The eclectic, mountaintop city of Asheville, North Carolina has long been a mecca for craft beer in the southern United States. Craft brewing behemoths like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have even set up East Coast operations there, alongside more than 40 other, smaller breweries. But there’s more to Beer City USA than beer, as you’ll discover in this our first Drinkhacker “Where to Drink” Guide.
With so many breweries of all sizes concentrated in such a relatively small area, it can be overwhelming to even know where to begin. Unless you’re seeking out a favorite producer, keep it simple and head to South Slope, Asheville’s Brewery District. There you’ll find Asheville Brewing Company, which has been a staple of the city’s beer scene since the late 90s. It has more of a college town brewpub feel with a range of quality beers from the crisp and fruity 828 Pale Ale to the Ninja Latte Coffee Porter, a seasonal version of their famous Ninja Porter which is full of vanilla, spice, and roasted coffee notes (but could be a touch creamier). The Draft Punk Double IPA, however, steals the show with its big, creamy body and a nice balance of hoppy bitterness and juicy tropical fruit.
Nearby, there’s Wicked Weed Brewing, which opened in 2012 with a focus on creative Belgians and West coast hoppy ales. Their success led to acquisition in 2017 by Anheuser-Busch InBev, and its newfound industry status shows in the polish of the impressive brewpub, complete with its own bottle shop. Their Watermelon Saison is a little too subtle for those who like fruit in their beer, but the Imperial Coolcumber, a gin barrel-aged golden ale, is the perfect summer brew with its creamy vanilla and herbal notes.
There’s a second Wicked Weed location in town, The Funkatorium, which focuses on old world, barrel-aged sours and “funky” ales. There are more than a dozen of these on tap, including different vintages. The Persistence, a sour red ale, is tart and extra funky with a corked wine and overripe cherry note, but the 2015 Red Angel shows far more balance with its big red raspberry notes. A little cellar aging is clearly a friend to some of these brews. If you travel during the warmer months, a beer like the Sandiaca, a gin barrel-aged sour brewed with watermelon and basil, is sure to stand out for its refreshing complexity.
Burial Beer Co., which got its start around the same time as Wicked Weed, is decidedly less polished and clearly proud of it. But don’t let the gritty aesthetic fool you. Burial is making some of Asheville’s best and most creative beers and showcasing their passion for the Belgian style. The Wrathmaker, a rustic Brett IPA with pineapple puree has a great, creamy body and unique citrus notes. The Unquenchable Fire, a smoked mango saison that uses malt from Copper Fox Distillery in Virginia, is wonderfully unique with a savory smokiness that is still somehow fresh and bright.
Craft distilling may take a backseat to brewing in Asheville, but there are still a few worthwhile options to explore. Asheville Distilling Company, home to the Troy & Sons brand, has been churning out craft whiskey since 2010. We reviewed their lineup in 2015 and found their offerings to be essentially unchanged in 2018. The Platinum (unaged) and Oak Reserve (aged) Moonshine are enjoyable, if still young and grain-forward, while the Blonde Whiskey is a little more rounded and shows far more classic bourbon character.
Across town, Asheville’s newest distillery, Eda Rhyne, is taking a more unique approach to startup distilling. You won’t find vodka or unaged whiskey sitting on their shelves just yet. Instead, they’re producing three Italian-inspired spirits from locally sourced ingredients. Their Amaro Flora, made with elderflower and bark, is floral and woody, while the Appalachian Fernet is peppery and herbal with just a slight bitterness. The Rustic Nocino, a limited release liqueur made from local black walnuts, has a rich nuttiness and notes of dark berry and chocolate. Their portfolio won’t always be this small (gin, vodka, and an heirloom grain rye whiskey are planned), but for now, Eda Rhyne’s unique offerings are already benefiting Asheville’s burgeoning cocktail scene.
Speaking of cocktails, Asheville has plenty to offer in that area, as well. While you could easily subsist on beer for days, you’d be selling yourself short without a visit to at least a bar or two (with more than taps on hand). For fans of speakeasies, The Crow and Quill is a must with its macabre, Southern parlor feel and quality, seasonal cocktails. For whiskey enthusiasts, their list of more than 300 bottles is impressive, particularly for a control state like North Carolina.
The bar at Cúrate, one of Asheville’s best restaurants, is also a unique experience worthy of sacrificing a brew or two to check out. They have a selection of cider, sherry, and vermouth, all on tap, to pair with exceptional Spanish small plates. The craft cocktails are also impressive with a Spanish flare, like the Alto Refugio made with Bernheim Original Wheat Whiskey and Lustau sherry, which is just the right amount of bitter and sweet.
Sovereign Remedies is a little more bar than restaurant, yet the food is still exceptional. You’ll find some classic cocktails like the No. 27, a whiskey ginger with a little Cardamaro thrown into the mix. It’s also available in slushy form for those hot days (you are still in the South, after all). The menu also has unique offerings, like the Absinthe Rootbeer Float, a creative and delicious mix of ginger, sarsaparilla, and absinthe topped with house-made buttermilk ice cream.
It’s impossible, of course, to imbibe all that Asheville has to offer during one visit, but we recommend adding some of these watering holes and their offerings to your itinerary!