Deep in the mountains of western North Carolina, where breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains draw tourists year round, a robust craft beer and hard cider industry is garnering a new kind of tourism. With more breweries per capita than any other city in the country, it’s not surprising that Asheville, NC, has been named “Beer City, USA” by Examiner.com almost every year since 2009. Today, Asheville boasts 24 craft breweries and more than 100 local beers that can be enjoyed on draft or in bottles on any given day.
Asheville’s brew scene got its start in 1994 when retired engineer Oscar Wong began tinkering with beer in the basement of a downtown bar. His Highland Brewing Company became the town’s first legal brewery. In the spring of 2016 Highland opened its new rooftop bar and private event space where guests can enjoy a pint with great mountain views.
Asheville’s Funky Beer Scene
There are several fun breweries located in the downtown area of Asheville. Two favorites are Thirsty Monk and Wicked Weed, which is housed in a renovated art deco hardware store and focuses on barrel-aged beer, open-fermented Belgian ales and hoppy West Coast style brews. Other breweries can be found in the area surrounding the well-known Biltmore House such as Catawba Brewery and Cedrick’s Tavern, which serves Biltmore’s own Cedric’s Pale Ale and Cedric’s Brown Ale.
Asheville’s South Slope is fast becoming the city’s unofficial Brew District. Several vacant buildings and warehouses are being snatched up by new breweries and those already established looking to expand their production. Green Man Brewery, one of North Carolina’s original breweries, recently opened a three-story, 20,000-square-foot facility including a “brewtique”and an indoor/outdoor top floor taproom that overlooks production and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Wicked Weed’s Funkitorium, which is also located in the South slope area is one of a handful of dedicated tasting rooms in the country for barrel-aged wild and sour beers. It is also the largest producer of barrel-aged beers in the Southeastern United States.
Two of the newest and biggest players in the area are Sierra Nevada (of Chico, CA) and New Belgium (of Ft. Collins, CO). Opening its East Coast brewery in Fall 2014 in Mills River, Sierra Nevada’s centerpiece is the Taproom with its 20-barrel pilot brewhouse. There’s also a 400-seat farm-to-table restaurant with 23 beer taps, outdoor seating and live music.
New Belgium opened its “Liquid Center” tasting room in May 2016. The 6,000 square foot taproom is perched above the French Broad River with artist-made bars, tables and chairs crafted from repurposed wood salvaged from the stockyard that was previously located there.
Asheville’s Other Claims to Fame
Other firsts in “Beer City, USA”: The Pour Taproom, the world’s largest self-pour bar provides beer fanatics the opportunity to pay by the ounce and taste as many as 46 craft beers available on draft. Open Brewing, the country’s first commercial home brewing brewpub is dedicated to “open-source brewing,” and is a space for home-brewers to develop recipes and brew commercially. Located next to Highland Brewing is Troy & Sons American Moonshine which started selling moonshine in 2011. They are the only distillery in the world producing spirits made from 1840s Crooked Creek Corn. Ben’s American Sake is Asheville’s only Sake brewery which is served unpasteurized on tap and in bottles.
A number of annual beer festivals; beer tours led by a certified beer expert (called a “cicerone”); a Pubcycle tour; yoga and beer classes; and a myriad of unusual products made from beer including ice cream, cakes, beer-glazed donuts and even shampoo reveal another fun side to “Beer City, USA.” (For more info on Asheville’s beer scene go to ExploreAsheville.com/beer.)
The Hard Cider Players
Just a hop, skip and jump from “Beer City, USA,” Henderson County is making a name for itself in the hard cider business. The county is the largest apple-producing area in North Carolina and the seventh largest in the nation, making it the perfect location for the hard cider industry.
Flat Rock Ciderworks began producing hard cider in 2014 from locally grown apples and berries. “We take the product all the way from the orchard to the bottle, keg or can,” says Jim Sparks, one of the owners. “We want to promote the local agriculture in our community.” Their recently opened tasting room in the quaint town of Hendersonville serves up several interesting cider flavors in addition to their two flagship ciders: Wicked Peel and Blackberry Gold.
Another newcomer to the area, Virginia-based Bold Rock Hard Cider opened its second location in Mills River, NC, in 2015. In addition to complimentary daily tours, their state-of-the-art tasting room with overhead views of the bottling line offers nine ciders on tap including Carolina Apple and Carolina Draft produced exclusively in Mills River. On weekends visitors can kick back on the outdoor patio and enjoy music and local food trucks.
Henderson County native Alan Ward opened Appalachian Artisan Ciders Fall of 2016 in a renovated 1940s barn. The new venue is located across the street from his Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards which already produces a line of ciders under the name “Wallace” (named after his adorable dog!) “You can taste cider in a grocery store,” Ward says, “but when you taste it here in the middle of the orchard, it gives you more of an experience.”
Download a brochure and map of the Henderson Cheer! Trail (which also includes five breweries and two wineries) at http://www.visithendersonvillenc.org/cheers-trail.pdf.