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).

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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?

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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