing any of the value they create for their schools, no one seems to mind that regular [and soon to be unemployed] students also don’t seem to be seeing any value from the $100,000 dollar degree they just purchased.)

First, let’s make it clear that there should never be a formal pay-for-play system. But, players should be able to make money while in school. Yes, that apparent contradiction will make sense by the end of the column. And yes, that is a great ‘teaser’ as they say in this business.

The more serious recent issue is the NCAA’s investigation of Johnny Manziel (or Johnny “Football” as he’s also known — an accurate moniker considering he’s the face of college football right now and more recognizable than half of the NFL), who was (allegedly) paid for services, not by a rogue agent or booster, but for signing his name on memorabilia. The less serious — OK, hilarious — debacle was Jay Bilas’ outing of the NCAA’s own online store, which was selling (and assumedly profiting from) the jerseys of several players for which the organization had banned for trying to make a profit of their own.

It has never been difficult to make fun of the NCAA’s hypocrisy, but Bilas’ Twitter assault seemed to nail this point home in the most unavoidably obvious way yet. In fact, for possibly the first time in its history, the organization openly admitted fault for the online store.

At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the NCAA’s purported morals (or sincerity in their motives) and an Anthony Weiner press conference.

But all jokes aside, the ever clearer disconnect between the NCAA’s amateur stance and its true intentions is much more complicated and complex than the average sports fan wants to admit, or take the time to fully analyze. People want college athletes to see some of the value they bring to their schools. We know this. But it isn’t that easy.

Those who suggest the players should be paid simply do not take into account the whole of the situation. You cannot and will not ever be able to formally pay players. Period. Sparing the reader the minutiae, here’s why:

1. If schools pay athletes, they are then employees. It should be obvious why that system would never stand (insurance, worker’s comp etc…).

2. Those who argue players should be paid because their schools are “making millions” are off base. Only a few programs are profitable at all.

3. Those who argue players should be paid because “the players are making the schools all of this money” are also flat wrong. Only a small percentage of players produce this kind of value.

4. To sum up the issues in #2 & #3. Would you pay every player? Every sport? What about Title IX? (Title IX is not an NCAA mandate, it is Federal law.) Would the quarterback be paid the same amount as the third-string punter, or the same as a lacrosse player? Would schools have equal payrolls? What if they didn’t? Could players be “fired?” The issues here are clear; it’s absurd to even suggest a formal pay-for-play.

5. Could agents/third-parties pay the players? No. This is even more ridiculous.

Now, for those who haven’t already scrolled down to the comments section to blast this article, here is where this starts to make sense, and where Manziel’s recent story becomes important.

In light of the obstacles above, players should not be formally paid. These kids are getting world class educations and room & board for free. They know what they are signing up for. They are big boys — cut the victim/slavery trope. And if your response is “well, they’re not really going to these schools to get that type of education anyway,” you are off-base for two reasons: 1. Only a very small percentage of players are actually auditioning for the pros. The other kids need that degree. And 2. So what if they aren’t in school to learn calculus? I’ll spare you the Hobbesian notion of the state of nature, but schools don’t have to give football scholarships in the first place, and getting kids into the NFL isn’t the university’s problem. In 1636, Harvard didn’t have to think about producing pro athletes, and just because they might be able to provide that service now doesn’t mean they have to.

BUT, here is where Johnny Manziel’s recent issues can change this. While no players should be formally paid, they should be able to make money, on their own. This is what Johnny (allegedly) did. He sold his autograph. He realized his market value. If Johnny can sell his autograph, let him. If while at NC State, Julius Hodge could put his face on a t-shirt and sell it, let him. If a college athlete can make sponsorship money in an Olympic sport, let him. If Ed O’Bannon can sell his likeness to EA Sports, let him.

The solution above is not without its issues, but it wouldn’t crash the whole system like a formal pay-for-play would. And, let’s be honest, it wouldn’t change much of what’s going on right now anyway. Will there still be $100 dollar handshakes? Sure. But those are already saturating the landscape, and that isn’t going anywhere.

Some fans will never be able to grasp that formally paying players will never work. Fine. We’re lucky that the university presidents that run the NCAA are smart enough to never make that mistake. But I can’t think of anything more thoroughly un-American than the fact that Johnny Manziel cannot make money off his own autograph while also playing football for his school.

Go Johnny Football. You’ve maybe saved the whole system.

photo by Texas Governor Rick Perry via flickr

Craft Sodas? Craft Sodas!

There are a few things you’ll find more of per capita in Chapel Hill-Carrboro than in other areas in the South. PhDs, famous athletes, hipsters, socially liberal voters, craft beer, craft sodas.

Craft sodas? Soft drinks may seem like the outlier there, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. Chapel Hillians tend to be hyper-conscious about what they put in their bodies. Why wouldn’t more natural and local sodas be a part of that enthusiasm for health?

Health. Sodas. That has to be a typo right?

Well, maybe.

No one is going to argue that soda is, or ever could be, “healthy.” By definition, it’s a sugary drink with plenty of empty calories. This isn’t going to change any time soon. And even if it did, it would result in losing exactly what sodas were meant to be in the first place: a treat.

And that’s OK. Sodas were invented as a treat. But the problem with soft drinks these days—and why they’ve become a major issue within health movements—is that it was forgotten that they were intended to be an occasional sweet.[1]  At some point they became as ubiquitous on a dining table as bread. The moment sodas were consumed at the same rate as H2O, they became a problem.

—A problem which is twofold. Not only did this style of consuming sodas add to the already unwholesome eating habits of most Americans, but it robbed the soda of being something you savored every now and then like any other sweet, delivering that crisp refreshing pop like only a soda can. But when you have a Sprite twice a day, or twenty times a week, at some point it loses its fizz.[2]

The idea with the specialty soda is simple: when you drink a natural, crafted soft drink, you’re more likely to treat it as a treat.[3] It becomes something to be savored — maybe even appreciated. You consume less (good for your health), but in a weird way you enjoy it even more (good for your sweet tooth) because it’s less routine.

Craft soft drinks do tend to be healthier, even if just a little. They’re normally made with real cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup— a fact which not only satisfies weight watchers but tastes much better. They usually have fewer preservatives (if any), tend to be 100% natural, and often come from smaller, more socially conscious and environmentally responsible companies.

What’s important here is how specialty soft drinks represent the larger trend of moving in the right direction in terms of American health. It’s not necessarily about eating/drinking ultra-healthy at all times; it’s about simply becoming more conscious of what’s put in your body. And it’s not about sticking it to Corporate America, but that by consuming less treats we can actually enjoy them more.

And, of course, it’s about drinking really, really good soda — one that pops when you taste it. Try a Boylan Bottleworks sometime. Any flavor. They are fantastic. Or find the brand that suits you best. Even though they’re labeled as “special” doesn’t mean they’re too hard to find, and not in Carrboro and Chapel Hill at least. You can find Boylans, among other more natural beverages, at almost every place that sells soft drinks in the area. Give it a shot. They’ll never be as big as Pepsi or Coke, but in another way, maybe they will.

[1] — Like a milkshake etc… (imagine your diet if you drank a milkshake at many of your meals).
[2] — If you think that line was awful, email me at
[3] — Again,

The Luck of the Draw

Roy Williams wasn’t thrilled with the ACC’s NCAA Tournament draw on Sunday night. One might have thought Maryland and Virginia made half-decent cases for tourney bids, and even if you think they didn’t, whichever teams you might put in their stead probably didn’t have a much better case either.

But that’s the point here. The selection process has become an annual charade of guesstimating which teams have earned a bid based on a forever revolving criteria that always seems disconnected from the eventual form the bracket takes.

Side note: Do people think expanding the BCS is going to fix the qualms in that sport? Just look at the NCAA Tournament — there are 68 spots and people still want it expanded. You could even argue that more teams leads to MORE arguing, but that’s a discussion for another time. The grass is always greener, isn’t it?

The inevitable temptation with the schedule at this point is to look at the matchups put in place by the committee and consider the motives behind them. Meaning: which teams make good storylines for TV, radio and message board fodder — maybe two coaches who used to work together are paired up, or teams with former transfers from one another are put in the same region.

In other words, no one would have been surprised a bit if UCLA and UNC were in the same mini-bracket. And even though everyone would have seen it coming, they somehow would have still found a way to talk about it nonstop — though starting that conversation would be the whole point to begin with.

There’s zero evidence the committee is trying to set up these made-for-TV storylines but we all know doing so for ratings would be highly incentivized to say the least — in the sense that it would be almost stupid not to do it.

Enter the Tar Heels, who seem under-seeded to many (given an 8th seed when their resume seems to line up with those around six or seven). And as easy as it would be to jump on that bandwagon, the fact of the matter is that the Heels didn’t do much to separate themselves from the pack that’s lodged between the 5th and 8th seeds.

In light of everything above, the focus falls on UNC’s probable opponent in the 2nd round (or whatever the hell round it is now) if they were to beat 9th seeded Villanova on Friday night. Of course, that team is Kansas. Of course, there’s a storyline that’s well-known.

—so much that it won’t be rehashed here. If you don’t already know about it you probably wouldn’t care to hear the story in the first place.

Adding some fuel to the conspiracy fire is that the first Saturday and Sunday of the Tournament are usually the hardest sell TV-wise. The first two days are possibly the most exciting in sports, and by the Sweet 16 you start having great match-ups between the higher seeds. But for the Round of 32? Those games are usually relatively boring and there won’t be as many upsets as in the first two days. Naturally, there’s an incentive to try to set up a Roy Williams vs. Kansas showdown.

—A showdown we’re likely going to see on Sunday. Villanova is a solid team and wouldn’t shatter anyone’s world if they beat the Heels on Friday, but they’re not big enough to exploit UNC’s main weakness and are one of the poorest three-point defenders in the nation. Advantage, UNC.

So all signs point to what will likely be THE matchup of the first weekend, as far as storylines go anyway. The Heels have yet to beat Kansas in the tournament since Roy’s return to UNC (both of which were much more high-profile than this one would be, but that isn’t the point), and the pressure on the Tar Heels for this one wouldn’t be any lower even though they would certainly be the Vegas Dog by several points. Kansas, version 2013, is a traditional squad which should have the size and guard-play to really hurt the Heels’ small ball system. Advantage, Kansas.

It doesn’t get any easier after that for the Tar Heels if they were to even make it. In their “South” region are big boys like Michigan (#4), UCLA (#6), Florida (#3), Georgetown (#2) and Oklahoma (#10).

But what everyone seems to be missing about all of the seeding is that they’re applying the “old” days of college basketball to the current era. No team is dominant this year. If no one has a clue who’s going to be a #1 seed going into Selection Sunday, then those #1 seeds can’t be that imposing can they?

The point here is that we’re poised to see the most ridiculous Tournament, maybe ever, in terms of upsets and losses. And since this is the year UNC is going with the non-traditional lineup and just a “throw the talent out there and see what happens” philosophy, what year could be a better draw for UNC to be in such a compromising position?

Sure, the Heels will probably lose on Sunday to Kansas if they make it that far. But then again, how much of anything ‘probable’ in college basketball recently has actually come to pass? Not much. The Luck of the Draw doesn’t seem that important anymore.

The fantastic Photography used in this piece is via TODD MELET

A Night at Carolina Brewery

As my comrade (and Chapelboro editor) Jordan Rogers and I stepped into Carolina Brewery on Wednesday evening it occurred to us that although we wanted a column out of the experience, we had no idea or intentions as to what form it would take. I am not a beer connoisseur by any means (though I do enjoy drinking them), even if many of my close friends are, and thusly I am kind of a novice appreciator of good brewing, if nothing else by association only. While we did intend to sample several of Carolina Brewery’s finest, this presented a bit of a ruse in any attempt of ours to do an astute beer critique, whether in this writing or in our conversation whilst on the outing. Probably the most poignant observations we made about the actual beer came from direct dictations of the beer’s description on the menu. That being said, we set to take in the environment, sit back, stroke our egos with “intelligent” conversation, and put down a few cold ones.

Let me be perfectly clear, I love the idea of a good micro-brew. There is this sort of mystique of being a high brow, intellectual; sticking it to the man kind of guy when one indulges in a home town micro beer. The above qualities essentially embody the attitudes that I stand for. However, I have a hard time making a habit of drinking them. When it really comes down to it; I’d rather be seen enjoying a crisp Miller Lite, or something thereof. This is where our conversations regarding the descriptions of the beer began to fall out, because Jordan and I simply lack the appropriate nomenclature or verbiage. For this reason, my eyes began to shift off of the pitcher of Alter Ego Altbier that was upon us, which to my best description was quite good, clean and hintingly sweet, and instead onto the room around us. I enjoy a nice large wooden room; always have. Carolina Brewery boasts a beautiful two story dining hall that reminded me of the hulls of an old wooden ship which had been modernized. Jordan and I were seated on the second floor, directly adjacent to the overhang as so we could look down on the bar below. This was great for one of my favorite observational activities which I call “people watching” (the title should be self-explanatory) and I noticed that everyone in the brewery seemed to be a part of some wonderful organized confusion. I got an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the setting, the dichotomy of the young and restless student population in the brewery, and the content, older wiser patrons. I pondered such dualities as our pitcher of Flagship IPA arrived, another Carolina Brewery specialty.

The Flagship IPA went down easy, and I am a self-admitted IPA lover, even if my ability to differentiate between them is lacking. This one was not too hoppy, and had a light, champagne hue to it. Also while doing damage on this pitcher, we were brought samples of the Anniversary Ale, released each year to celebrate Carolina Brewery’s birthday — in this case the 18th. This year’s edition was slated to be released publically the following day, and it’s a white wheat ale which reminded me of sparkling white grape juice or something of the sort. This sort of beer is quite popular with the ladies, so for any fellas out there still looking for fiscally sound Valentine’s Day ideas, look no further than Carolina Brewery. A pitcher or so of this stuff and you’ll be ready to do whatever the other stuff is that people do on Valentine’s Day. At this point in the eve we were feeling sufficiently warmed enough by the delicious beverages that we decided to undertake one last pitcher before leaving in bumbling fashion.

The thing about “heady” beer as it is sometimes referred is that it tastes great but is elusively higher in alcohol content then the normal domestic bottle. This being the case, the final pitcher (this time the Firecracker Pale Ale), would ultimately be the surly demise of Chapelboro’s finest. The beer flowed like wine. The evening had turned into a nice Franklin Street night, and Carolina Brewery was lit up with southern hospitality and home place warmth. I remember repeating the famous Rasheed Wallace quote, “Ball don’t lie” with fervor several times over although the relevancy is now questionable in what is now an accurate reflection of our state by this point. Jordan and I concluded our venture with slightly slurred salutations and took back to the old dusty trail.

I left Carolina Brewery in high regards, and consider it a vital part of the Chapel Hill experience. Local businesses like this are what knit the fabric that instills the cohesion of college town USA, a feature that I appreciate with time and age. I’d recommend conversational beer outings like this not only to harbor what becomes questionable discourse, but also to soak in the luxury of culture. I look forward to my next flagon of Carolina Brewery ale.

You can follow Charles on Twitter @This_Is_Bones

image by christopher lehault via flickr

Ralph Stanley Keeps On Strummin'

Although the wind ripped and the temperature was deterring, the warm glows of smiles and camaraderie lit up Carrboro’s The ArtsCenter on Friday night as Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys prepared to take the stage. Stanley, now 85 years of age has been a pioneer in bluegrass music since the mid 1940’s, and while his age was certainly evident on Friday, it was simply magical to witness a man who has seen and done so much for his genre deliver a performance in such an intimate venue.

I am a huge bluegrass fan. However like most of my generation I was only familiar with Stanley’s more recent commercial successes like the music from the motion picture O Brother Where Art Thou, released in 2002. The film’s soundtrack stands alone in my own collection as my favorite score ever composed in conjunction with a movie. Given that Ralph’s career has been so all encompassing and successful, I was interested to see if the band would cater to a few of the younger members of the audience in performing music from the picture. To my immediate pleasure, the Clinch Mountain Boys and their stage general Stanley opened the show with a ripping version of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a favorite from the soundtrack and a good way to get right down to business.

Stanley stood stoic, amidst his brethren, clad in a burgundy collar shirt shining out with rhinestones from the cusps, donning a massive but appropriate white cowboy hat. The dichotomy between family generations was special as well, as the grandson of Ralph, 20 year old Nathan Stanley stood to the right where he could both assist his grandfather on lyrical errors, and strum the lead guitar. Ralph was candid from the get-go regarding his age and stature, begging the audience’s forgiveness should he flub a few lines here and there. While the candor was nice, it was unnecessary due to the reciprocal appreciation for one another between the performers and the attendees. This jubilance was spilling out of the grins from everyone in the room, band-mates included, as the show moved onwards.

I have always been attracted to unique voices. I listen to quite a wide range of music, spanning the genres of world beat all the way to psychedelic rock and roll, but despite a specific genre of favor, truly special vocalists appeal to my ear immediately, right after a first word is uttered into a microphone. Some favorites of mine who exhibit this quality, for example, are the likes of Jerry Garcia, Eddie Vedder, Paul Simon and Tracy Chapman. Folks, let me tell you all, the voice I heard bellow out of Ralph Stanley on Friday evening stands alone. While the bluegrass legend is most known for his banjo skills, arthritis has severely limited his ability to pick his patented “Stanley Style” 5 string banjo in recent years. Thus, Stanley has self admittedly focused most of his prowess on his singing voice, and it shows. It echoes with the grit and harshness indicative of longing and struggle, yet it is smooth and inviting, impossible to turn away from, like Medusa and her serpents.

Most notably on this eve Stanley’s rendition of “O Death,” another classic from the O Brother Where Art Tho soundtrack, left me dumbstruck. The song is slow and lyrical, a tale of a man pleading with death to “spy me over for another year.” Coming from the now 85 year old Ralph Stanley, and accompanied only by the soft undertones of the fiddle, the song was melodically sobering and just beautiful to take in. I stood next to my comrade (and Chapelboro editor) Jordan Rogers in complete silence along with the rest of the room as Stanley belted out the lyrics for what will be a performance I shall not soon forget. “O Death” reminds me of the painful but beautiful process that life’s ending can be, and witnessing it live in this setting only reinforced my appreciation for the tune and for Stanley’s proficiency.

I was happy to see Ralph pick up the banjo, if only for a few numbers, and his strumming on the bluegrass staple “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” put the cap on a wonderful evening. However, eager to entertain, the Clinch Mountain Boys took requests from the audience for a solid half an hour in what would be the true exclamation point to the show. An acapella rendering of “Amazing Grace” was soothing to the soul, followed by my personal favorite Ralph Stanley song “Angel Band.” I had seen the number performed previously by vaunted Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes, who also possesses a heavenly set of vocal chords; however, this original delivery from Stanley almost induced tears from my eyes. The song is mainly a harmony, and with Ralph taking the lead I cannot remember a time when I felt so privileged and grateful to be in attendance.

The show concluded in raucous applause, hootin’ and hollerin’. Jordan and I were sent back out into the cold night, our spirits now warmed Clinch Mountain Boys style. As we sat at Tyler’s Taproom sipping a night cap and continuing to warm our spirits with more spirits, our conversation never strayed from how special of an event we had just taken in. The ArtsCenter delivered big time in its billing of Ralph Stanley, and young listeners like me came away with a true index for bluegrass regality, and musical innovation as a whole.

Ralph Stanely and the Clinch Mountain Boys was the opening show of The ArtsCenter’s 10th Annual American Roots Series. You can find all the January show listings on Chapelboro’s Calendar or at The ArtsCenter

You can follow Charles on Twitter @This_Is_Bones

(image by matt knoth via flickr)