A Trip to the South’s Craft Beer Capital

New Belgium Brewery Outdoor Deck

Enjoying drinks on an outdoor deck overlooking the French Broad River? Not a bad way to spend a beautiful spring day.

The hot break on the simmering kettle of craft beer is reaching a fevered pitch and damn near cresting the kettle’s edge. Ten years ago, very few people would have predicted the growth that the craft beer world has experienced— reaching nearly 13% market share with a population of more than 4,000 breweries. The phenomenal growth has resulted in several craft beer capitals scattered throughout the western part of the country—the usual suspects being Denver, Portland, San Francisco, and San Diego. But out on the other side of the country, it’s Asheville, NC, that is holding court as the regional craft beer capital.

While it may have been difficult to anticipate the borderline absurd growth of the craft beer segment (and predict where it’s headed), certain municipalities saw the writing on the wall and positioned themselves to capitalize on the growth. It’s not by chance that Asheville finds itself on the beer pedestal that it currently sits. With progressive policies and economic incentives in place, large, corporate breweries looking for easterly expansion and more efficient distribution naturally gravitated to this region of western North Carolina. A local population already inclined to support the arts set the stage for robust brewery development—bringing in new jobs, tax revenue, and tourism to stoke the flames of the local economy. In a post-industrial America, breweries in Asheville are serving as a new model of manufacturing that can be economically viable and provide additional layers of resiliency to the economic landscape.

This past spring, we (myself, the Homebrew Wife, and the pugs) loaded up the car and spent a few whirlwind days touring around Asheville. The road trip—complete with crazy holiday traffic (e.g. sitting on Staten Island for two hours) and spectacular thunderstorms—made for a challenging drive, but the rewards that awaited us were well worth the effort.

The Breweries

Asheville has a rich craft brewing community, from reliable veterans like Green Man and Highland who have been at it since the 90’s to relatively new start-ups like Wicked Weed and Burial who are generating most of the hype among the hordes of beer geeks. And at a whole different level are the pioneers of craft beer, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Oskar Blues, who have all set up shop with impressive breweries in or near Asheville. While in town, we were able to make our way to a number of these breweries.

As previously mentioned, my day job has recently (and fantastically) collided with my beer fandom as I find myself a part of the design team working on a couple of new projects for Brooklyn Brewery. My awesome clients at Brooklyn Brewery were able to arrange private, behind-the-scenes tours for my wife and me at both New Belgium and Sierra Nevada. The craft beer industry has always prided itself on its comradery and willingness to share information; it was nice to both witness and experience that philosophy firsthand.

New Belgium

New Belgium rolled out the welcome carpet for us, giving us an unbelievably detailed tour of their brewery (still closed to the public at the time of our visit), packaging line, and offices. We were absolutely blown away. The brewery is located on an old industrial site in the River Arts District overlooking the French Broad River. New Belgium meticulously restored the site, turning what was once an environmental liability into a public amenity. The tasting room, which includes an impressive deck that overlooks the river, seamlessly blends indoor and outdoor spaces. Perched in the landscape above the tasting room is the main production brewery, offices, and warehouses. The architecture itself, for the most part, was rigorous and beautiful with an expressive structure, handsome detailing, and warm, pleasing finishes.

Sierra Nevada

Located about 30 minutes outside Asheville proper in Mills River, Sierra Nevada has built a 200-acre bucolically landscaped campus. While here, it quickly becomes obvious that no expense or idea, no matter how outlandish, was edited from the project program. This brewery has every trick in the book. From a copper-clad pilot plant that literally outshines almost every brewery I’ve ever visited to the actual antique copper-clad production brewery complete with molten basalt tiles, viewing mezzanines, and beautiful wood ceiling fabricated from timbers felled on the site during construction, this brewery has it all. At times, the design felt a bit obtuse and in desperate need of an editor (e.g. copper air ducts), but it was really fun to see what is possible when the sky is the limit. The brewery is in many ways analogous to the Biltmore Estate, the other local landmark of indulgent luxury. Built over a hundred years apart, both compounds feature extravagant materials, lush grounds, and cinematic approaches to the main building. The strongest element of the Sierra campus was the brewery’s “backyard,” which features great drinking patios, gardens, and opportunities for casual recreation, ranging from corn hole to live music.

Wicked Weed

Perhaps the most hyped brewery in North Carolina (and maybe even the South), Wicked Weed is the reigning king of hops and funk in Asheville. We toured their sour beer, barrel-centric Funkatorium and enjoyed a delicious dinner at the brew pub. The beers at both locations were solid, above average beers, but, with all of the hype surrounding the Wicked Weed name, I was hoping to be absolutely blown away. Although the beer was not mind-blowing, both locations had a great vibe and should be a part of any Asheville brewery tour.

Burial Beer Co.

Admittedly, I had never heard of Burial prior to arriving in Asheville. We ended up there after very enthusiastic recommendations from our hosts at both New Belgium and Sierra Nevada. The brewery is currently housed in a warehouse space, but there are plans in the works for a second location. The vibe was cool and the side yard provided a comfortable spot for drinking. The beers themselves were outstanding—easily the highlight of the trip, in terms of pure beer enjoyment. Styles veered towards the hoppy and funky, but all were approachable and balanced. I left with the feeling that I had discovered a local favorite—something that I imagine will likely blow up in the near future, if it hasn’t already.

Green Man Brewery

Green Man

The Homebrew Wife was a fan of the Meddler Berliner Weisse.

We had a couple beers in the dusty outdoor space of Dirty Jack’s, Green Man Brewery’s original tap room (just up the street from Greenmansion, the brewery’s shiny new 20,000 SF expansion). Again, the vibe here was great, laid back, and unpretentious. The beers were also awesome. I was jonesing for a simple session beer, and their Sunseeker Pils hit the spot.

Although beer was our main objective while in Asheville, the city has a ton to offer in terms of entertainment and exploration. Some of the highlights include a vibrant downtown, the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Biltmore Estate—an icon of the Gilded Age. Our time in Asheville was short, but we had a great time and plenty of amazing memories.


Northern New Jersey Brewery Tour

NJ Map

Day trippin’ to three of northern New Jersey’s finest craft breweries: Kane, Carton, and Magnify Brewing Companies.

With the veritable explosion of craft breweries opening in NYC, any craft beer geek could be happily satiated blowing their beer tourism payload traveling the five boroughs enjoying all of the new offerings the city has to offer. That said, the surrounding areas around NYC are also booming with new breweries equally as exciting as anything happening in the city. Northern New Jersey is just one of these regional hot beds, offering a decidedly different experience than in the city. Chasing beer among the crowds of NYC can frankly be a bit tiring. Going out to New Jersey was a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of NYC.

Recently, I had the chance to spend an afternoon touring three of New Jersey’s finest breweries: Kane Brewing Company, Carton Brewing Company, and Magnify Brewing Company. With a little advanced planning, it is an enjoyable day trip from any part of NYC.

Kane Brewing Company

Kane Brewing Company

Valentine’s Day with the Homebrew Wife.

Our first stop of the day was Kane Brewing Company in Ocean, NJ. The Homebrew Wife and I hit the road early, leaving Brooklyn behind and escaping with little to no traffic via the Verrazano Bridge and Staten Island. With Kane just over an hour away, we had a bit of time to kill since the brewery didn’t open until noon. We happily spent the extra time fortifying ourselves with a breakfast of Pork Roll sandwiches at Frank’s Deli in Asbury Park. Starting our day with the quintessential New Jersey processed meat proved to be just the right beginning for a busy day of brewery hopping.

We arrived at Kane just as they were opening. Situated in a nondescript industrial park, the exterior barely hinted at the great beer inside. A tiny sign and the handful of patrons exiting cars empty growlers in hand were the only hints that you were arriving at a brewery. Coming into the building via a banal lobby better fit for the engineering office that shares space in the same building, we were greeted by a friendly staff and some great beers. We quickly made our way through the lobby past a small bar designed for quick growler fills and entered the actual brewery and main tasting room. The brewery itself was relatively compact with a large amount of the area dedicated to a tasting bar for flights and growler fills, as well as warehouse space with several picnic and standing tables.

We ordered a couple of tasting flights and spent some time relaxing in the warehouse space. Kane’s hoppy beers were among the best I’ve tasted coming out of the NYC area. My favorite by far was Head High, showcasing a very lean and dry malt character with lots of bright citrusy hops and a minimal level of bitterness.

Simplicity, Kane’s take on a Belgian Golden Strong ale was also great. The beer had a nice orange-like sweetness backed by a soft bready malt character and restrained Belgian yeast fermentation character showcasing fruity esters and minimal amount of peppery phenols.

Overhead, Kane’s Imperial IPA, felt like Head High on steroids. The hop flavor was huge, although it had a bit of an overly aggressive, grassy hop aroma with elements leaning towards the unpleasant vegetative / chlorophyll part of the hop spectrum. All of this was placed against a slightly sweet, and slightly boozy, malt backbone.

Carton Brewing Company

Carton Brewing CompanyWe headed north from Kane up the Jersey Shore to Carton Brewing Company in Highlands, NJ. Entering the ground floor of an old painted red brick building, we were immediately greeted by a staff member who checked our ID’s and then led us on (what we would soon learn to be) the requisite brewery tour as stipulated by New Jersey as a requirement for breweries wishing to offer beer tastings. The tour took us through the brewery, the history of the building, and the brewing operations at Carton Brewing before being letting us loose to an upstairs tasting room where our beer samples awaited.

The tasting room itself was rather compact and jammed with a mid-Sunday beer tasting crowd. We purchased a 6-sample flight to share, which was redeemed one-at-a-time with the tokens we were given. This was slightly problematic as the bar was pretty packed and waiting for single samples of beer quickly became a bit of a chore.

The beers at Carton were solid, seeming to focus on achieving a certain level of balance and quaffability rather than blowing out your taste buds with intense flavors.

Among my favorites were Boat Beer and Red Rye. Boat Beer was dry and quite bitter with a nice level of aromatic citrus-laden hops—although perhaps finishing a touch thin. Red Rye was the stand out for me, featuring a perfectly complementary balance of slightly sweet malt, peppery rye spice, followed by tangerine and grapefruit hop components. 077XX, Carton’s ‘West Coast inspired’ double IPA fell flat for me—overly sweet although it did deliver a nice punch of fruity hops.

Magnify Brewing Company

Magnify Brewing CompanyThe last stop on our New Jersey brewery tour was Magnify Brewing Company, situated about an hour north of Carton in Fairfield, NJ.

I was pretty excited to hit up Magnify since the brew kettle is currently manned by Erich Carrle, an old acquaintance that I met through our The Knights of Brooklyn Homebrewer’s Sentry, a club I occasionally frequent and which Erich was an active member of. Back before Erich was brewing great beers at Magnify, he was doing awesome funky beers on the homebrew scale and sharing them at club meetings. I was pretty excited to see how this would transfer to the pro scale at Magnify.

New Jersey seems to be filled with anonymous industrial parks and the one Magnify inhabits is no different. Once inside however, the company’s personality becomes apparent with a warm, pleasantly sized tasting room situated at the front end of what appeared to be a rather tightly planned brewery. Immediately adjacent to the taproom is a large wooden foudre hinting at the beer styles produced within. The tasting room itself was packed, but getting a drink and finding a spot to settle into was pretty easy.

The brewery feels like a family-run affair with warm friendly servers behind the bar. The tap list was eclectic and featured plenty of funky beers utilizing alternative yeasts and blending American hops into spin-offs of Belgian classics. Magnify was right up there with Kane as having my favorite beers of the day.

Unfortunately, it didn’t appear that Magnify served samplers so we limited our tastings to sharing three half pours of Magnify’s offerings. All three were really excellent and we could have easily spent more time here working through the brewery’s offerings had we the time (or liver capacity) to do so.

Flashbacks are Forever: this very approachable and tasty funky saison featured a mild level of acidity followed by brightly aromatic and fruity hops and moderate levels of Brett funk. Dry. Very drinkable. My favorite beer of the day.

Search Saison: just a touch of of sulfur on the nose, which volatilizes quickly. Perhaps just a hint of an enteric note. Peppery phenols and slightly herbal hops. Not as bright as Flashbacks, but still nice and dry and wonderfully drinkable.

Pollinator: fairly dank and aggressive with lots of piney resin character in the hops. A bit grassy. Very restrained bitterness with a light honey character on the finish. Again, well fermented and dry.

Things to Know Before Visiting New Jersey’s Craft Breweries

  1. You’re Going to Need a Car
    There really isn’t any way around the fact that you’re going to need auto transport from brewery to brewery. Public transit is something we take for advantage in the city, but really isn’t an option if you’re stopping at more than one brewery in the widespread outposts of New Jersey. Tied to the car is the inherent risk of driving while under the influence. Responsible consumption and planning accordingly cannot be overstated. On this trip, I limited myself to only a handful of small pours which were typically shared with my wife at each shop. We made sure to have a big meal before, drink plenty of water, and not finish any of the samples we received. Our cumulative consumption was well under a single beer at each stop, spread out over the course of about 5 hours. This kept us well below the point of even the faintest hint of a ‘buzz’ and confidently within legal limits.
  2. It’s a Bit of a Trek
    Everything on a map looks close. On the worst of days, getting in and out of the city can suck up massive quantities of time. We avoided this by leaving the city early and getting back late—effectively missing peak traffic times. Even with minimal traffic, it was still about an hour and fifteen minute drive from our apartment in Brooklyn to the southern most brewery, Kane.
  3. Tolls Add Up… Quick
    Seriously. Between bridges, tunnels, and turnpikes we spent well over $60 on tolls. Plan accordingly and bring cash and change if you don’t have an EZ Pass.
  4. Time Management is Key
    It’s important to research the hours of the taprooms you plan to visit. I went on a Sunday and all three taprooms I visited were open noon-5 pm. When factoring in travel time between breweries, it was important to keep an eye on the clock and heavily moderate the amount of sampling at each stop to ensure that we didn’t feel overly rushed and that we didn’t overconsume. Three breweries was really the maximum number I’d want to visit in the short time frame we were working with.

A Visit to Peekskill Brewery’s New Digs

Peekskill Brewery's New Building

Peekskill Brewery’s New Building

Excited things are happening at Peekskill Brewery. An expansion that relocates the brewery and pub to a new building just a few short blocks away is nearing completion. This expands both the brewery capacity, as well as as creating an even better place to enjoy Peekskill’s tasty beer and food. Several weeks ago, Peekskill’s Brewmaster Jeff O’Neil led a tour of local homebrewers through the under construction brewery and answered a ton of questions. Special thanks to Jeff for his hospitality and insight into the brewery’s plans!

The Building

Peekskill is currently renovating an old concrete and stone building (I’d guess about 100 years old) that will contain 4 floors (plus a roof deck and cellar) of beer goodness. The main brewhouse and fermenters will share the first floor with a generous bar and dining spaces. Grain is dropped into the first floor mashtun via a wet-mill located (and on display) on the second floor, which also features an additional bar and dining spaces that look down into the first floor through a opening in the floor. The third floor contains one of the brewery’s most unique features, a stainless steel coolship, as well as other additional, flexible space. The fourth floor is planned for a future banquet and catering space and the roof features a beer garden, which overlooks the Hudson River.

The Brewery (and Coolship!)

Jeff O'Neil on the New Brewing Deck

Jeff O’Neil on the New Brewing Deck

Upon entering the brewery you are greeted with what appears to be a fairly conventional set-up for a brewery of this size. Peekskill has installed a new, two-vessel, over-sized 15 barrel brewhouse which will be double-batched into jacketed 30 barrel unitank fermentation vessels. There is a walk-in cooler behind the bar which contains serving tanks for draft beer. The brewery is designed for a maximum annual capacity of about 3,000 barrels, of which about half will find its way into the local market (including NYC). What you can’t see from the first floor is the brewery’s most unique feature. A large stainless steel coolship lives two floors above the brewhouse on the third floor. A coolship is essentially a long shallow stainless steel pan that is used to cool the wort after the boil. Before the advent of modern heat exchangers, brewers would transfer their boiled wort into a coolship vessel in order to maximize the surface area of wort open to the air and expedite cooling.

Future Location of Coolship

Future Location of Coolship

Very few modern breweries have these vessels, and those that do are using them almost exclusively for the production of spontaneously fermented beers. I asked Jeff how he envisioned Peekskill’s use of the coolship:

Primarily, it should really help us to run clear worts to fermentation.  When we cast out a kettle full, the wort will only be 10″ deep.  The trub dam will catch a lot of hot break and hop material and we’ll also be able to do late-hopping at a lower temperature than is possible in a traditional whirlpool vessel. This should help us to express a different character from late-hopping than we could otherwise.

Almost the entire lineup of beers will find their way through the coolship. Additionally, I asked Jeff about Peekskill’s plans to actually start fermentation in the coolship:

We will try all sorts of fermentations in the ship.  Most beers will just be up there for 30 minutes or so after the boil, but we will do many others where we begin primary fermentations in the coolship, and then drop them into cellar tanks for maturation.  We’ll do this with with an eye toward those styles, which would have traditionally been made in open tanks.  Some yeasts perform very differently under these conditions than they would in a “unitank.”  I’ll certainly try some truly spontaneous stuff, but time will tell how that pans out.

In addition to the new brewery, Peekskill has a new 4-head bottle filler designed for corked and caged bottles. Currently, the plan is to sell all bottled product via the pub as brewery-only releases.

The Cellar

Below grade and out of sight, the building features an expansive cellar. Here, Jeff expects to have space for 60 or more wine barrels to be used for wild beers. The cellar offers the perfect space for wild beers since it is physically separated from the main brewery, alleviating fears of cross-contamination. Additionally, Peekskill has additional room on the third floor for clean barrel-aged beers.

The Beers

I am slightly embarrassed to admit that prior to my trip up to Peekskill, I had never sampled any of their offerings. After spending an hour or so in their tap room, I can honestly say that they are making some of the best beers from New York that I’ve sampled since moving here. I was especially impressed with their hoppy beers; I tried both their Double Standard (IIPA) and Eastern Standard (IPA). I asked Jeff to explain a little bit about their hopping program for these beers and whether he was doing a large whirlpool charge, running it through a hopback, multiple dryhops, etc.

We do all of those things that you mention and more, and are always trying to squeeze even more hop character out of every brew.  In my experience, a truly HOPPY beer has many layers. We take a lot of care through the entire process to hit very specific time, temperature, and pressure parameters in order to get that expression.

Visiting the Brewery

Peekskill is working to get their new doors open as soon as possible; hopefully within the next couple months. Peekskill is only about an hour up the Hudson Line from Grand Central Station, making it a great day trip destination from NYC. The brewery itself is a very short walk from the Peekskill train station. I highly recommend heading up there to sample their lineup of great beers. Once they start doing brewery-only bottled releases, you’ll have even more reason to visit. Stay tuned for their grand opening dates.