For the third year in a row (if you count their 2009 tie with Portland), Asheville, NC was named the Examiner’s Beer City USA. For a small city of just over 80,000 people, this is an impressive feat to say the least. I decided it was high time I paid another visit to the beautiful mountain town to see why the Examiner’s readers consider it such a mecca for Aleheads. Fortunately, I only live about five hours from Western North Carolina, so the McHops clan decided to make Asheville our destination for a much-needed family vacation.
Let me add a caveat before you continue reading. If you’re expecting one of Kid Carboy’s beer travelogs involving seedy motel rooms, extensive interviews with brewers, and carefully planned days of bar-hopping and beer sampling, you’ll be disappointed by this post. Unlike the Kid, my beer trips are no longer solo endeavors. On my jaunt to Asheville, a pregnant Wifey and two-year-old Baby McHops joined me. While the long-suffering Wifey gave me leave to sample much of Asheville’s sudsy goodness, there’s only so much beer “research” you can do as a family man on vacation. More importantly, I’m an old man and beer makes me sleepy. A few beers at lunch and you can count me in for an afternoon nap right alongside Baby McHops.
With those excuses out of the way, let’s take a look at the jewel of Buncombe County and see how it earned the title of Beer City USA…
A GUIDE TO THE ASHEVILLE BEER SCENE
For an obsessive Alehead looking to restock their increasingly sparse beer fridge, the first stop in Asheville will be to one of the city’s many well-stocked…
1. BOTTLE SHOPS: As you might expect for a small town that prides itself on its beer culture, Asheville has its fair share of excellent bottle shops. Three of the best are Hops & Vines, the Asheville Wine Market, and the Appalachian Vintner (down near the quaint Biltmore Village). You can also find an excellent selection of brews at the Greenlife Grocery, a large organic market that was recently bought out by Whole Foods. But for true Aleheads, the place to visit (and, not surprisingly, my first stop on our vacation) is Bruisin’ Ales on Broadway. Unlike the stores listed above, this is JUST a beer bottle shop….there are no silly bottles of wine or liquor cluttering up the shelves. The store is wholly devoted to hops and barley. The staff is highly knowledgeable, knows their stock well, and will gladly point you to another shop in town if you can’t find a specific beer you’re looking for. Upon first glance, the store seemed smaller than I was expecting, but since they don’t carry any macros and have little refrigerator space (just one unit as far as I could tell), the store is mostly stocked with wooden shelves filled with specialty bombers. For an Alehead looking for rarities, local brews, and high-gravity, cellarable bottles, it was heaven. I picked up their last bottle of Life & Limb, the Terrapin Reunion ’11, and some local brews like the French Broad Wee-Heavy-Er, Asheville Brewing Shiva, and Olde Hickory Death by Hops. Plus a few more, of course…
Of course, only unfriendly sociopaths like me would sit at home with a fridge full of beer when Asheville has so many incredible…
2. BEER BARS: Who cares about bottle shops when you can belly up to the bar with some fellow travelers and sample suds fresh from the tap? Asheville doesn’t mess around when it comes to beer bars. If you’re looking for a good tap selection and quality bartenders, you’ve got plenty to choose from in town. Besides the fact that most of the local breweries either have taprooms or are part of full-fledged brewpubs, there are also a number of restaurants and pubs in town with great tap lists (like 12 Bones, a BBQ joint and the Mellow Mushroom, part of a large, Southern pizza chain known for their great beer selection). Then there’s the Bier Garden (despite its name, it’s just a nice, well-stocked beer bar…not a true “Biergarden” with an outdoor courtyard) and the Jack of the Wood Public House which seems to function as the “house organ” for Green Man Brewing (Green Man is served at a number of establishments in town and has their own taproom, but the Jack of the Wood makes it a point to “feature” their brews).
But if you ask a local which beer bar you HAVE to visit, two names keep coming up…Barley’s Taproom and the Thirsty Monk. During our first full day in town, Wifey and Baby decided to hunker down for an afternoon nap and I was given leave to frequent one of these bars. Casual readers might assume it wasn’t even a debate and that I immediately went to Barley’s. Both bars were within one block of where we were staying and I’ll admit that heading to my namesake pub was very enticing. But our devout readers know that I’m a sucker for any bar with the word “Monk” in the title. Two of my all-time favorite establishments in the US are Monk’s Café in Philly and the Monk’s Kettle in San Fran. So, bucking all expectations, I walked across the street to the Thirsty Monk…I was not disappointed.
The Thirsty Monk is a two story establishment with the subterranean downstairs space being reserved for Belgian and Belgian-inspired brews and the brightly-lit, open-air upstairs bar reserved for American craft brews. While I loves me some Belgian brews, I planted myself on an upstairs corner barstool about 30 seconds after the Monk opened and scanned the draught list. See if you can tell which brew caught my eye first…
Yeah, that’s right…the Avery Meph Addict. I love Avery brews in general, and the Mephistopheles in particular. So when I saw a 16%, barrel-aged, coffee-infused version of the already incredibly Imperial Stout? I mean, sure, why not? To say that I looked like a tool while drinking it would be a complete understatement. I sniffed the glass like a bloodhound, stared at the color like a crime scene investigator, and took careful, measured quaffs from the glass like it was the last beer I would ever drink. When one of the bartenders walked by, she asked “Meph Addict?” I tried to play it cool and said, “Yeah…it’s quite good.” She sneered (in a friendly way) and said, “Oh, it’s better than ‘quite good’.” She was right, of course. I described it to my fellow Aleheads as a high-octane version of Founders’ KBS.* Does that sound like something you might be interested in?
*Speaking of Founders, the Nemesis and Breakfast Stout were also on the menu and I tucked into those two brews as well…
While I regretted not being able to hit up Barley’s (there are only so many free afternoons on family vacations), I know I made the right call for the Meph Addict alone. Regardless, if you’re looking for a world-class beer bar, you’ve got plenty o’ options in Asheville. But what if you don’t care about out-of-state rarities and beers you can get elsewhere? What if you’re a beer explorer that just wants to sample the local stuff? Not a problem…just stop into one of Asheville’s many local…
3. BREWERIES: Your town isn’t going to be named Beer City USA for three years in a row just because you’ve got a few great bottle shops and bars. No…to earn that sobriquet, you need to be a producer, dammit. And no city produces local brews on a per capita basis quite like Asheville does.*
*Portland residents are rolling their eyes right now and rightly so. Calling any other city “Beer City USA” is pretty ridiculous as long as Portland remains part of the country. It’s like naming Karl Marlone the MVP over Michael Jordan. With 40 breweries in the Portland area, no city in the world can compete with the Rose City in terms of sheer numbers. However, per capita, Asheville actually wins out. Portland’s breweries per capita ratio works out to around 1 brewery per 14,600 residents. While Asheville has far fewer breweries, they also have seven times fewer residents which gives the city a per capita brewery ratio of 1 brewery per 9,200 Ashevillians. It’s a silly way to measure which city is “best” and as far as metro areas are concerned, I would certainly put Portland, Denver, San Fran, and San Diego ahead of Asheville. BUT, you would be hard-pressed to find a small town anywhere else in the country with such pride in beer-making as Asheville. It’s a model by which all other small, American cities should be measured.
Asheville is home to 9 breweries…each of which has its own personality and flavor:
Highland Brewing: For the most part, I ignored the offerings from Asheville’s oldest and biggest brewery. Not because I don’t like their beers (I enjoy them very much), but because they’re the one Asheville brewery that distributes in Alabama. No need to kill myself grabbing a bottle of Gaelic Ale or Oatmeal Porter when I can run to my local package store any time and grab a sixer. I did pick up a few bottles of their Black Mocha Stout, however, since that’s one of their few brews that you can’t find in the Yellowhammer states (it’s a pity too…what a great beer). While Highland had little impact on my vacation in Asheville, it may be the city’s best brewery and their seasonal Tasgall (a gorgeous Scotch Ale) might be the best brew made in town.*
*I suspect some locals would question my claim that Highland is the best in Asheville, and since I didn’t get a chance to sample brews from every brewery there, I bow to their judgment. That said, I’ve discovered over the years that, in general, craft breweries that have been around a little while tend to have the kinks worked out better than newer ale factories. That’s not to say that an upstart brewery can’t crank out an incredible product…just that it can take a few years to really master the consistency and quality necessary to be a truly great brewery. I’ve noticed that my local ‘Bama breweries seem to get better and better with each batch. Straight to Ale, an outfit in Huntsville, left me a little cold when their offerings first made their way to Birmingham. But with each successive sampling of their suds, I’ve been more and more impressed with their output. Making beer is easy…but making great, consistent beer is hard and takes a LOT of experience. Highland simply has more experience and more batches under their belt than any other Asheville brewery and I think the proof is in the pudding.
French Broad Brewing: This small microbrewery is located South of town near Biltmore Village. In the past, I’ve enjoyed their Rye Hopper IPA so I was looking forward to some more of their brews. I was able to try their Kölsch and 13 Rebels ESB both of which were solid, competent versions of their respective styles. I’m particularly looking forward to the bomber of Wee-Heavy-Er that I bought at Bruisin’ Ales. The gentleman ringing me up told me that it was their best brew by far.
Green Man Brewing: Green Man, like French Broad, mostly focuses on sessionable, English-style brews. Their IPA is clearly in the English style with a subtle, floral hop aroma and mild bitterness and their ESB is a workmanlike, if unspectacular offering. My favorite brew of theirs was a very tasty Porter* which was on tap at an Indian restaurant where we had dinner with some locals. I heard from a number of folks that the best place to consume Green Man’s Ales was either at their taproom or at the Jack of the Wood. Since I didn’t visit either locale, I’ll give myself an incomplete on Green Man.
*I think every Alehead has a style of beer that they can’t not like (forgive the double negative). For me, that style is Porter (or Stout). Like the old saying about there being no such thing as bad pizza or bad sex, there’s no such thing as a “bad” Porter to me. I find even clearly mediocre versions of the style to be perfectly drinkable. Saisons are the opposite for me. A Saison has to be incredible for me to enjoy it…but a Porter rarely, if ever, truly disappoints me. The only unforgivable sin for a Porter is to be too thin-bodied. They can be bland, over-roasted, too bitter, etc. and I’ll still probably like it…but serve me a thin, watery Porter, and I won’t even finish it.**
**Just kidding…of course I’ll finish it. I’m an Alehead!
Pisgah Brewing Company: This is the brewery I need to make a beeline to on my next visit to Asheville. I had their Pale Ale and Porter and thought, “Hey, these are pretty good…they’re obviously a quality brewery making some basic, no-nonsense products.” Upon returning to Birmingham and checking their website, it became clear that I missed the boat on Pisgah. Their all-organic, year-round line-up includes a 10% ABV Tripel and their seasonals include a delicious-sounding coffee stout, a bacon stout (awesome), something called Apple Jaxx, and the Vortex 1 which they claim is the hoppiest beer in the Asheville metro area. Pisgah, which is actually located in Black Mountain (just a short drive from Asheville), will obviously be my first stop when next I hit up Buncombe county.
Asheville Brewing Company: There are two Asheville Brewing Company locations in town. One is more family-oriented and has a second-run movie theater and arcade while the other is adult-oriented and sports a large, outdoor patio and a more upscale liquor bar. They both feature ABC beers, the most popular of which are the Shiva IPA and Ninja Porter. I sampled both and enjoyed both. The brewpubs seem to be very popular amongst the locals and they keep a low profile by focusing on smooth, highly-drinkable session beers. Nothing fancy at ABC, but it all seems to work.
Lexington Avenue Brewery (LAB): Be VERY wary of any brewpub that has clearly put a ton of effort into atmosphere and style. It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve often found that the most humble breweries and brewpubs have some of the best beer (though there are obvious exceptions to the rule like Stone which has one of the prettiest taprooms on Earth AND makes world-class beer). Lexington Avenue Brewery is the best “looking” brewery in Asheville with a gorgeous, open patio area, and a hip, stylish bar with multi-colored LED lights. They serve upscale pub grub and have about a half-dozen brews on tap at any one time. The problem, as a I quickly learned, is that the brewery is all style over substance. While it’s a great place to people-watch and grab a bite, the beer is well below average. I tried their Brown Ale which was a watery, limp mess and then switched to their IPA which was completely skunked (it smelled and tasted like a sulfur-bomb had gone off in it). Both beers were completely flat when they arrived to add to the fun. Our local friends and the fine gents at Bruisin’ Ales informed us that LAB was the least popular brewery amongst Asheville natives. Should have listened to them.
Wedge Brewing Company: On the flipside of LAB is Wedge which we were informed was the one brewery we HAD to visit in town. After a day shopping in Biltmore Village, we wandered up to the Wedge which is located in the hip River Arts District. Don’t let the name fool you…the River Arts District is a ramshackle, industrial part of town characterized by train tracks, warehouses, and chain-link fences. Wedge is a bit hard to find since the storefront actually faces away from the road and you have to drive through a gravel parking lot to find it. It has a tiny tasting room connected to the brewery and a nice-sized outdoor space filled with very cool industrial sculptures (think gears, pistons, and engine parts). It’s a very Bohemian place which I’m sure appeals to the super-liberal, free-spirited culture of Asheville. I asked the very helpful bartender which beer I “had” to try and she said the Iron Rail IPA was the most popular brew, but that the Derailed Hemp Brown Ale was her favorite on tap. Faced with that impossible choice, I asked for a half of each (hey, I was driving!). The “half” beers were very generous 12-ounce pours (I LOVE taproom pours) and we settled into the bar and let Baby McHops unshell some peanuts while I tucked into the brews. The IPA was very tasty though it had a slightly unpleasant astringency in the finish (nothing egregious, but it kept it from being a “great” IPA). The Derailed was absolutely delicious, however. A slightly spicy, very well-crafted Brown ale with a smooth, roasted finish and a nice, creamy body. Just an excellent beer all around.
OysterHouse Brewing/Craggie Brewing Company: Alas, with such a short trip to Asheville, I wasn’t able to sample beers from all the local breweries. The two I missed completely where the OysterHouse and Craggie Brewing Companies. OysterHouse is a tiny brewery within the Lobster Trap restaurant on Patton Avenue. It’s the smallest brewery in the city and, as far as I know, you can only get their beers at the Lobster Trap. Since Baby McHops isn’t a big lobster or oyster fan, we didn’t stop in. Craggie is another small local brewery that seems to brew a wide variety of styles. A look at their website reveals an oak-aged Chipotle Porter, a Dubbel, a historical spruce and molasses ale, a Bavarian Zwickel lager, and a Rye Ale. It’s safe to say that I’m sad I didn’t get a chance to visit Craggie. Ah well…there’s always next time!
With all of those breweries to choose from, it’s no wonder that Asheville is one of the best cities in America when it comes to…
4. BEER CULTURE: I’ve rarely spent time in a city that took more pride in their hometown beer than Asheville does. No matter where I went, I heard the locals talking about their beer. When we sat down with friends, the first question they asked was, “So, what local beers have you tried?” They are rightfully proud of being named “Beer City USA” and I think 90% of the beer I saw ordered during our visit was locally produced. Asheville is something of a “hippie” town with a focus on organic, local foods, environmental sustainability, outdoor recreation, tattoos, piercings, and drum circles. And in recent years, they’ve added beer to the list of things they’re passionate about. It was so refreshing to be in a town where beer has been sewn into the very warp and woof of the city’s fabric. Everywhere you went there was some reference to a local brewery or local beer. And sure, maybe Asheville doesn’t match Portland for variety or Denver for quality or San Diego for consistency, but for a small, mountain town, they really, REALLY care about their beer. And if YOU care about beer, you’ll make the trek to Asheville soon to see what Beer City USA is all about.