You know you’re in a beer town when the gas station has a beer bar. A legitimate, eight rotating taps, corn hole in the backyard, beer bar. At the gas station. Yeah, Asheville is that kind of town. The small Southern town has crept into the national conversation about world-class beer destinations, rubbing elbows with cities twice, three times its size thanks, in part to the sheer volume of breweries operating in and around downtown. Last count, Asheville had 14 breweries, though that number will likely rise by the time you read this. And we’re not just talking one-barrel mom and pops. When craft beer pillars New Belgium and Sierra Nevada decided to expand east of the Mississippi, they looked directly to Asheville. Sierra Nevada will open their tasting room at their brewery 20 minutes east of downtown this summer. New Belgium is on track to open up in the hip River Arts District in 2015.
Beyond beer, you have a funky, progressive Southern town that’s been dubbed by some politicians as North Carolina’s own “cesspool of sin.” Performance art is ubiquitous and impressive (try to find the guy in drag who juggles swords in four-inch high heels while standing on a balance board), drum circles are a regular fixture of downtown, and there’s an embarrassing number of James Beard nominated chefs working in our kitchens. Dive into this Southern gem with Paste’s Craft Beer Guide To Asheville.
You could spend an entire week visiting Asheville’s growing portfolio of breweries. Start with these five and branch out from there.
Highland Brewing Company
Asheville’s first brewery turns 20 this year, and they’re celebrating by creating 20 new beers throughout the year. Show up to their brewery on weekends and you’ll find locals lounging in the sun and listening to live music. You can’t go wrong with Highland’s Gaelic Ale, a consistent, malty amber, but come back in the winter to witness the mass hysteria that surrounds the release of the seasonal Cold Mountain Winter Ale.
Part art studio, part brewery, the Wedge embodies Asheville’s hipster spirit. The building is adorned with iron work and paintings from artists that surround the brewery in the River Arts District, and the Wedge makes the most of their massive gravel parking lot in front of the brewery, with food trucks galore (look for the Mexican/Korean fusion of El Kimchi) and weekly cult movie nights during warm weather. Hop heads should order the 3rd Rail, an aggressively hoppy (100 IBUs!) Imperial IPA that will knock you on your ass at 11.6% ABV.
This relative newcomer (they opened in 2012) took Asheville by storm with their Belgians and West Coast-style IPA’s. The patio kicks ass too. More recently, their barrel program has come into its own, and one of their sours, Serenity, won gold at the 2013 GABF for American Style Brett. Serenity is the first beer Wicked Weed is putting in the bottle—grab one if you can.
Burial Beer Company
Burial opened in 2013 in Asheville’s burgeoning South Slope neighborhood on the edge of downtown. You won’t find any signage outside—just a non-descript white door—but step inside for some of the most promising beer in town. The one-barrel pilot system produces double IPA’s, farmhouse ales, saisons, and an amber made with local maple syrup. You’ll find agrarian tools on the wall and a picture of Sloth, from Goonies. So you have that to look forward to.
Green Man Brewery
Green Man pioneered the industrial-chic brewery scene that has become ubiquitous in Asheville. The garage doors are open on warm days, there’s always soccer on the TV, and you can usually find pretzels and local Lusty Monk Mustard on the bar. The IPA is solid (and now found in bottles around town), but the ESB is a malty, caramel winner.
The Beer Bars
Sure, they’ve added two more bars around town and are finishing their third as I type this, but The Monk is still the place to go if you want something weird, foreign, or Belgian. The last time I was there, they had all the mainstays from Stone to Ommegang, but also had five taps devoted to Brew Dog. Head downstairs, and you’ll have 200 bottles at your fingertips. Plus, there’s a dude who dresses like a nun that hangs out there. Asheville.
The draw of this bar is in the title. It’s literally by the water. More specifically, it’s a tiny little house with a ton of taps that has an expansive yard along the French Broad River. Bring your own meat to throw on one of the outdoor grills, or just roast hot dogs over the impressively large fire pit.
The Brew Pump
You might not think a beer garden inside a gas station would work, but have one beer at The Brew Pump, in West Asheville, and you’ll be convinced the concept should be franchised. It’s your standard CitiStop gas station, but there’s a walk up/open air bar with a handful of rotating taps next to the pumps and a sizeable backyard with picnic tables and cornhole. In just a year, The Brew Pump has become one of the best beer gardens in Asheville.
BREW-ed: Sign up for this walking tour that begins at Asheville Brewing Company and fans out to any of a number of downtown breweries (Wicked Weed, Burial, Hi-Wire, and Green Man), and a certified cicerone will lead you through the intricacies of tasting beer, teaching you how to identify certain characteristics and where those characteristics come from during the brewing process.
Skip the cheesy souvenirs and hit one of these bottle shops to find a little piece of Asheville to take home with you.
If you’re looking to pick up the latest from Evil Twin, or Founders or St. Bernardus, you go to Appalachian Vintner, a bottle shop with an extensive collection and a 20-tap list to boot. And if a local brewery bottles or cans, you’ll find it here.
The tap list at this growler filling station is typically impressive to say the least. You’ll find plenty of options from big hitters like Stone, Ballast Point, and Left Hand, but also tasty options from some of the smaller breweries operating outside of the city’s limits, like Southern Appalachian, which crafts tasty ales in nearby Hendersonville.
Three Standout Beers You Have To Drink
Okay, you hit the breweries we mentioned above. Good for you. Now carry on with these three must-drink Asheville standards.
Technically, Pisgah Brewing operates out of nearby Black Mountain, but sessioning Pisgah Pale on a hot day has become an Asheville tradition. And now, you can find it in a can.
Oyster House Moonstone Oyster Stout
Silky, smooth and slightly briny, this low ABV stout is made with oysters.
Asheville Brewing Company Shiva
ABC’s Shiva has all the citrus, grapefruit, bitter goodness you expect from an IPA, but somehow comes off a little bit creamy out of the can.
Big Beer Gathering
Each season brings a different beer festival in Asheville, but there’s one event all beer lovers should experience at least once. The Brewgrass Festival blends craft beer and bluegrass, jamming 40 breweries and a handful of bands into an open park on the edge of downtown. All the local breweries are there, but big boys like Allagash, Founders, Terrapin, and Breckenridge also typically pour. It’s also a good chance to sample some of the smaller breweries from around the region with tiny distribution footprints. A single ticket gets you unlimited pours. Look for it in September, and get your tickets early. This thing sells out faster than Miley Cyrus playing an “intimate venue.”
The Hard Stuff
While Asheville hangs its hat on beer, the craft spirits scene is alive and well. Add these two stops to your Asheville tour.
Troy and Sons
The distillery uses a unique strain of corn to make a few different moonshines. Pick up the Oak Reserve, which hangs out in bourbon barrels giving the shine a bit more complexity. And you can’t beat the distillery’s location, which sits next door to Highland Brewing. Take a distillery tour on Friday or Saturday then saunter over to Highland’s tap room.
The Imperial Life
The Imperial Life kick started Asheville’s craft cocktail scene. Bartenders in bowties whip up classic cocktails in a dimly lit bar in an office building above Table, a restaurant with killer fries. Order the Negroni.
Fill Your Belly
You can’t turn around in Asheville without running into good grub. For thoughtful Southern, hit up Early Girl Eatery and order the fried chicken (the chef is set to open a separate chicken and waffles joint soon). Curate is all about the small plates as envisioned by one of the South’s most promising chefs (James Beard nominated Katie Button). Get a bunch of different plates, but make sure the Spanish ham and the Canelones de Carne (pasta filled with pork, beef, and chicken liver) are in the mix.