City Portrait: Asheville, North Carolina
The South's sudsiest city raises the bar
The question, naturally, arose over pints: a thick-as-molasses Dark Age Bourbon Stout for me and an Infidel Porter for my buddy Pat.
“Wow, almost a year without beer. How you gonna survive?” he asked. I wasn’t sure.
Pat asked the question because I had just told him Uncle Sam would soon be sending me in uniform on an expenses-paid trip from my comfortable home in the mountains of North Carolina to a dusty corner of the planet where alcohol consumption is forbidden by the locals. Infidel Porter, indeed.
“You know what we have to do before you leave, then?” Pat asked. “A beer hike.” I took a sip from my glass and savored the stout, aged in bourbon barrels for six months and packing 10.5 percent alcohol. Almost a year without beer. A flash of white-hot panic shot through me. Out of Christian charity, I agreed.
We Ashevillians tend to be an obsessive bunch—about our exercise, our bluegrass music, and especially our beer. To say that downtown’s narrow streets are awash in hops and barley is only a mild exaggeration. There are twice as many brewpubs per capita within Asheville’s city limits as in such beer-manic cities as Portland, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado, and that number is growing rapidly.
But while Asheville has long been a regional beer hot spot, the city is making the jump to national beer hub. Home to an ever-expanding community of young and talented beer makers, who appreciate the area’s clean, abundant water and laid-back Blue Ridge living, Asheville is now attracting established Western brands hoping to tap into the scene, too. Oskar Blues, maker of Dale’s Pale Ale, opened a brewery in nearby Brevard in December. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. will complete a facility and tasting room just outside of town this summer. And New Belgium Brewing, which produces Fat Tire Ale, is reclaiming an industrial site in Asheville’s up-and-coming River Arts District to open a beer-making campus in early 2015. Churning out IPAs instead of IPOs, Asheville has become the Silicon Valley of craft brews. Even for a beer-crazed local it’s hard to keep track of the evolving scene.
On the day of our Great Asheville Beer Hike, we begin at the beginning—the venerable Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria. The birthplace of Asheville’s renaissance as the South’s craft beer center, Barley’s opened its doors nearly twenty years ago, when the city’s commercial downtown was a dingy, desolate place.
Inside Barley’s historic 1920s home, a former appliance store, we order a sampler of six local brews, poured from the restaurant’s forty-three taps featuring beers from the Carolinas. My favorite of the bunch is the light, fruity Pisgah Pale Ale. Pat prefers the thick, chocolaty Green Man Porter. As we drink, I can’t help but notice the red cruiser bicycle suspended from the ornate twenty-foot-high ceiling near our perches at the bar, looking as if it might fall on top of us. Printed in gold on the bike’s frame are the words “Fat Tire Ale.” The new, invading Western breweries have been lifting their legs on fire hydrants all over town like this.
Still, Asheville seems less likely to be ground zero for a craft brew war than the site of a hops and barley hugfest. In town, the Brews Cruise bus tour books solid nearly every weekend. Tickets to the massive annual Brewgrass Festival in September sell out faster than an Avett Brothers concert. The words “brewer wanted” make for a common listing on Craigslist, and people flock to the gourmet beer shop Bruisin’ Ales, which stocks more than a thousand varieties.
This energetic peace, love, and beer vibe stands in sharp contrast to Asheville’s lean years. Saddled by Depression-era debts well into the 1970s, the municipal government was left with little money for improvements—a downward flush that didn’t stop swirling until the 1990s. During that time, buildings descended into disrepair, and retail shops relocated to cheaper spots on the city’s outskirts or closed altogether. What kept the city afloat were the visitors who still came to see Asheville’s Triple Crown of attractions: Biltmore Estate, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Out-of-towners are still so important to the local economy that the minor-league baseball team is named the Tourists.