By Susie C. Spear
David Peters is the kind of man you want to see behind your hometown bar.
His wry wit, knowledge of chemistry, and exceptional ability to create refreshing beers with complex personalities are gifts he brings this small town with the establishment of his tap room, Hell on Horsecreek Brewing.
Behind his dark auburn beard, there’s a smile alight with mischief. And it’s the kind of mischief that makes him electrocute tables in his woodworking shop and give human names to his fermenting and serving tanks.
Creativity drives Peters to bring smoke and fire to the beers he serves from 107 E. Murphy St. in historic downtown. And this trademark has him smoking barley and rye out back with hickory, cherry and mesquite. You’ll also find him preparing massive batches of poblano or habanero peppers for infusion to a brew.
Peters found Madison and his tap room building by chance.
Working in Greensboro for a chemical company and living in Kernersville, he didn’t know Madison existed until a couple years back when the expansion of U.S. 220/I-73 tempted him to take a peek at the western corners of Rockingham County, he confessed.
Since opening in late October, the rustic and family-friendly pub has drawn healthy crowds to its blond wooden bar Peters handcrafted himself.
Comfy seating, including rockers and a hobby horse for children, complement custom wood-worked tables, all laden with wood chip coasters branded with the pub’s logo –a trident-wielding devil on horseback.
Prices are great, with 16-ounce pours for $5 and served without pretense in canning jars.
Peters, with Australian Shepherd house dog Louis at his side, recently pulled up to his favorite corner bar seat to share his thoughts about beer and business:
Q: Why did you choose Madison for a tap room?
Answer: “My wife had a commute, I had a commute, the kids were out of the house, and it was time to downsize. We were in Kernersville. And in within a couple months, we found this place. We were looking in this area for a house, then we found this building and it kinda just all came together nicely. I keep telling everybody, none of it woulda happened without that new highway. We never woulda thought of coming up this way.’’
Q: What triggered your interest in opening a pub?
Answer: “I’m a home brewer gone big. I brewed on my back porch with friends for years, and we usually drank more than we should have while we were brewing, and then it sort of evolved. Beers got better, then this idea started growing. And then the opportunity arose and I thought, I wanna do something I wanna do.’’
Q: What was your former career?
Answer: “I was chemical manufacturing engineer, dealing with liquids and flow. So it was a good transition of skills. I’m a mechanical engineer.’’
Q: Where are you originally from?
Answer: “We came down from Ohio—up near Cleveland — to get away from the snow. Before that we were (Philadelphia) Eagles fans for 19 years. I’m a (Boston) Red Sox fan by birth.’’
Q: Can you tell us about your family?
Answer: “My wife is a teacher. We have two kids and one grand-kid. The kids are across the country.’’
Q: How did you learn to make beer?
Answer: “My wife bought me a Mr. Brew kit. It’s a 2 ½ gallon brew kit, and it comes with cans of brewing materials and you just mix it together and follow directions. And that got boring very quick, because I’m not good at following directions,’’ he said, chuckling.
“So it just sort of grew from that kit about 15 years ago. Then I came down here and got a lot more serious about it. I found some friends that were also brewing and had equipment and had skills. I learned a lot from them and applied it and grew from there.’’
Q: Can you tell me about your logo?
Answer: “Justin Sergent is the artist. He came up with the logo. I told him I wanted Don Quixote on horseback with a trident in his hand,’’ Peters said with a laugh. “And Justin does the pottery mugs we sell, too. He just has a good personality for this, so he helped a lot and a lot of other friends helped out and were there to fill in the gaps.
“And then when we got the building, things got a lot more real, and they would come in and help with all the dirty jobs. I don’t know if I ever expressed enough thanks to those guys for tearing down the snake skins that were in the rafters as we tore down ceilings. It was just some disgusting work they helped with.’’
Q: What were the first beers you ever tasted?
Answer: “Way too many cans of Schlitz in my neighbor’s basement when I was way too young during a pig roast. That was a terrible drinking experience.’’
Q: What motivates you to create unique combinations for your brews? How does the development of a beer happen?
Answer: “You can buy a regular beer anywhere. I like to make beers that are a little bit interesting, a little bit outside the normal. Even when I make something considered a normal beer, there’s something in there that I know is in there that makes it a little bit different, whether it’s a different grain added or a different combination of hops or yeast. It’s something that I did that makes it my beer. And I love when I get told ‘you can’t do that,’ and then I do it and it works. I just have that type of personality.
“I like smoke and peppers in my beer. And I like figuring out how to add it so it makes a good beer people like, even if at first they think it sounds terrible.’’
Q: So how do you get smoke and heat into your flavor profile?
Answer: “I smoke the grains and I put peppers in the beer. It’s really that simple. There’s lots of ways to do it. I do it as simply as I possibly can. It’s trial and error. If I wanna make a beer that’s a dark and smoky beer, I’ll soak it in hickory, cherry and mesquite to get that set of flavors. This beer I’m drinking is the Hop Dragon, that’s smoked in … mesquite to give a nice light smoked flavor.
“What drove me to it is that I love Scotch. I’m a huge fan of Scotch — its smoky, peaty flavor. I don’t want a beer that’s just charcoal and melts your face off with too many peppers. It’s gotta have the right flavor, the right balance.
“Every beer gets its own pepper. I’ve got a beer with poblano, habanero. I use Carolina reapers in one beer, merita peppers in another, jalapenos …’’
Q: What will you have on tap next?
Answer: “I want to make and sell beers people love to drink. The next beer coming up is “Brimstone,” and that’s my flagship beer. And people surprising like this smoked grain, hoppy poblano, black rye combination.’’
Q: Where do you smoke your grains?
Answer: “I have a smoker I drag out back,’’ Peters says, pointing to a retro refrigerator he gutted and converted for the job. “Then I give all the spent grain to a farmer who gives it to his chickens and pigs.’’
Q: How does the brewing process work?
Answer: “I’ve got what’s called a brew house, fermenter tanks and serving tanks. The brew house has a 50-gallon capacity, then the fermenters and serving tanks are all 100 gallons.
“Six serving tanks hook up directly to the taps … The serving tanks are all chilled and insulated and jacketed and kept at 38 degrees.
Q: How long does it take?
Answer: “When I do a double batch it is a 15-hour brew day. And it’s a busy brew day because there’s a lot of transfers between the two tanks. Once it goes into the fermenter, you leave it alone for about a week. Then I start checking readings on it to see how it’s doing and try to calculate when it’s gonna be done. It’ll be in a fermenter for 10-15 days. I’ll take samples, take specific gravity readings, which tells you the density of the beer.”
Q: Your tanks have names?
Answer: “I named them all. This is Jeronimo, Harriet, Ichabod, Jezebel, Lucinda, Oscar, Phyllis … It’s much funner than calling everything Tank 1 or Tank 2. They have personality … Phyllis just can’t wait to get a beer in her. She’s been sitting empty for months! Jezebel’s a show off. She got the first beer. She’s the first tank to get two beers in her.’’
Q: How did you make the intricate patterns on your handmade wooden tables, tap handles, and bar?
Answer: “I electrocuted the wood. Electric current follows the pattern of the wood somehow. I can’t explain how it does what it does. These are called Lichtenberg patterns,’’ he says, pointing out lacy patterns he notes are evocative of bonsai trees.
“It’s similar to when lightning strikes sand … it will leave a pattern like that in 3-D. I rig a power source with big wires and hunks of metal and an assortment of paint brushes to make it all work. Then I drop big electrodes across the top of the wood and it just goes.’’
Q: How are you settling into the area?
Answer: “I’ve been pleased with the county, and pleased with the town. The town leadership has been super helpful with everything. The public has been super welcoming with everything.”
Q: What kind of vibe do you want for Hell on Horsecreek?
Answer: “I grew up watching “Cheers.” I wanted to be Norm. I wanted a bar that I could go in and have a place that I wanted to hang out at. So I built a place like that.
“The bar had to have a corner, so I built a corner into my bar. I hope people come here and find that it’s comfortable and we treat them well, and they like the beer and they come back and hang out. And so far we’ve had that. I’ve already got people I would call regulars who are here every night or every other night. I like that. That’s what I want.”
“I want young families to feel welcome. I had kids. I liked finding a place where I could bring the kids and sit down and have a beer and the kids were comfortable, too. And bring your dog if you like. It’s fine as long as Louis likes your dog,’’ he said, chuckling.
Beers on tap
A sampler of some beers you may find in rotation at Hell on Horsefire Creek as described by Peters
Hosewater ESB: The owner’s favorite with darker, smooth, malty flavor and extra special bitter with a touch of corn for a sweet finish.
Raspberry Charade: Voted #1 Best Oatmeal Raspberry Wheat in Madison for two weekends in a row. Smooth, tart, creamy, and satisfying.
Martin the Dirty Marzen: A near-traditional German lager, caramelized lovingly in the kettle. Malty, not too bitter.
Hop Dragon: Legendary terror of the Cascade Mountains, the fearsome Hop Dragon is smoked in pecan and mesquite, fired up with arbol chili peppers and hopped with loads of citrus.