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Arts & Culture

Beer: It's Not Only For Drinking

It’s harder to make hand-made soap than you might think—there’s chemistry, calculations, and patience. One woman does the whole process from her tiny kitchen in Charlotte, using an ingredient that may seem…counter intuitive.

Toni South’s kitchen has all the essentials: stove, oven, sink, mixers. Everything you’d need to cook dinner or bake a cake.

But the way the kitchen is actually used is far less traditional.

The space that’s off of her kitchen that’s supposed to be the dining room is used for soap storage. It’s full of 30 stacked bread racks she got from a restaurant going out of business. Those racks are full of soaps that are “curing”—essentially drying and hardening. She says she has over 3,000 bars of soap in various phases of production stored in her condo.

“This seemed like a plenty big place when I moved in for what I needed to do. But I now have a 10 x 10 storage area that is full and as you can see I don't have much more room for growth here,” South says.

Even though South isn’t using her kitchen for its intended purpose, what’s taking place is a lot like cooking. And the not so secret ingredient to one of her best selling soaps on the menu?

Local beer from Triple C Brewery.

South had been making traditional handmade soap for about a year when a friend asked if she ever thought about using beer as an ingredient for its health benefits.

“The amino acids in the beer and the hops,” South says. “It just has nice properties for your skin. ”

It’s hard to find any independent scientific research that examines the health benefits of beer in soap.  But those who make it say the hops and vitamins in beer are good for dry, sensitive skin, and can help with acne and ingrown hairs.

She sells her soap in about 18 different stores including the 7th Street Market in Uptown. She also sells her products through the marketplace website Etsy. Her business is expanding, but she says, customers are still confused as to what beer soap is.

In Georgia, there’s The Beer Soap Company. Jamin Poczontek co-owns the company with his wife. They’ve been making beer soap for about seven years. They currently use over 130 different types of beers.

He says they still get lots of questions about their product:

“If you melt it can you can you drink it and get drunk? Can you eat it and get drunk? Can you bathe with it and get pulled over for a DUI?”

The answer to all of these questions is: no.

In Toni South’s soap, it’s the essential oils that are what you smell and what your skin may smell like after a shower.

Back in the kitchen South has mixed her beer, oils, butters and lye (the stuff that makes soap, soap) together. It’s blended so it looks like cake batter, but it definitely doesn’t smell like any kind of dessert. Up until the soap is hardened and dried, it can smell pretty funky.

While the current batch of soap settles, South pulls out a “loaf”—a hardened rectangular block of soap she made a couple of days ago. It’s time to slice.

The soap cutter looks like a strange instrument: part piano, part guitar, part harp turned cutting board. She pulls a lever which brings steel wire strings down, dividing the loaf into 14 bars with two small end pieces, like heals on a loaf of bread.

Then it’s time for the bars to cure for 4-6 six weeks before they’re wrapped in deli paper and head to market.

South has waited tables, worked as a school teacher, and even worked for a mortgage company. She left her last job in catering with no prospects in sight. So the fact that she can now support herself by soap making is impressive.

“It’s so much fun and it’s such a release. It’s a stress relief,” South says. “That’s why a lot of soapers don’t turn it into a full time job because it can go from being this great hobby to ‘oh my god,’ I have to produce this amount?’ You have to find a balance.”

Part of that balance is keeping up with the trends of soaping which include playing with recipes and experimenting with beer. And making time to convince people that there’s more to the beverage than its taste.