An Incomplete Asheville Beer Guide – Come Visit One Of The USA’s Best Beer Cities
Over the Labor Day holiday, I spent four days in downtown Asheville visiting breweries, bars, and bottle shops. Sounds like fun, right? It was a blast! I think these two points can summarize the depth of the Asheville beer scene:
- In town, I tried 83 beers that I had never sampled before. 56 of those 83 were brewed in Asheville. I did all of this without ever moving my car from the hotel, so everything was in walking distance — the only time my car moved was to pick up an order from Bruisin’ Ales that was too heavy to carry.
- When I got home, I started thumbing through some of the beer news pages I picked up, and I found three more breweries that I could have walked to that I knew nothing about. There were breweries around me that I had never heard of the entire time!
What follows is by no means a comprehensive guide of every brewery; instead, I’m going to tell you most everywhere (beer related) that I went, maybe give you a pointer or two, and some other pertinent information. I hope that something you read about will inspire you to go to Asheville, because it is a beer lover’s dream. I’ll be rating the places on a five-star scale.
PISGAH BREWING COMPANY — 150 Eastside Drive, Black Mountain, NC. ★ ★ ★ ★
Coming from the east, Pisgah is located about twenty minutes before you get to Asheville, and it’s in an industrial park that no one would ever think would host a taproom. But it’s there, along with an outdoor concert area. The taproom is open every day and tours of the brewery are given on Saturday. I didn’t take the tour because there were tons (read: busloads) of people there, but they do offer flights of four samples and basically have every beer that’s current on offer.
Pisgah was once an organic brewery — I say once because due to the difficulty of obtaining organic hops, the USDA has taken the “certified organic” status away. Pisgah say that there are only a small percentage of hops grown in the United States that are organic, and that much larger organic breweries gobble them up so quickly that they don’t have access to them. That said, everything else going in the beer is organic; I know from my experience with “organic” beers that they generally seem to lack flavor. Not here. The four selections I had in the flight were a Pale Ale, a Tripel called Red Devil (Belgian-style ale brewed with cherries and raspberries), and Hellbender, a barleywine. All were fantastic with exception of the Pale Ale, which I thought was a little too grainy and not hoppy enough.
I’d definitely stop here again; the people were nice, the beer was good, and the smell of the brewery was heaven.
WICKED WEED BREWING — 91 Biltmore Ave, Asheville, NC. ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
I honestly don’t know where to begin on Wicked Weed, except to say that you’ll be reading much more about them on this website very soon. Wicked Weed opened at the Biltmore Ave. location in December 2012, and look at that tap list — they had twenty-four beers available when I was there, all produced in-house. And this is nothing out of the ordinary just because it was a holiday weekend; these guys strive to always have around 20 different beers available.
Divided into three different categories — a Hops series, which features American-style beers, a Belgian series, featuring mostly Saisons, and a Wood series, which showcases barrel aged and soured beers — there isn’t a bad brew on the board. Seriously. I know, because I sampled them all! Wicked Weed is a busy place, so if you want to do a flight (six 4oz. pours), you have to come Sunday-Thursday before 7 PM.
This was one of my first stops in Asheville and I returned a grand total of three times. Not only is the beer phenomenal, but the food is delicious and not your typical pub fare. As an added bonus, not only are the bartenders actually knowledgeable about the beer, but they also serve the beer in appropriate glassware, at the right temperatures, and take care to even rinse out clean glasses with cool water before they pour the beer. That, my friends, is a rarity. If you love beer, you’ll love this new kid on the block — I can’t wait to see where they go from here. I already miss not being able to have Coolcumber, a simple Golden brewed with cucumbers, basil, and jumpier berries, and their massive Freak Imperial IPA, a sweet beast of hops that finally sees North Carolina doing a double IPA right.
Wicked Weed has an upstairs and downstairs; my recommendation to you is to start out with a couple beers and some of their food upstairs, then move downstairs, which is the only place you can get their Wood Series.
ASHEVILLE BREWING COMPANY — 77 Coxe Avenue, Asheville, NC. ★ ★ ★ ½
Asheville Brewing Company actually has three locations in the city — the one I went to is their production brewery and packaging facility. The brewery serves pizzas and subs inside, and is a typical Mellow Mushroom-style place with a brewery attached. They do have a nice sheltered outdoor patio with lots of seating and games like cornhole and giant Jenga. They also have a movie screen setup.
While here, I sampled all eight beers they had on tap. There was only one real standout, Perfect Day IPA, a 6.8% citrus-forward beer that had a nice body. The other beers (mostly IPA and Pale Ales) were good to slightly above average. Ninja Porter, the one dark offering, was perfectly drinkable but not exactly something I would seek out.
I didn’t have any food here. The people were very friendly and graciously accommodated my request to try all of the beers, even though a flight is only supposed to be five samples. Perhaps the best part about this place is that all three locations deliver food, and with the food, they will bring you a growler or six-pack of beer!
GREEN MAN BREWERY — 23 Buxton Avenue, Asheville, NC. ★ ★ ½
Green Man, like Pisgah, is in an unusual area. You’re walking along and there are auto shops and a couple of business parks and BAM! There’s a brewery that looks like it is in a garage — wait, it is in a garage! The brewery is actually sort of to the left of the taproom, in connected buildings. The taproom is a fairly small space with a nice bar and several tables; there is an outside patio area, but overall this has the feeling of a neighborhood bar.
Probably the most disappointing brewery of the trip, due to a couple of things: Green Man’s beer is fairly average, and the couple of special offerings they had on tap followed that same schedule. They had a Thai Basil Wheat beer that had no hints of basil, and the Zero Dank Thirty Black IPA brewed with all Simcoe hops just didn’t work.
But the biggest letdown here was the attitude at the bar. I wanted a flight because the point of my trip was to try anything and everything. It was explained to me that they weren’t pouring flights because it was a holiday and they were busy — but, if you looked down the bar, a couple sitting at the end were enjoying one. Worse yet, the bartender offered to pour me whatever samples I wanted; so, okay, you’ve got time to pour me samples but you just can’t do a flight? I’m a patient person and would have gladly waited and tipped well. This put a bad taste in my mouth so after a couple of half-pints (one plus — they do pour half-pints), I was ready to move on.
HI-WIRE BREWING, 197 Hilliard Avenue, Asheville NC. ★ ★ ★ ★
Another very new player on the Asheville scene, Hi-Wire is located less than a ten minute walk from Green Man. Housed in the same building that Craggie Brewing used before going out of business earlier this year, Hi-Wire have started out with a solid base of four year-round beers: a lager, a brown, a pale, and an IPA. All of these beers were tasty, especially the lager and brown ale, two styles that typically aren’t my favorites.
The brown ale, named Bed of Nails, sees 6.1% ABV (alcohol by volume), just a tad bit higher than what you’ll typically find. It was notable because it had a nice caramel and toffee base and a hint of raspberry on the finish. I was actually so impressed by it that I bought a six-pack to take home — the brewery sells six-packs and growlers of all its beers. The artwork on the bottles and packaging is all made by a local artist, and it’s very pleasing to the eye.
Also available, and it seemed to be a regular thing, was a special cask of the IPA flavored with papaya. It was very good, woodsy and fruity, with the papaya enhancing the lighter fruits. Hi-Wire also does half-pours and flights, and they are tickled pink about doing it.
Like Wicked Weed, I’d keep an eye on these guys because the future looks bright. They do brew seasonal offerings, but were out of the most current one, Ringmaster Red Rye. Bummer, because it sounded tasty. Hi-Wire also offer several guest taps; they had Boulevard’s excellent Saison-Brett at the ready.
LEXINGTON AVENUE BREWERY, 39 N. Lexington Avenue, Asheville, NC. ★ ★ ★ ½
Lexington Avenue Brewery, or LAB, is located right in the heart of downtown, surrounded by loads of locally owned shops. The building is really cool; the front is completely open to the outside and there is a nice patio to the right of the building that looked very cozy, especially with all the shade available.
The beers were pretty standard fare; they had an IPA, an Amber, etc. The two standouts were the Hefeweizen, which was very pink bubblegum-forward, and a beer they just put on tap: Pumpkin Porter. My first pumpkin beer of the year (it’s finally after September 1!) and this sets a high bar for the others to come; it’s spicy but doesn’t have too much cinnamon, and the pumpkin tastes like actual pumpkin, not yam. I was impressed, and my opinion that pumpkin flavors thrive more in darker beers continues to stand.
Lexington Avenue has a full food menu and it seemed like they have concerts on the regular, with a nice stage in the corner of the room. I do think they might be concentrating more on all-around experience more-so than the beer, but that’s fine; we need places like this, too. My hour spent here was nice.
BARLEY’S TAPROOM & PIZZERIA, 42 Biltmore Avenue, Asheville, NC. ★ ★ ★ ★
Barley’s is located just up the street from Wicked Weed, and they have both an upstairs and downstairs. I never made it to the upstairs; this was a late evening visit after going to three breweries in one day. Their tap selection is stellar when it comes to local, North Carolina beers — everything on tap with the exception of two beers was all NC stuff in the downstairs area. Barley’s does flights with the standard four 4 oz. pour routine. The pizzas are to die for; despite a long wait for the food, it impressed and really was one of the best pizzas I have ever had.
I made a return visit the following day because they had two things on tap that I really wanted to try. They had Stone Enjoy By 09.13.13 IPA, which until then I had never gotten the opportunity to try on tap. Also available was a collaborative brew between a couple of Barley’s employees and nearby Highland Brewery, Biere de Isle Saison, a saison brewed with mango. I thought the Stone Enjoy By was better from the bottle, but the Highland beer was something to remember and easily beats the majority of their standard bottled offerings. Many beers have mango flavors but this was the most mango-forward beer I’ve ever had.
Barley’s would probably fall pretty high on my regular list if I lived in Asheville; the pizza is a bit pricey but it is worth it, and there’s all that great beer on tap. Most nights they have a live band, but I never saw one there.
THIRSTY MONK, 92 Patton Avenue, Asheville, NC. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
When you walk into a bar and the signatures of some of your favorite brewers adorn the wall, you know you’ve found a mecca of beer. And that’s what Thirsty Monk is — easily the best bar I have ever been in.
With an upstairs dedicated to American beers and a downstairs to Belgian and Belgian-inspired brews, Thirsty Monk has all the charm of a cozy local bar yet all the credibility of the most seasoned beer veteran. Beers here are served in appropriate glassware, and rinsed with cool water before serving. The beers are at the correct temperatures, and flights of the extensive tap list are available without any guffawing from the staff. In fact, they encourage it, because you are there to experience beer.
I happened to be in town during Thirsty Monk’s “Thirstyfest,” where, for one week, they put rare, wild, and obscure beers on tap. Three or four new beers debut each night. I spent two nights drinking here, and had many incredible beers. The staff are fantastic and the people inside are friendly. Thirsty Monk is where the beer aficionado goes to drink and this place simply cannot be passed up when in Asheville.
BRUISIN’ ALES, 66 Broadway Street, Asheville, NC. ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Bruisin’ Ales fits a lot into a small space. They’ve got over 1000 beers from around the world, and the setup inside is very nice, organized, and just looks good. Winston-Salem gets basically the same distribution as Asheville, so there wasn’t much in this store that I can’t get at home, but they do carry some of the more local Asheville beers that I don’t get at home, so I had to make a trip.
The owners, Julie and Jason Atallah, weren’t around when I stopped by, but Beer Guy Philip was, and he was very informative and a super nice guy. He knew his beer and we had a good conversation about beers we love, beers we want, and beers available locally. I purchased several bottles and Philip held them for me until I could get my car by to pick them up (the only time in Asheville that my car moved from the hotel).
You can even get a glass of beer whilst looking around at Bruisin’ Ales, which is a great advantage over your typical bottle shop; and trust me, you could linger over these shelves for a long time. They have a superb selection of Belgians.
One word of advice: don’t park in the lot to the left hand side of the store (when facing it) or you will probably be fined. My car sat there for about 90 seconds while I retrieved my purchases and there was already a mall cop there poised to write a ticket. I didn’t get one, though. The only other negative I can say about the store is the prices seem a tad steep (on Boulevard bottles, compare $11 to $9 at home) but that premium comes with having an extremely knowledgable person helping you in the store.
-Asheville might be the most dog-friendly city I’ve ever been in. They are everywhere, and we’re talking beautiful, well groomed dogs doing everything with their human owners. It’s kind of refreshing. Hell, I even saw a dude carrying around a kitten.
-The food is excellent. Downtown, there are no national chain restaurants or fast food. Everything is locally owned, and with the emphasis of using local or organic ingredients very popular in the city, you’re likely getting top quality product, too. And while the food is superb, it’s not too awful pricey. Your average meal for two people will run you $30-40, and that’s with a couple of beers. I actually found Asheville to be very wallet friendly and consistent with my city of Winston-Salem.
-While I’m on the subject of food, one point of note and one piece of advice: Nearly all of Asheville’s restaurants have communal seating, meaning you’ll probably be sitting at a table next to some strangers. That’s very different than it is here in Winston-Salem; I’m not much of a stranger/people person but I highly enjoyed it and never sat beside folks who weren’t friendly or easy to talk to, especially when it came to beer. I had a hamburger a couple of times on this trip; if you don’t like your hamburger raw, let it be known that unless you tell your server otherwise, standard procedure in Asheville is to cook burgers to medium. I typically like my steak cooked medium-rare or medium, but I want my burger as close to well-done as possible. You might hear an argument that “well, organic or grass-fed beef tastes better at medium.” Don’t fall for that. Unless you just like raw meat in your burger.
-Asheville is one of the only, perhaps THE only place I’ve ever been where you didn’t hear locals dogging tourists. Truly a weekend city, Asheville clears out dramatically after Sunday night, so if you want more intimate access to places, plan your trip accordingly.
With all that said, I can’t wait until I can go back, and it almost makes me sad that this lovely city is just a couple hours down the road, beckoning!