When you think of American craft beer capitals—because, really, no one should buy into the notion that there can be just one—the obvious cities might include Seattle or Portland, Boston or Chicago, maybe even the self-proclaimed “America’s Best Beer-Drinking City” of Philadelphia. One that won’t come immediately to mind is the modest urban hub of Asheville, North Carolina, even though it arguably possesses better beer chops than any of those larger metropolises.
Asheville first came to my attention when they started winning those insufferable Internet “Best Beer City” polls. As I imagine most beer savvy folk believed, I figured their success was largely a function of residents and sympathizers stuffing the virtual ballot box. Then, around the same time that I became aware of a small but increasingly celebrated Asheville beer store called Bruisin’ Ales, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company declared that its East Coast brewery was to be built in, you guessed it, Asheville.
Like a new song that you suddenly begin to notice everywhere, after the Sierra announcement mentions of Asheville began appearing almost weekly. New Belgium was to build its East Coast operation there; Wicked Weed, a home-grown Asheville brewery, opened its Funkatorium and announced its intent to build a production brewery in town; Oskar Blues, the Colorado brewer of Dale’s Pale Ale, began building just outside of Asheville in Brevard ; and Hi-Wire Brewing, barely more than a year old, decided to expand into a much larger production brewery.
Oh, and rumors abounded that Deschutes was going to pick Asheville as the site of their new East Coast operations. (They’re still abounding as I write these words in November, although the issue may well be settled before the end of the year.)
With all this buzz, I figured it was time for me to pay some in-person attention to Asheville. Conveniently enough, mere weeks later, I received an invitation to visit from the Ontario importer of Sierra Nevada. I snatched at the opportunity.
That first visit yielded an extensive tour of the Sierra facility—the kind of brewery I imagine baby brewers dream about in their half-barrel cribs—but not much else in the way of Asheville experiences. We visited Bruisin’ Ales and finally met owners Julie and Jason in person, ate at a wonderful restaurant called The Market Place, and drank at the Thirsty Monk, which most sources will identify as the best beer bar in town, but which left me somewhat underwhelmed.
Happily, just a few weeks later, I got the chance to travel once again to Asheville, this time during the local Beer Week. The plan was for me to host a beer dinner, coincidentally at the aforementioned Market Place, lead a beer knowledge and service seminar for local bar and restaurant operators, and, most importantly, research the local beer scene.
It was that last point that caused me to seriously re-evaluate my abbreviated first-time impression of this mountain city of 80,000 souls. Because as with places like Portland, Oregon, and Tampa Bay to a much lesser degree, Asheville is not a city where the beer bars form the nucleus of the local beer scene, but one in which the local breweries reign supreme. And oh boy, do they ever have a lot of breweries!
The heart of brewery country in Asheville is an area locals call the South Slope, about a 10- or 15-minute stroll from downtown. There, within a tight one-mile walk, you’ll find eight breweries, including the original and funkified locations of Wicked Weed, Hi-Wire’s start-up brewery and tasting room—the larger and recently opened production facility, also with a taproom, is a couple of miles away in Biltmore Village—and the area’s first brewpub, Green Man, since expanded into a production operation with a pub-ish beverage room attached.
The four other breweries are Asheville Brewing, Twin Leaf, Catawba Brewing, and the relatively new Burial Brewing. And really, that’s a good chunk of what you need to know about Asheville. All eight breweries have at least two or three beers of substance and style, and some have many more than that. Plus, in case you get tired of going brewery to brewery, there is Ben’s Tune-Up, a beer bar and, frankly, mediocre sake brewery, right in the middle of it all.
Confining yourself to the South Slope, however, would mean missing out on the developing River Arts District and Wedge Brewing; the venerable Asheville institution that is Highland Brewing; an ever-growing abundance of other, more outlying small breweries; the new digs of Sierra, Oskar Blues, and, soon enough, New Belgium; and beer bars like the somewhat frat house-ish Bier Garden, the self-serve draft emporium, Pour Taproom, and even the old and slightly tired Thirsty Monk.
Add in an end-of-trip shopping stint at Bruisin’ Ales and you have the makings of one hell of a beer trip that, if not the best in the USA, is certainly among the finest imaginable.