By Michael O’Connor
“Welcome to Asheville, Beer City USA,” the smug hotel receptionist said as she handed us our hotel key cards, each one depicting a couple pints and the declarative statement “Best Brews”, just in case we hadn’t heard her.
I bit back a fresh scoff from reaching my lips, but efforts to disguise my true identity as an undercover Portlander in enemy territory were undone by a reflexive eye roll. She pretended she hadn’t noticed, but I could swear I saw her speak into a walkie-talkie as we walked away, her eyes narrowing into beady slits as she spoke in hushed tones.
To say that something of a “rivALEry” now exists between Asheville, North Carolina and Portland, Oregon, is a bit of an understatement. You need only visit homebrew guru Charlie Papazian’s Examiner website (found here) and peruse his poll to determine the best place for beer in America to understand the state of unrest and discord between these two great cities.
For the past two years, through some form of occult magic, probably involving a healthy dose of bovine sacrifice, and likely shepherded beneath a massive government conspiracy tying together chem trails, crop circles and extraterrestrial virus-pollinating honey bees, this southern lightweight residing in the shadow of the great Blue Ridge Mountains with its grand total of 11 breweries, has trounced the previously undisputed heavyweight champion with the greatest number of breweries anywhere in the world (38 and counting, bitches).
I know what you’re thinking. “Blasphemy”? “Outrage”? “Bullshit”? None of those words are strong enough. First of all, you wonder, what could a bunch of good ol’ boys know about brewing great beer? Second, how could a place with a measly population of 77K even have enough votes to win such a poll? Third, how do a bunch of beers with no distribution outside the South gain their hometown such a prestigious reputation?
I wish I had an answer for you. I really do. But the more you stare at Papazian’s website, seeking the tiniest vestige of rationality, the closer you come to being consumed by the void, falling away into babbling, incoherent madness.
But here’s what I can tell you: Asheville isn’t a complete fluke. There are plenty of cities out there that aren’t fit to suck up the spilled wort at Portland’s worst brewpub; Asheville, on the other hand, does have quite a bit going for it and I would challenge any self-proclaimed beer fanatic to deny their love for the city after a few days spent sampling its foamy treasures.
But before delving into all that, there are a few things to mention about the city unrelated to its brewing reputation. The first thing you’ll notice about Asheville is that it doesn’t look anything at all like most Southern cities. While it has come to be known as the unofficial capital of Western North Carolina, Asheville boasts a unique cultural identity and history at odds with the surrounding areas, favoring art over commerce, nature over industry, and quality over convenience. It’s an extremely picturesque city with a central quad park surrounded by art deco architecture downtown and the grandiose extravagance of the Grove Park Inn and the Biltmore Estate on the outskirts. And it has great natural beauty as well; a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway hearkens back to a time when driving was less about getting somewhere as quickly as possible and more about enjoying the journey.
But perhaps most endearing is its quirky, liberal spirit, a trait that is extremely rare for the South. There’s a huge emphasis here on local, sustainable, and if possible, organic food; stores and restaurants are small, independently owned and specialize in niche commodities and flavors; the entire downtown area is designed to be easily accessible on foot and discourage automobiles; art and literature are highly valued here, as evidenced by the ubiquitous presence of local artisan craftmakers, art galleries, independent bookstores, and a reputation for being home to authors like Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald; heck, there are even bike racks everywhere.
And as for the beer scene, it’s surprisingly similar to Portland, albeit on a much smaller scale. Per capita, it may well beat out The Rose City as the best place in the country for ale-a-holics. Considering that its population is less than 1/7th of Portland’s, it’s impressive that you can’t walk down a block in downtown Asheville without stumbling upon at least a few good places to grab a beer. And similar to Portland, and unlike just about anywhere else—including heavy hitting beer towns like San Diego and Denver—just about every restaurant and bar in town features local beers on draft, even those that appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with the craft beer scene.
When you can dine on great Cajun food at a place like The Southern with its Tuesday $2 pints of local ale or wash down that piece of chocolate cake from the French Broad Chocolate Lounge with a pint of coffee stout, even the most hardwired skepticism is likely to soften. And I don’t think I’ve ever eaten at an Indian restaurant like Asheville’s Mela, where you could order a draft pint of excellent IPA brewed right down the street.
While it’s far simpler—and fairly accurate—to say you can’t really go wrong for good beer in Asheville no matter where you wander, there are a few highlights you won’t want to miss.
Bruisin’ Ales is probably the first place you’ll notice when you enter downtown as it’s located on the northern end, right off I-240 and just across the street from the Four Points Hotel, which is probably your best bet for accommodations since it’s within easy walking distance of all the best watering holes. Like a mini-Belmont Station, Bruisin’ is the de facto bottle shop in town for locals and wandering beer archaeologists who want to bring a few rare treasures home with them. Although there isn’t much space to move around, there are plenty of bookshelves lined with bottles of all varieties grouped together by region. A shelf of local North Carolina beers appeared to be difficult to keep stocked as excited visitors made a beeline from the front door and proceeded to fill their arms with bounteous brews. And in true Belmont spirit, Bruisin’ also features a couple of draft taps to quench customers who get thirsty looking at all that beer.
Head southwest from Bruisin’ to visit The Bier Garden, which boasts an impressive list of over 200 draft and bottled beers and dispenses it all with a hearty dose of unpretentious, blue collar charm. This is the best place in town to put back a few pints of solid brews with your buddy who isn’t necessarily as into beer as you are while catching the game. The beer list ably balances the local southeastern craft scene with solid offerings from the Midwest, New England and Mid-Atlantic, and of course, the West, as well as the usual mass market drivel, a few ciders, and imports both predictable and unusual. There’s a little something for everyone.
Delve a little deeper south to hit Lexington Avenue Brewery (or LAB for short), an immaculately shiny and polished warehouse-style brewpub encased in red brick walls and lit in colors usually only found in trendy cocktail bars. The LAB brews up a mean chocolate stout on Nitro that’s as close to a chocolate milkshake as you can get when barley and hops are the two main ingredients, a spicy Wit with chamomile, and a clean, smooth, and subtle Pilsner. While there doesn’t appear to be much experimentation with the more extreme or unusual styles, they’ve brought their A-game to low gravity types of beers that most breweries would either gloss over or half-heartedly churn out. LAB may not be Asheville’s most exciting brewery, but there’s an attention to craft and quality in their brews that is admirable and makes for some damn fine drinking.
By the time you’ve found Barley’s Taproom, you’ve just about reached the southern tip of downtown Asheville, just five large city blocks south of where you started. If Asheville hasn’t begun to sound like Bizarro-Portland yet, surely the presence of a beer bar with only one letter’s difference to Portland’s beloved Bailey’s Taproom is proof positive that you’ve walked through the other side of the looking glass. The likeness doesn’t end at the name, either. Similar to Bailey’s, Barley’s features a heavy emphasis on local brews, rotating tap handles for over twenty beers, and bargain pricing. Where the similarities end is with an upstairs speakeasy bar that stays open late for pool sharks and bottom feeding craft beer lovers, and with the overall design, which is more of a saloon in appearance with its weathered wood motif and creaky floors. Oh, and I’ve heard that the guy who owns Barley’s doesn’t club baby seals to death in his spare time like Bailey’s owner Geoff Phillips.
Conclude your busy beer drinking day with a pilgrimage to the Thirsty Monk, my favorite spot in Asheville for beer. While the ground floor bar is bright and buoyant with a generous assortment of America’s best draft microbrews, including a proud selection of Asheville’s finest beers, the downstairs basement is the true highlight here, with a heavy roster of Belgian and American Belgian-style masterpieces on tap in a subdued, low light environment that’s likely to get confused for your favorite bar in Brussels after one too many snifters. And speaking of snifters, the Monk loves to give them away to their customers; on both this visit and a prior one earlier in the year, I walked away with free glassware courtesy of the generous Monk.
If you visit just these destinations, you’re going to get a great sampling of local North Carolina beer, but you’ll have only really scratched the surface. Most of the better breweries are unfortunately located outside the downtown area, with the one possible exception being Asheville Brewing, who serve their immensely sessionable brews at two pizza-and-beer theater pubs close by. Like most of the east coast, the majority of Asheville’s brewing happens where the rent’s cheaper and the space is optimal for bottling in a factory setting that doesn’t really accommodate folks looking for a warm meal and a sturdy bar to sidle up to. However, if you’re willing to make a trek to the outskirts of suburban Asheville, you’ll find plenty of Southern hospitality in the form of free tours and samples from the source.
Highland Brewing, which is Asheville’s first and largest microbrewery and one of the biggest in the entire South, is one of the better places to visit; the tour there is remarkably in-depth and the scale of the operation is pretty impressive for a brewery most native West Coasters have probably never heard of. While their beers vary in quality (the Oatmeal Stout is a highlight, while the Kashmir IPA is too syrupy sweet for the style), they are definitely one of the more interesting breweries around with their emphasis on Scottish beer culture and unique beer styles like the Gaelic Ale.
As far as the very best beer goes, however, you’d be hard pressed to beat Pisgah Brewing in neighboring Black Mountain, NC. They’re as inventive and experimental as any brewery I’ve seen and remarkably consistent across the board, whether it’s a hoppy, nutty India Brown Ale, the crisp, light Endless Summer blonde ale, or the hop monster Vortex I. Although runner-up mentions have to go out to both Asheville Brewing as well as Wedge Brewing, which won my award for the best West Coast style IPA east of the Mississippi.
In summary, Asheville packs a lot of beer into a small area, and it’s this heavy concentration of beer zealotry that is probably at the heart of its impressive, albeit ill-gotten, win as “Beer City USA.” I still contend that anyone who has been to both cities and plumbed the depths of the beer culture will find Portland a far richer experience, but that’s not to say that Asheville is completely unworthy. It has earned a place on the shortlist of great beer cities in this country, and through its endearing similarities to Portland, should be considered a sister city rather than a foreign enemy.
And like all little sisters, you can’t help but love her even when she is being a stuck-up little braggart.
Michael O’Connor is a native North Carolinian who now lives in Oregon. He writes freelance in Portland and “beertends” at Bailey’s Taproom, at least until his baby seal clubbing boss sues him for libel.
Special thanks to Paul O’Connor, the author’s father and experienced journalist, who did all the driving, supplied the camera, offered advice on how to write the article (which was promptly ignored, to the detriment of the piece), braved the cold weather (and came down with a cold because of it), and tolerated his son’s maniacal fervor for “hitting just one more bar.” Paul’s blog can be found at ocolumn.com.