Jon D. Bowman photo
Tim Schaller, owner of Wedge Brewing Company, which is making great beer in Asheville’s River Arts District, holds an Iron Rail IPA.
Liquid lunch never sounded so good.
Coriander, orange, chocolate, coffee, hops, barley and scores of other curious combinations tempt the taste buds of “Beer City USA” residents.
For it is Asheville’s newest moniker, and old news by now, though it is still being argued by Portlanders, who scored second in an unofficial online poll that gathered just over 19,000 votes. Asheville won by 4.3 percent. (The cities tied in 2009). Granted, voters could cast their ballots as many times as they wished, and Portland, Oregon, does have 28 micro-breweries as opposed to Asheville’s nine. But the point isn’t how many breweries, or who voted how, or the size of each city (Portland, at over half a million, dwarfs Asheville’s population of some 75,000).
Rather, it signifies an excitement about craft beers in America at an all-time high. And here, in our own little corner of the country, it is a push forward in the micro-brewing industry that can’t be staunched.
Prohibition in the 1920s closed down many American breweries, with only a handful of larger corporations ultimately taking control of the brewing industry throughout much of the 20th century.
In the late seventies and 1980s, micro-breweries (those producing less than 15,000 barrels a year, according to US standards set by the 1,000-member-strong Brewers Association) began popping up with regularity in the West. Brewpubs soon followed—places where everything from a bit of pub grub to full gourmet dinners can accompany the in-house brewed beer. Craft beers, on the other hand, are created in any quantity, but the emphasis is on quality and distinctive flavors. Of course home brewers have always found a way to experiment with concoctions of depth and varying complexity, give or take a couple of exploded bottles.
Backtrack just 25 years in Asheville, and you’d be hard pressed to find beers beyond the Bud, Busch, Miller, or Coors brands. Maybe a Corona or Moosehead and their ilk. Heineken was the gourmet beer of standing. Only specialty wine shops, and perhaps upscale grocery stores, would venture beyond the norm.
Asheville Citizen-Times columnist Tony Kiss writes as The Beer Guy about the WNC micro-brewing industry, which he has been covering it since it began with Highland Brewing in 1994. Writing about that brewing enterprise and two other start-ups at the time—Two Moons Brew and View (now Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company) and Jack of the Wood (Green Man Ales)—encouraged Kiss to make the subject a regular feature in the daily.
“Nine breweries in Buncombe County—that’s enormous for an area as small as Asheville,” says Kiss, noting that the growth of micro-brewing has been exponential. “And everyone is doing something a little different. That’s the main reason that they have all survived.”
“Also, the quality of beer here is very high,” he reasons. “Every brewery makes very drinkable beer.”
Barley’s Taproom in downtown Asheville started out serving more than 40 beers on tap, and one of the most popular was Highland’s Gaelic Ale. That beer is now commonplace in grocery stores in at least six different states. Other Highland brands like the heartier Oatmeal Porter, a pale ale, and an IPA soon followed. Highland Brewing Company owner Oscar Wong and brewmaster John Lyda also concoct seasonal runs, such as the wildly sought-after Cold Mountain Winter Ale that changes from year to year.
From a small basement under the taproom and a neighboring building, the fledgling brewery filled 6,500 barrels of beer per year, using retrofitted dairy equipment. One could buy kegs or 22-ounce hand-filled bottles. Bottling operations began only four years into production. A new location today in east Asheville allows for capacity to brew 20,000 barrels annually.
Asheville’s beers can be sampled in brewpubs or in tasting rooms right at the breweries. They range in scale and atmosphere, from the simple Dirty Jacks (Green Man Brewing Company on Buxton Street), featuring a bar and pool table under fluorescent lights, and nearby Craggie Brewing that is also bare bones, to the ueber-hip LAB, (Lexington Avenue Brewery) in the center of town. A nightclub ambiance permeates this venue by evening, with sleek neon lighting, steel fixtures juxtaposed against rustic rock and concrete in the interior.
While the product ultimately trumps environment, a nice place to quaff a cold one can be good for both consumer and brewer.
“It’s nice to make beer in a pub setting,” says LAB master brewer Ben Pierson, “that’s the front line. I like to hear what people have to say.”
Pierson, like many other brewers, began his career in beer innocently enough by dabbling in home brewing. Having worked as a teacher and run a landscaping business, the home brewing hobby took him to several cities in Germany where he observed and worked with brewers there. That led to a successful turn at Green Man Brewing before taking up position at LAB.
Pierson’s beers range from a rich chocolate stout to a German Oktoberfest-style lager, the malty Marzenbier, to a pilsner and a Belgian white. The latter is young and effervescent, almost like champagne on the tongue, and is spiced with coriander, orange peel and herbed with Chamomile.
So how does one go about training the taste buds for this barrage of beers? For craft beer newbies, Pierson recommends beginning with a sampler—LAB and some tasting rooms offer “flights” of beer, giving a small tasting of four to six brews at one time to compare and contrast.
“For the general public that’s the best you can do,” says Pierson, but admits, “it’s difficult for me to drink a beer a shot at a time.
“Tasting beer over time, where you begin to know what you’re tasting, is ultimately the way to go,” he recommends. “There are so many different ways you could go, but no matter what the style beer, look for a well-made, clean taste.”
More than Beer
Fancy names or not, the craft beer industry in WNC undeniably affects more than just the local beverage industry. Tourism and even farming benefit from better beer.
“Beer is part of the whole farm-to-table movement—not only eating, but drinking locally,” says Anne Fitten Glenn, author of the cheeky beer blog www.brewgasm.com. Glenn points to mountain farmers now investigating hops farming for use in the burgeoning local brewing industry.
Effects of the beer surge on the local economy interested Glenn when she first began penning her own beer column in the alternative weekly, Mountain Xpress. With her blog she educates readers (many of them women) about new brews, brewpubs, and festivals.
“The blog is a little sexy because there’s a huge movement with women drinking beer,” Glenn states. “I want women to be comfortable and know there are incredible options [in local brews] that women will like. It’s a great drink, lower in alcohol than a lot of wines, there are phyto-estrogens in beer ... and I’m also just having fun with it.”
Glenn addressed the BeerCity USA moniker last year when Asheville tied Portland, stating that such a poll “matters in the national beer community and gets Asheville on a beer connoisseur’s radar.”
She suggests if beer tourists are traveling from Atlanta to Cleveland, now they will make an effort to stop in Asheville. “Anything that brings in tourists that will help the rest of region‘s economy is great,” she says.
Think: going to a beer tasting then out to dinner, perhaps a concert later on, and even a night’s stay in a local inn.
Or do it all together. Asheville Brewing and Pizza downtown and in the north Asheville neighborhood offers fine pies, pints and movies, sometimes live music, too.
The rustic Wedge Brewing Company overlooks the railroad tracks in the industrial River Arts District. A usually crowded tasting room is all raw brick walls, visible fermenting tanks and minimum seating. Fans of this bare-bones operation make their way out to a small courtyard around a pond flanked by a sculpted metal fence created by the late John Payne, a metal sculptor who owned the Wedge building.
Peanut shells crunch underfoot as artisans and other regulars order pints of Payne’s Pale Ale (an aromatic ale with a clean balance of hops and malt), named after the artist.
“That’s the fun of such a small brewing community,” says Glenn. “Brewers can name the beers after people you know.”
But a small community can be a strong community. The Pop the Cap campaign, held at a grassroots level, resulted in the 2005 passage of a bill in North Carolina to raise the maximum alcohol content in beer from 6 percent to 15 percent, paving the way for “heavy” beers , such as the Belgians that the Thirsty Monk in downtown Asheville pours. Even pubs that don’t brew their own benefit from “beer activism” … and activity so prominent in the community.
What could be heavy competition comes together in cooperation under the umbrella of the Asheville Brewers Alliance to promote locally (and regionally) produced beers through education, beer festivals, and advocacy.
While most of the local brews will never reach national distribution (not the goal of micro-brewing anyway), winning big as Beer City USA 2010 means national recognition for crafting an ancient beverage well.
Entire Smoky Mountain region is jumping on the beer wagon
Asheville may be Beer City USA, but the region surrounding Western North Carolina’s only metro area is also jumping on the “beer” wagon.
Waynesville, located in Haywood County about 25 miles west of Asheville, could be home to as many as three commercial microbreweries by summer 2011. Sylva’s long-time favorite Heinzelmannchen Brewery and the new Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City are already operating.
That means if the Waynesville brewing scene does take off, five more local microbreweries would be open in addition to the nine now operating in the Asheville area. That’s a mountain of locally brewed beer, plenty for both locals and tourists.
In Waynesville, Kevin Sandefur is currently looking for a location to begin selling beer from his Headwaters Brewing Co. He won $8,000 in the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce’s Business Start Up Competition, which he used to buy equipment.
He has developed five beers, including a rich, robust chocolate porter; an Irish red ale that’s one of his favorites; a hoppy, citrusy IPA; a lager; and his award-winning Black Eye Rye.
A second Waynesville brewery planning to open by spring 2011 is Tipping Point Brewing. The owners of the Sweet Onion, one of Waynesville’s most popular eateries, are the principals in this venture along with Jon Bowman, who is currently a manager at the restaurant.
When open—a location has not been nailed down, but it will be in the downtown area—the Tipping Point BBQ Pub will feature only Tipping Point beers. Brewers say they plan to have all the traditional beers such as amber, pale, porter, and wheat, plus cider.
The third Waynesville brewing company is Frog Level Brewery, which has been hosting tastings every week at the Gateway Club in Waynesville. The proprietors of this brewery have reportedly already secured a location and plan to be open before the end of the year. If so, they could win the race to open a brewery in Haywood County.
In Sylva, Dieter Kuhn’s Heinzelmannchen Brewing Company has been going strong for years. Kuhn doesn’t bottle his beer, but he does package kegs for many local restaurants and has beer and food pairings.
Most well known locally, though, are Heinzelmannchen growlers, refillable jugs that aficionados take to the Sylva location to have filled. Kuhn has the longest-running successful brewery west of Asheville, and other wannabe brewers in the region have sought his expertise as they venture into the business.
The Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City has a great story. Mike Marsden had long thought the 1,200-square-foot warehouse adjacent to Across the Trax, the bar he owns in Bryson City, would be perfect for a brewery.
While enjoying a drink at another local establishment, a bartender friend introduced him to a couple sitting at the other end of the bar. It was Chris and Christina Collier, award-winning home brewers who had long dreamt of someday opening their own brewery.
By the end of the night, the three were excitedly sketching out details on a cocktail napkin. With Joe Rowland and Ken Smith signing up as partners along the way, the Nantahala Brewery opened its doors.
The brewery is already selling its offerings at an increasing number of restaurants and bars in Bryson City, Sylva, Waynesville, Asheville and Murphy, along with a few grocery stores and at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
And since good beer tends to inspire big dreams, who knows how many other potential brewers are out there making plans for marketing their own brands of ale, porter or lager. The brewing bug, it seems, has bitten hard in Western North Carolina.
Beer done differently
- Beer is an acquired taste. In Germany, children drink malzbier, a near-non-alcoholic mix (no more than 0.5 % alcohol) made when in the brewing process it is chilled to the freezing point before adding the yeast. At this temperature, yeast remains virtually dormant and fermentation is very slow and sparse, although the sugars remain present. Dark and sweet, almost like a root beer, the drink is high in carbs and often consumed by nursing mothers as an energy drink.
- In Bavaria, on hot days a common “ladies’ beverage” is a radler, a refreshing glass of half beer, half lemonade.
- Hefeweizen is a wheat beer with lemons squeezed in.
- A Berliner Weisser mit Schuss (ordered “red” or “green,”) is a Berlin white beer with a shot of raspberry syrup or tarragon syrup mixed in. Refreshing!
- Lambic is a style of wheat beer, made with a combination of malted barley and unmalted wheat. The brew ferments in barrels and becomes a dry, acidic beer that grows complex with age. In Belgium it is traditional to steep fruit in the beers: cherries produce kriek, raspberries make framboise.
- Ultimate Ice Cream in east Asheville makes a sweet and creamy Highland Mocha Stout ice cream.
- French Broad Chocolate Lounge in downtown Asheville used the same brew in their Highland Mocha Stout cake.