HEAD TO THE NORTH CAROLINA MOUNTAINS TO PLAN YOUR NEXT BREWTINERARY
In 2011 the cast and the crew of the hit movie The Hunger Games descended on Asheville and the surrounding area for a three-month shoot. While it was ostensibly the dense forests and charming rural communities in the region that attracted the producers, in fact it might well have been Asheville’s burgeoning beer scene that brought Katniss and crew to “Beer City USA.” This is a title that this city is quite proud of, with more craft brews per capita than any other town in the country and a business-friendly atmosphere that has attracted and supported breweries for many years. While other cities like Portland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, also brag about their brewing prowess, Asheville is clearly an ideal destination for beer fans seeking out the leading edge of the craft brew wave.
Speaking of clarity, the limestone-filtered water supply of Asheville is a key component of the quality of the products flowing from the taps of pubs, restaurants, and breweries in Western North Carolina. Since beer is 90 percent water, you can’t make great beer without good H2O. Large national breweries such as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have begun building large facilitates to take advantage of the raw materials and talented workforce in the “Land of the Sky” and will soon bring an even larger spotlight to the city.
With more than twenty breweries within ten miles of downtown, planning a brewtinerary can be imposing. Fortunately, there are several local companies leading tours and providing safe transportation between some of Asheville’s most notable spots. The best-known of these companies is the Asheville Brews Cruise, which offers different walking and bus itineraries for each day of the week at very affordable prices. With the advantage of parking once and visiting multiple breweries in one day, this is a very desirable option for beer tourism.
For a self-guided sampling of a wide variety of local brews, consider visiting the many taprooms and pubs around town. At Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria on Biltmore Avenue downtown, you can choose from a mind-boggling fifty-six unique draft beers in their comfortable downstairs dining room or from twenty-five different taps in the cozy poolroom upstairs. Barley’s offers several flights of small pours from various different producers including a “Beer City Flight” sampler of some of Asheville’s best to get you acclimated to the beer styles of the region.
Around the corner at the Thirsty Monk Pub on Patton Avenue, visitors snack on small plates, sandwiches, and pizzas while they peruse an ever-changing list of dozens of beers from the local area, across the nation, and around the world, including some rare high-gravity beers with alcohol content ranging as high as 12 percent. Be careful about those high gravs, because you’ll want to be stable enough on your feet to descend the steep staircase to the unique cellar bar at the Thirsty Monk that focuses on Belgian brews like saisons and tripels. The stone walls of the basement surround a space that is surprisingly cozy, and you’ll likely find plenty of beer fans enjoying a draft who will be happy to give you advice on where to visit next. If you need to bribe one of the locals to give up the goods, consider splitting an order of the Thirsty Monk’s signature appetizer, the “Pint of Bacon.” Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. As a bonus, you can open a tab at either the upstairs or downstairs bar and enjoy the best of both without having to cash out before switching locations.
Since downtown Asheville is eminently walkable and parking is plentiful and cheap, it’s simple to visit several breweries in one long session. If you want to finish your tour walking in a straight line, it might be advisable to start out at Lexington Avenue Brewery,
where, in addition to some excellent beers, they also serve a full menu of fortifying food. For just seven dollars, visitors can taste through seven of LAB’s beers that are made in the large copper tanks visible from the dining room. An order of their LAB beef sliders topped with crunchy truffled shoestring fries is an ideal accompaniment to a pint of their LAB Pumpkin Porter, a dark roasty brew made with over 200 pounds of pumpkin in every batch.
The hottest new brewery in town is without a doubt Wicked Weed. The brewery gets its name from Henry XIII’s declaration of hops as “a wicked and pernicious weed,” and the brew masters at Wicked Weed have embraced the characteristic bitterness of hops. Brothers Walt and Luke Dickinson demonstrate the energy and attention span of Generation Y brewers, producing over 130 different recipes of beer in the first nine months of operation. With this sort of constantly changing roster of beers, it’s best not to get too attached to a favorite at Wicked Weed since it probably won’t be on the menu for long. Instead, fans have learned to share in the joy of experimentation as they enjoy hoppy West Coast-style beers in the large patio that fronts Biltmore Avenue or in the quaint taproom and beer garden that offer a view of the talented brewers at work in the production facility downstairs.
The Dickinsons always have a new project in the works, such as their unique open-fermentation Belgian-style brewing system that allows natural yeasts to do their work in a hermetically sealed environment with HEPA filters and positive-pressure air systems to prevent undesirable yeasts from entering the open-topped brew tank. They also experiment with the new craze of sour beers and barrel aging at a separate aging facility near their headquarters in a refurbished 1930s hardware store. While you might not know what to expect on the menu when you visit Wicked Weed, rest assured it will be interesting.
Less cutting edge but no less charming is Wedge Brewing Company, located in a nineteenth-century warehouse building in the River Arts District. The taproom and brewery are tiny since the real attraction at Wedge is the social outdoor seating area where neighborhood residents enjoy a rotating selection of four to eight beers on tap in a sculpture garden decorated with unusual pieces from local craftsmen. Food trucks often park nearby to provide snacks as patrons enjoy beautiful sunsets over the French Broad River, old-time music concerts, and even movie nights projected on a makeshift screen painted on the side of a large panel truck. The ambiance makes it easy to forget that you’re just a few blocks from Asheville’s bustling downtown.
Other excellent breweries within a short trip of Wedge are the Asheville Brewing Company, Green Man Brewery, and Hi-Wire Brewing. ABC has several locations around town, including one in the Merrimon neighborhood that is locally known as the “Brew n’ View” thanks to the fact that it houses a discount movie theater where you can enjoy a pizza and a craft brew with your show. The taproom and small beer garden at Green Man opens every afternoon to crowds of fans who have loved their traditional English-style ales since 1997. The hoppy Green Man IPA is a particular favorite. At Hi-Wire, a playful circus theme runs through the naming of their beer offerings, with Hi-Wire Lager and Bed of Nails Brown leading the roster. Despite their playful theme, however, they are dead serious about their beer at Hi-Wire, achieving a vaunted reputation in just a few years of brewing.
Either as part of one of the beer tours or in your own vehicle, there are several options on the outskirts of Asheville that are worth a trip. Highland Brewing Company is located about ten minutes down the highway southwest out of downtown and is the granddaddy of regional craft breweries. Started in 1994 by Oscar Wong, Highland has expanded its capacity from 6,500 barrels per year to 50,000 barrels annually in a modern new facility with plenty of room to grow. Their flagship Gaelic Ale is the workhouse brand for Highland with distribution as far as South Florida. Wong comes from a background in engineering and still maintains a small three-barrel microbrewery in the 70,000-square-foot facility to encourage employees to experiment with new recipes and stimulate their creative spirits. A huge taproom opens each day at three o’clock and features a large stage for musical entertainment and a park-like outdoor setting on the forty-acre campus that encourages family fun and picnicking.
Right next door to Highland is Troy and Sons Distillery. While not a brewery per se, it is certainly worth a visit since you can’t make whiskey without making beer as the first part of the fermentation and distillation process. Troy Ball and her husband, Charlie, run a modern distilling facility where they produce craft spirits made from heritage corn that they grow on their own farm. The Crooked Creek variety of corn that they use in their mash is some of the highest-fat grain available, and since fat makes flavor, their whiskeys burst with spicy and fruity notes that are unexpected in a young spirit. The Balls also sell some mighty tasty grits made from that same corn. Drop by for a tasting and a tour of their ultra-modern distillery.
It’s much lower-tech at the Pisgah Brewing Company, located in Black Mountain, North Carolina, about twenty minutes east of Asheville. There’s a laid-back surfer vibe at Pisgah where the taproom is open seven days a week and free tours are offered every Saturday afternoon. They specialize in brewing hand-crafted certified organic beers with regular offerings of a caramel stout, a fruity tripel, a hoppy IPA, and a malty pale ale along with rotating seasonal specialties. Music is a key component of the Pisgah experience thanks to a large stage in the taproom and an open field and amphitheater located behind the brewery where frequent festivals entertain visitors who lounge in the field and enjoy beers from trucks in the Pisgah parking lot.
Whether you’re a real hop-head or just a novice beer aficionado, Asheville is an ideal place to learn more about the art of craft brewing. The passion of the brewers and the local beer lovers is contagious, so make sure to ask questions and ask for advice. With so many choices of great beers in the immediate area, it’s always good to have a drinking buddy to point you in the right direction. Or to call you a cab.
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