Way back in late Spring, we had the honor to host award-winning beer writer and author, Stephen Beaumont, for Asheville Beer Week. His feature on the experience in our fair city didn’t make it into the US media, but being a Canadian, the story appeared in TAPS Magazine, Canada’s only national beer magazine. We’d like to thank Managing Editor, Kristina Santone, for the permission to reprint this story.
Read on, friends!
Tom Peters of Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia, Julie and Jason Atallah, and author Stephen Beaumont during Asheville Beer Week.
Beer City, North Carolina
If you so desire, you can be at a brewery within mere minutes of your flight landing at the Asheville Regional Airport. And not just any brewery either, but Sierra Nevada’s gleaming new shrine to the brewing arts, which the company spent tens of millions of dollars building. It’s so near to the diminutive airport that you can practically signal your first beer order from the plane’s right side windows during descent.
There are other cities where this sort of plane-to-beer manoeuvre is equally possible, of course, sometimes with even greater ease. (I don’t think I’ve ever made it from Munich’s airport to the S-Bahn without first stopping at Airbräu for a half-litre or two.) But that it now exists in Asheville seems somehow symbolic for a city well on its way to becoming the heart and soul of the modern American craft beer renaissance.
And if the idea of a moderately-sized, western North Carolina city being at the core of a 3,500+ brewery movement strikes you as more than a little odd, well, then you’ve obviously never been to Asheville.
The Birth of a Beer Giant
This modest metropolis at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains hasn’t always been a very important beer place. In fact, its oldest brewery, Highland Brewing, only opened its doors in 1994, well before craft brewing became the unstoppable juggernaut it is today, but still late relative to such veteran operations as Pennsylvania’s Stoudts, Oregon’s Full Sail or Ontario’s Wellington. The city’s second brewery, Green Man, didn’t appear until three years after that.
During the first decade of this century, however, Asheville suddenly began to crop up among the finalists in the “Best American Beer City” polls that have since become a scourge of the Internet. With only 85,000 or so inhabitants, the city was appearing alongside such craft brewing powerhouses as San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, signalling either a massive and concerted effort by the local chamber of commerce or a sure-fire indication that something quite significant really was underway. Turns out it was the latter.
Exactly how significant became clear in 2012 when, mere months apart, Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and New Belgium Brewing all announced plans to build second breweries in or near Asheville. (Oskar Blues is actually in Brevard, about a 45 minute drive from the city.) This was followed in turn by a host of rumours that had any number of breweries, from Stone to Cigar City, apparently planning on setting up shop in Asheville. None proved true – although Deschutes has to-date neither confirmed nor denied their intentions – but the mere fact that there was basis for such speculation proved how important Asheville had become.
Welcome to Beer Town
A walk through Asheville’s compact downtown does little to suggest that the streets being traversed are those of a craft brewing Mecca. Sure, beer bars like the Thirsty Monk and the Bier Garden are scattered here and there and it’s hard to miss the storefront of one of the east’s great beer vendors, Bruisin’ Ales, but these days that’s true of almost any North American city. What breweries that do exist downtown, like the Lexington Avenue Brewery, are hardly the stuff of legend.
Stroll a short distance to what locals call the South Slope, however, and things change quickly.
The first stop you’ll likely hit, since it’s on the main drag of Biltmore Avenue, is Wicked Weed, a brewery that in a scant two and a half years of existence has built such a reputation that they have been able to expand, open a second outlet, the nearby and self-defining Funkatorium, and commence work on a new production brewery. Oh, and also brew over 250 distinct recipes, of which Freak of Nature, an oily but sturdy double IPA, is the lone constant.
You’ll want to stay, since the beer menu is so vast it almost defies completion, the food is casual but excellent and the atmosphere more than conducive to hanging out for an afternoon or a day, but other breweries await. Like Asheville Brewing, located all of four streets away and a comparative veteran at nine years of age. (The original and still operating north Asheville location dates back to 1997.) More neighbourhood bar than swank taproom, its main draws are the expansive and covered patio – handy in a place where the weather can shift from sun to rain and back again within a half-hour – and beers like the roast and raisin Ninja Porter.
Continuing onward, Hi-Wire Brewing’s tasting room is just around the corner, boasting an impressive but, to my experience, somewhat variable Hi-Wire Lager (I’m hoping that it will become more dialed-in once their new production facility comes online – hey, they’re already two years old, of course they’re building a new brewery!) and one of the better brown ales I’ve had in the States, the slightly chocolate brownie-ish but dry-finishing Bed of Nails Brown. Just a bit further down the road is the aforementioned Funkatorium, home of tart delights like the tropical fruity Genesis.
For those keeping track, that’s four breweries within about a ten minute walk, and that’s after passing on Ben’s Tune-Up, a beer bar and, frankly, not terribly good sake brewery. And we’re nowhere close to being finished.
The Tour Continues
Across the street from the Funkatorium is the Twin Leaf Brewery, so that’s another 20 seconds of travel before you get to sample the spicy-herbal Sumachi Pale Ale, a springtime seasonal, or the more regular and curiously brown ale-esque Uproot ESB. From there, it will take all of two minutes to walk to the third and newest location of Catawba Brewing, which began life in Glen Alpine, about an hour outside of Asheville, back in 1999. Their session IPA, The Nose, might threaten to hold you in your seat with its soft orange and lemon flavours, or you could be otherwise tempted by the stronger and orange marmalade-y Firewater IPA, but by now it should come as no surprise that more breweries still remain.
You’ll need to round two corners, veering dangerously close to exercise, before you come to the Green Man Brewery, founded as a brewpub and expanded since into a full production brewery with a tasting room – the original pub – off to one side. While it maintains a very British and somewhat slapdash vibe, it is not without its charms, not the least of which are the leafy and roasty ESB and resinous Rainmaker Double IPA, plus the pair of dartboards that complement the cask-conditioned ales the brewery keeps available on a regular basis.
The final South Slope stop, and eighth brewery within a one mile walk, is Burial Brewing, two years old and, yes, already looking for a new site on which to build a second production facility. Aside from a curious obsession with Tom Selleck – I’m still trying to make sense of the mural in the beer garden – Burial is home to the rather resiny yet still gulpable Surf Wax IPA, and what the brewery describes as a ‘Belgian export stout,’ the baked fruit and espresso Rosary.
Will Drive for Beer
Having finished with the city’s most concentrated selection of breweries, the committed beer traveller could simply return to the quaint and highly walkable downtown to try out some of the less heralded breweries therein, or head westward to the developing River Arts District and Wedge Brewing, where the tropical fruitiness of Payne’s Pale Ale and the softly spicy Iron Rail IPA represent the best of a limited selection.
Or you could get in a car and explore some of the more outlying operations, such as: Highland Brewing with their easily overlooked but delightful, apple and gingerbread Gaelic Ale; Waynesville’s Boojum Brewing, brewers of a Raspberry Saison so finely nuanced that even a saison purist like myself had to admit to enjoying it; Oskar Blues, in a town so sleepy that they were warned they needed to increase the lighting in their parking lot lest the locals gather to, “have the sex there”, or any of more than a dozen other nearby breweries.
Regardless of your selection, however, there are two things about being a tourist in Asheville on which you can be certain: You’ll never lack for choice, and there is very little risk that you’ll wind up going thirsty!