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.


GABF, Here I Come

The Festival Floor at the 2011 GABF

The Festival Floor at the 2011 GABF

GABF (Great American Beer Festival) is becoming an annual pilgrimage for me and a tradition I hope to carry on well into the future. There is nothing more sacred to a beer geek than this festival, which is an amazing opportunity to try thousands of beers not available locally. This will be my first year actually covering the event and I’ll be posting live updates via Twitter and Facebook throughout. ‘Follow’ or ‘Like’ The Pour Report to get live information straight from the festival. Once home, I plan to do a 3-part wrap-up covering each day of the event.

Highlights for me this year include:

The Sessions
I am excited to be attending the Thursday and Saturday Members Only sessions this year. There are in excess of 2,200 beers from over 500 breweries being poured. While I certainly won’t be trying all of them, I plan to do some serious ‘research’, focusing on breweries outside of my distribution region. The Brewer’s Association has published a list of the breweries attending. Needless to say, it is amazing.

Miss Figgy on Tap at Big Time Brewery

Miss Figgy on Tap at Big Time Brewery

The Pro-Am Competition
This past spring, I was chosen by Big Time Brewery in Seattle, WA to collaborate on a beer for the GABF Pro-Am Competition. The winning beer that I created (and chosen by Big Time Brewery) is Miss Figgy, an English Barley Wine that was brewed with honey and aged on fresh Mission figs. Having moved before I was able to taste the finished product, I look forward to trying Miss Figgy at GABF. Miss Figgy will be poured during the Friday night session at the Pro-Am Booth (booth 35 in block C on the convention floor).

Pouring at the Festival
This year I was lucky enough to be able to obtain a brewers badge from Big Time Brewery. This means I can get into select brewer events and don’t have to wait in long lines; although I’ll probably forgo this privilege for the sake of not pissing off those in line. I’ll also be pouring Big Time Brewery beer at booth 2 in the Brew Pub pavilion (in the middle of the convention floor) during the Friday session from 5:15-8:00 pm. Come say hi if you’re around!

The Awards Ceremony
In the past, the GABF awards ceremony was held during the Saturday Members Only session on the festival floor. This year, in order to accommodate more breweries, the Brewers Association has scheduled a separate ceremony at a different venue to be held before the Members Only session on Saturday. As part of the Pro-Am Competition, I was allocated tickets to this event, which are not available to the general public. I’ll be live tweeting some of the results as they occur.

Breweries I’m Excited About

There are far too many breweries to create a broad and encompassing list of beers to try. That being said, last year there were certainly some highlights which I plan on revisiting, as well as some new breweries making a splash that I’d love to be able to try. In alphabetical order:

  • Alaskan Brewing Company – Poured verticals of their Smoked Porter last year. Their barley wine is also one of the best.
  • Allagash Brewing Company – Previously poured some of their amazing and low-circulation Coolship Series beers.
  • Alpine Beer Company – Currently making some of the best hoppy beers in the country.
  • Bear Republic Brewing Company – Hopefully they’ll be pouring Racer X again this year.
  • Bell’s Brewery, Inc – Out of Michigan and not available in NY.
  • Big Time Brewing Company – I’ll be pouring here, so come say hi!
  • Boston Beer Company – Poured Utopias at numerous intervals last year.
  • Cambridge Brewing Company – I was able to eat at their brewpub recently and the beers were great. I’m hoping they’ll bring some sour beers.
  • Chuckanut Brewery – They brew the best lagers in the country. My favorite is the Helles.
  • Cigar City Brewing – They had some great limited release beers last year.
  • Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project – Doing really interesting wild beers. First time at GABF (I believe).
  • Deschutes Brewery – Poured The Abyss last year — amazing beer.
  • DESTIHL – Surprised me quite a bit last year with their sour beers. Some of the best sours on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see if they’ve been able to maintain the quality.
  • Dogfish Head Craft Brewery – Good opportunity to try World Wide Stout and 120 minute IPA. Last year, Sam Calagione was pouring.
  • Fat Heads Brewery – I need to try their Head Hunter IPA.
  • FiftyFifty Brewing Co. – Hopefully they’ll be pouring Eclipse.
  • Firestone Walker Brewing Company – They don’t do anything that is less than world-class. Really hoping they bring one of the sour beers they are starting to develop.
  • Goose Island Beer Company – If we’re lucky, maybe they’ll have Bourbon County Stout on tap.
  • Great Lakes Brewing Company – Their Edmund Fitzgerald porter is amazing and not available in NY.
  • Jester King Craft Brewery – I’ve never had them before, but they seem to be producing some very well-respected beers.
  • Kuhnhenn Brewing Company – Another small brewery with limited distribution that is gaining a lot of national attention.
  • Nebraska Brewing Company – They are producing some excellent standard and barrel aged beers.
  • New Glarus Brewing Company – Always popular on the floor due to their limited distribution and popularity of beers like Wisconsin Red and Raspberry Tart. Last year they had their Oktoberfest, which was great.
  • Odell Brewing Company – A Colorado favorite. Need to try Myrcenary Double IPA.
  • Pelican Pub & Brewery – These guys make some of the best beers in Oregon and don’t distribute much.
  • Pizza Port – Visit all of their booths. They consistently win many awards at GABF.
  • The Lost Abbey – GABF is a great chance to try some of their very limited and delicious beers like Angel’s Share, Red Poppy, and Framboise de Amorosa.
  • Russian River Brewing Company – Best brewery in the world. Well… maybe not, but all their beers are fantastic.
  • The Bruery – Last year they poured Black Tuesday, Oude Tart, and a few other very limited release beers that are fantastic. They posted the times they were going on and the lines started forming about 30 minutes prior. Well worth the wait.
  • Three Floyds Brewing Co. – Limited distribution and a killer lineup make this a must visit booth.

Craft Beer Road Trip – A Photo Recap


This gallery contains 57 photos.

Moving became an excellent excuse to do a cross-country brewery tour hitting some of the best America has to offer. This was a no-brainer for a beer-geek like me. All in all, we (my wife, myself, and our two pugs) made it to twenty-one breweries: HUB (Portland, OR) Lagunitas (Petaluma, CA) Russian River Brewing (Santa Rosa, CA) Anchor Brewing (San Francisco, CA) 21st Amendment (San Francisco, CA) Firestone Walker Brewing Co. (Paso Robles, CA) Creekside Brewing Co. (San Luis Obispo, CA) Lengthwise Brewing Co. (Bakersfield, CA) Kern River Brewing Co. (Kernville, CA) The Bruery (Placentia, CA) Squatters Pub Brewery (Salt Lake City, UT) New Belgium Brewing (Fort Collins, CO) Odell … Continue reading