The Beer East of the Beer West

By Win Bassett

Photograph by Max Cooper

Beer enthusiasts across the United States will tell you that there is no reason for Asheville, North Carolina to have been named “Beer City USA” by for the past four years over the likes of established beer meccas such as Portland, Bend, Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, and San Diego. Though the city shared the title with Portland in 2009 and Grand Rapids in 2012, how could a small mountain town in the blue, law-heavy South compete with these progressive and creative-class cities, some of which boast more breweries than the entire state of North Carolina? Strike up a conversation with an Asheville local, however, and you’ll soon learn that the homegrown pride for the city’s craftsmen, and the do-it-yourself, stay-local culture they perpetuate, make the annual poll, promoted by Charlie Papazian, founder of the Great American Beer Festival, author of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and current president of the Brewers Association, a no-brainer.

Home to five operating craft breweries prior to the passage of North Carolina’s Pop the Cap campaign in 2005 that changed the alcohol by volume (ABV) limit of beer sold in the state from 6 percent to 15 percent, the Asheville-Buncombe County area now houses 11 breweries, and this number doesn’t include the plethora of other breweries within a 65-mile radius or the handful under construction. These numbers may not seem particularly notable to those who call certain previously mentioned cities their home, but when there are fewer than 85,000 people in an approximately 40-square mile area who are able to call this beer “local,” breweries and retail establishments that serve quality beer appear to be on every corner. The modern-day craft beer movement in Asheville, or “Brewvival” as local author Anne Fitten Glenn calls it in her recently-released Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing (The History Press, 2012), can be traced back to a Jamaican-born Chinese engineer with a soft heart for the Scottish.

Accessibility to Greatness

Oscar Wong founded Highland Brewing Company in the basement of Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria in downtown Asheville in 1994 and has been brewing his best-selling Gaelic Ale ever since. When I asked why Wong chose the small mountain town for his brewing legacy, Leah Wong Ashburn, Wong’s daughter and vice president of Highland, says her father “saw a trend, which at the time was just a light pulse in North Carolina and in other parts of the country. Asheville is not unlike many of the great western craft beer cities and it didn’t have a brewery.”

Today, a much larger facility a few miles outside of downtown along the Old Charlotte Highway houses the brewery, event space, small gift shop, and taproom that serves Highland’s year-round offerings, seasonals, and occasional one-off beers on draft. The brewery also recently added an outdoor concert venue that frequently hosts some of the finest bluegrass artists in the Southeast.

Despite the brewery’s extensive growth, Ashburn says that she, her family, and Highland aren’t going anywhere. “Asheville makes available to everyone the great things in life. Everyone can enjoy the natural beauty. Downtown is safe, vibrant, and varied. It doesn’t take a few hundred dollars to enjoy an evening,” she says.

And Ashburn adds, “That’s exactly what beer is—the best is available to all. You can have a world-class beer, share the experience, and compare notes with the biggest names in the business who are drinking the same beer.” In other words, Asheville lets everyone play and experience this “accessibility to greatness.” “Simply put, my family is here, our employees are incredible, and our identity lies here; it gave Highland its name and brand,” she says. “We couldn’t be anywhere else.”

Local on a New Level

On the other side of town, Tim Schaller, owner of Wedge Brewing Company in the River Arts District, similarly credits Wong for pioneering Asheville’s budding beer culture. “Oscar chose to start Highland in Asheville in the mid-’90s, and that showed the rest of us that it was possible. It also began the local allegiance to local craft beer…the ice was broken,” he says.

Unlike Highland, which distributes to several states, Wedge’s beers are available only at its taproom and at one semisecret tap handle across the street at Clingman Cafe. Having a strong and present voice in both the beer and city development circles in Asheville, Schaller wants nothing more than to see the city’s economy thrive and to keep his beer close to home. He says, “There is a strong civic pride in Asheville probably because so many people have chosen [the city] for their home. The ‘local’ movement is an outgrowth of that civic identity. Asheville beer has become a local identity.”

Part of that local identity is the English-style Iron Rail IPA from Wedge. It commands such a crowd that the brewery often opens its “IPA Express” window to dispense the beer away from the line at the main bar. And other than his brewery providing him “with a good living and free beer,” Schaller enjoys Asheville because it is “an environmentally, progressive, active town. When I moved here 17 years ago, the people were welcoming, and, as far as I can tell, they still are.” He credits “great outdoor activities, a strong artist community, and good food and good beer” for sustaining the city.

Schaller adds, “If you enjoy good beer and beer culture, Asheville should be on your bucket list. The diversity and supportiveness of the Asheville community makes for a great visit.” And with its elaborate metal sculptures and laid-back ethos along the train tracks on the river, Wedge is a don’t-miss stop on that visit where you can share a bucket full of free peanuts and a pitcher of Julian Price Pilsner among friends, dogs, and empanada food trucks.

Equally focused on the community is Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company. Analogous to the West Coast’s Pizza Port Brewing Company’s model (owner Mike Rangel has even stated, “I want to be the Pizza Port of Asheville”), Asheville Brewing combines quality pizza with well-crafted beer at its locations on Coxe Avenue in downtown and on Merrimon Avenue, which is a short bike ride north of downtown. The Merrimon Avenue location also houses a $3 dine-in movie theater where beer lovers can grab a slice of Funky Chicken pizza and a pint of the brewery’s infamous Fire Escape, a jalepeño-infused version of its Escape Artist Pale Ale. Only recently has Asheville Brewing increased its offerings of small-batch beers beyond its typical year-rounds in the brewpubs and the canned Shiva IPA and Rocket Girl lager, and they have all been extremely well-received. District 12, a wheat ale reminiscent of Bell’s Brewery Oberon Ale that was named after the place of the same name in The Hunger Games (the first movie was filmed near Asheville), proved to be especially popular during Asheville’s inaugural Beer Week in May 2012.

City of Experience

While food is on your mind, you may want to head into downtown Asheville to visit Wicked Weed Brewing Company, the breakout star of this past year’s Brewgrass Festival. Named after a King Henry VIII remark that hops are “a wicked and pernicious weed,” the brewpub opened the doors to its exposed brick walls, vast kitchen, and open fermenter in late December 2012.

Brothers Walt and Luke Dickinson, along with partner Ryan Guthy, serve their People’s Choice Pale Ale, Heresy Brown Ale, and Temptress Double Red Ale, among many other beers, from both brewpub bars. Further, a large garage door window opens into an outdoor seating area, where patrons can enjoy a pint before seeing a show at the famous Orange Peel music venue next door.

When asked why he chose to open a brewpub in Asheville, Walt Dickinson says that he “love[s] this town and its people. Asheville beer drinkers love their craft breweries more fervently than any community in the United States. I really do believe that.” And like those drinkers, Dickinson and the small community of brewery owners and brewers in the city truly support each other. In addition to serving local guest beers at his brewpub, he acknowledges that Asheville’s “breweries reflect all styles and bring the roots of craft beer to the forefront with small breweries making exceptional ales.”

In addition to quality beer, this “western mountain town” has a “passion for experience”that drives the community, Dickinson says. “They want to run, hike, bike, climb, paddle, drink, and eat without boundaries… What better way for community to come together than over a pint of craft beer?” he asks.

Living Simply in Cultural Complexity

Bringing that community together as one of the stalwarts of Asheville’s beer scene, and Wicked Weed’s downtown neighbor, is Thirsty Monk Pub. The bar, which also has an extensive food menu, has been a national treasure for years, making the best beer bars lists for DRAFT Magazine, All About Beer Magazine, Paste Magazine, and year-after-year. In October 2012, founder and owner Barry Bialik also started serving his own beer from a one-barrel system in the pub’s south Asheville location.

Caroline Forsman, general manager of Thirsty Monk, says that Bialik “used to drink at a Belgian bar in Seattle and decided to bring that concept to Asheville. [Ashville] is one of the most amazing little towns located in one of the most beautiful regions of the United States with a thriving craft beer community,” she adds.

Born in Sweden and having moved to the States for high school, Forsman “loves the differences and variety the Asheville beer scene has to offer.” She says, “Everyone is a homebrewer, [and] it’s hard to find someone who does not have a strong opinion about which is their favorite local brewery.” As a testament to just how entrenched local beer is in the city’s culture, Forsman thinks, “Everyone in Asheville over the age of 21 is a closet beer snob.”

Thirsty Monk regular and local homebrewer Adam Reinke agrees with Forsman. “Good beer can bring people and communities together, and this happens every day in Asheville, he says. “Friends meeting for lunch over a beer, a happy hour taste of a new beer, or even the brewery owners and staff donating time or money to local charity…create a positive energy that draws people together.” Beyond beer, “[l]ocal farms, local restaurants, local art, local music, [and] local crafts” make the community well-rounded, Reinke says. “The culture here is…deep.” And no one explains the rich cultural complexity of this southern mountain town with folks who embody a “live simply” mantra better than Wedge’s Schaller. “That guy in the jeans and T-shirt may be rich and brilliant. The glass artist is respected as much as the lawyer. Come ready
to explore.”

Sidebar 1 /

AS local as Possible

Riverbend Malt House
West Asheville

One of the few micromaltsters in the world that uses traditional floor techniques, Riverbend has supplied malt from locally sourced barley, wheat, and rye to Highland, Pisgah, and Green Man for truly “local” beers.

Echoview Farm

One of the largest hop farms in North Carolina, Echoview has been on on the forefront of hop research efforts with North Carolina State University and has supplied several local breweries with Brewers Gold, Centennial, Magnum and Chinook varieties for small batches of beer.

Sidebar 2 /

Asheville Breweries

To help you plan your trip to Asheville, we’ve compiled a list of all of Asheville’s breweries and brewpubs. We recommend calling ahead to check hours of operation or to schedule a tour.

Altamont Brewing Company

Asheville Pizza
& Brewing Company

Asheville Brewing Company

French Broad
Brewing Company

Green Man Brewery

Highland Brewing Company

Lexington Avenue Brewery

Oyster House Brewing Company

Thirsty Monk Pub & Brewery

Wedge Brewing Company

Wicked Weed Brewing

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One Response to “DETOUR // ASHEVILLE, NC”

  1. And if you are touring places in Asheville, you should definitely take a day trip to nearby historic downtown Waynesville (25 minutes west) to tour their microbreweries:

    Frog Level Brewing Company
    Headwaters Brewing Company
    Tipping Point Brewing Company