Traveling Growler on the Brewing Scene in Asheville, NC

This review is my first effort to review an entire brewing community.  When we were mapping out our route and places we wanted to visit, Asheville, NC was near the top of my list.  I had heard that Asheville was the Bend of the east, and/or Bend was the Asheville of the West.  A lot of the same descriptions were used: mountain town; outdoor paradise; world-class athletes; large community of artists; growing beer scene.  To be honest, I was interested in all of these descriptions and not just the beer.

I was able to get my first taste of Asheville beer prior to getting there.  While we were in Raleigh, I picked up a mixed 6=pack at Trader Joe’s, including two from Highland Brewing.  We tried their Gaelic Ale as well as their Pale Ale.  Both were better than most pale and scotch ales we sampled over the past few months, but not by much.  Flavor, aroma and kick were above average and not disappointing, but I guess I was expecting more.

On the second day we were in town, we stopped by the Southern Mountain Craft Guild, an art store/museum off the Blue Ridge Parkway and part of the National Park Service.  One of the rangers, when he heard about our trip, gave some valued advice: he said to skip Highland, to skip Asheville Brewing and to hit Pisgah Brewing in nearby Black Mountain, Wedge Brewing in town and French Broad on the south side of town.  He said that a few of the breweries in town catered to the tourists and others tailored tastes to the mass market.  For a moment, I thought I had found a good source for advice, but then he said that Asheville beer was better than that found in Bend.  Was this the ravings of a common Village Idiot, or just territorial pride?  Only one way to find out!

A quick review of the map showed that the Pisgah Brewery was only a mile from where we were staying.  Finding it was tough as the facility is in the elbow of a really rough industrial building.  I drove by it once and didn’t even see it. But after parking and stepping inside, I realized before I even tasted anything that I had found folks who “got it.”  The tasting room was artistically painted and a jazz band was warming up on stage.  After a quick chat with the bartender about my Hydroflask growler (did not get filled, as NC laws only permits breweries to fill their own), he laid out four tastings:  an IPA, Pisgah Porter, Roasted Chocolate Stout and Pisgah Pale Ale.  The IPA and porter were exceptional, and the seasonal chocolate stout was created for beer lovers.  I ended up taking a growler of the pale ale back with us as it was so good.  It was the best pale ale I have had since Mirror Pond by Deschutes.  It was that good.  My second effort to sample the local scene left me very impressed.

The next day, we found ourselves back in town and we stopped by Wedge Brewing Co. in Asheville’s River Arts District.  It is in the Wedge Building below several art studios and across the street from a glass blowing shop.  They only had two styles on tap: an IPA and a porter.  The owner was a little prickly and did not give a hoot about my “quest” so he only gave the smallest of samples.  The IPA was for IPA fans: very grassy and sticky and full of hop flavor.  It was a little too much for the wife, so we left with a growler of porter. I would say is almost an equal to Black Butte Porter by Deschutes.

I was only able to carve out enough time for two tours but I was able to buy some bottle from the local Whole Foods. We were able to sample two brews from French Broad Brewery (named for the river that winds through town, not a French hussy).  He had bombers of their Wee-Heavy-er scotch ale and Rye Hopper Ale.  Their kolsch was recommended several times but we did not find any for sale.  The scotch ale was like a thick hairy man in a kilt: manly, brawny but with a surprise underneath.  What this beer really did for me was to put focus on Highland Brewing’s scotch ale and how weak it was. Again, these are beer makers who get it.  The Rye was hoppy and spicy and thoroughly good.

On the way out of town, I was able to grab a bottle of Shiva IPA from Asheville Brewing Co.  Named after the Hindu god and destroyer of worlds, I was expecting a bitter, bitter, bitter brew that left me unable to taste anything afterward.  My taste buds were still intact after sipping it, and were not ruined.  While this brewery was not recommended by locals in town, I was intrigued by what this beer had to offer.  If the locals put this place far down on the list of recommended places to visit, this says a lot about what locals expect in their beer.

So how does Asheville compare to Bend?  I did not visit every brewery but I think I sampled enough to make a conclusion:  Bend is ahead of Asheville but not by much.  The scene is such that it will begin to feed on itself much like Bend and Portland.  There are enough brewers and enough restaurants and foodies to support an adventurous brewing community.  And a local paper noted that Sierra Nevada execs have been visiting the city, with speculation that they are looking to build an east coast facility and that will add gravity to the scene.  I will note that I stated that Bend was ahead of Asheville, and did not say it was better.  I have no doubt that they will all continue to improve and grow and experiment.  The Pacific Northwest does have a built-in advantage with the nearby hop and grain farms.  I don’t think it matters, good beer is good beer.  I hope I can find some of the smaller breweries out west when I return.

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