If you’ve enjoyed a quality microbrew in the last 30 years, you need to thank former president Jimmy Carter. In 1978, Carter repealed an outdated federal law that made home brewing illegal, lifting the prohibition and clearing the way for thousands of Americans to brew their own beer, a step that fostered a craft brew industry. Before Carter’s law, there were only 44 breweries operating in the U.S. Most of them were churning out the standard watered-down pilsners that had earned our country a laughable reputation on the international beer scene. Today the U.S. has more than 1,500 breweries, most of which are independently owned microbreweries that were born in the basements of home brewers.
“Everything changed in the U.S. in ’78,” says Cindy Jones, marketing director of the Brewer’s Association. “Carter’s law nurtured this business more than any other single thing. A healthy home brewing culture is the seed to a vibrant craft brewing scene.”
While the Southeast microbrew culture lagged behind initially, in recent years it has become one of the fastest growing craft beer markets in the country, with a 17 percent increase in sales last year. Small microbreweries are tapping kegs all over the Southern Appalachians, producing hand-crafted beers that rival those made from more widely recognized Western microbreweries. In 2002, Sweetwater won the Best Small Brewery award in the Great American Beer Festival. That same year, Terrapin, a small brewery out of Athens, Ga., won best pale ale in the same competition. A number of beers from Starr Hill in Charlottesville, Va., have medaled at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup in the last few years.
Asheville in particular is emerging as the epicenter of Southern craft brew. A recent study based on census data and Brewer’s Association figures named the Top 10 Beer Cities in the U.S. based on the number of breweries per capita. Asheville ranked number five in the country, with one brewery for every 12,132 people. Two more breweries are scheduled to open in Asheville in 2009, which might give Asheville the most breweries of any city its size in the country.
For the growing number of Southern beer aficionados, the multitude of microbreweries is a sign of good things to come. “The competition is healthy,” says Freddie Bensch, owner of Sweetwater Brewery in Atlanta. “It entices more people to kick the Bud habit and elevates the quality that the brewers are putting out in this region.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that the Southern craft brew revolution can be traced back to a President who hailed from the Peach State.
The Great Southern Appalachian Beer Tour
Mountains and beer seem to go together—from Coors tapping the Rockies to New Belgium pushing bicycles.
“People like to ski, bike, boat, and drink beer,” says Willie Lehman, co-owner of Mountain State Brewery in Canaan Valley, W.Va. “It’s part of the mountain town culture. About 80 percent of our sales during the winter are ski-based. There’s a lull in April after the ski season, but in May, when the boating picks up, our sales pick up again and shift to Fayetteville, where all the rafting is.”
With the happy combination of outdoor sports and locally made craft beers in mind, BRO has assembled the Great Southern Appalachian Beer Tour. Use this map to hop from one local microbrewery to the next, pairing each brew with a different outdoor adventure in each locale.
View Southern Appalachian Beer Guide in a larger map
“You don’t go to a cool town and eat at Wendy’s,” adds Lehman. “You try the local fare. So don’t travel and drink Budweiser. You can do that at home.”
TERRAPIN BEER CO. Athens, Ga.
One of the original innovators in the Southeast microbrew world, Terrapin entered the scene with a bang in 2002 when it won the American Pale Ale award at the Great American Beer Festival. The company was only six months old at the time and was only available on tap in a few bars in Athens.
Signature Beer: Rye Pale Ale. This is the beer that won the best pale ale award in 2002. It’s a combination of five different varieties of hops and generous specialty malts.
Limited Edition: Hop Shortage: Terrapin is known for experimentation and has a list of “side project” beers going. Hop Shortage is a ridiculously hoppy ale that was a response to an international hop shortage in 2007.
The Scene: The large working brewery in downtown Athens doesn’t have a brewpub thanks to Georgia’s alcohol restrictions, but it does offer brewery tours and tastings where college kids mingle with lifelong hippies.
Adventure Pairing: Road biking Athens. Mimic the infamous Midnight Criterium and ride a loop through downtown at high speeds, or head into the farmland surrounding Athens for long, straight road rides with little traffic.
SWEETWATER BREWING CO. Atlanta, Ga.
Two college roommates from Boulder, Colorado decided to pursue their dream of drinking free beer. They set up shop in Atlanta after getting caught up in the Olympic buzz of ’96. Sweetwater produced its first commercial batch of beer in ’97 and won the coveted Best Small Brewery Award at the Great American Beer Festival six years later. Today, Sweetwater is one of the largest and most successful independent breweries in the Southeast.
Signature Beer: Sweetwater 420. The original Sweetwater brew is extra hoppy and crisp. It won the silver at the Great American Beer Festival in 2002 and has been a perennial favorite in Atlanta since ’97.
Seasonal: Sweetwater Road Trip: A light pilsner available April through August.
The Scene: Also plagued by Georgia’s restrictions, don’t expect a brew pub at Sweetwater. But do expect a crowd at the popular tours and tastings on Wednesday through Friday at the Midtown brewery.
Adventure Pairing: Paddle the Chattahoochee. Sweetwater donates a portion of their seasonal proceeds to the Upper Chattahoochee River Keeper, an organization dedicated to cleaning up Atlanta’s class I-II river.
HIGHLAND BREWING CO. Asheville, N.C.
Asheville’s first brewery (established in 1994) and still the brewery that sets the standard for North Carolina microbrews. Highland was a three-man labor of love for several years, selling only kegs to local bars. Today, they produce 20,000 barrels a year and distribute throughout North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.
Signature Beer: Highland Gaelic Ale: A malty amber ale that is considered mother’s milk by Ashevillians.
Seasonal: The Shining Rock Lager: A slightly hoppy lager released in the Spring, named after a local landmark.
The Scene: Don’t go looking for a pub attached to the brewery. Just standard tours on Friday afternoons. Time it right and you can stand in line with hundreds of locals waiting to get the first bottles of Highland’s highly coveted seasonal releases.
Adventure Pairing: Hike the Art Loeb Trail, 30 minutes outside of Asheville for steep climbs up 6,000 footers that lead to unparalleled views. Or if you’re a boater, session at the Ledges Whitewater Park on the French Broad River just north of town.
PISGAH BREWING CO. Black Mountain, N.C.
A smaller brewery with an emphasis on local flavor, Pisgah tapped its first keg in 2005, but has rapidly become one of Western North Carolina’s best breweries. Pisgah brews only organic beer, and is making a name for itself through lavish parties held at the brewery’s tap room.
Signature Beer: Pisgah Pale Ale: A blend of organic malts and Mount Hood hops for a crisp, only slightly bitter beer.
Seasonal: Dancin’ Hobo: A high gravity beer (13% alcohol) that incorporates orange peel and thyme.
The Scene: Wednesday through Saturday, the Pisgah Brewery Tap Room is a lively party with live music, cheap draft beers, local art, bonfires, and bocce.
Adventure Pairing: Mountain biking Pisgah. This brewery shows much love to local mountain bikers. We suggest riding Kitsuma, a much-touted switchback climb followed by miles of singletrack downhill.
BLUE MOUNTAIN BREWERY & HOP FARM Afton, Va.
Opening in 2007, Blue Mountain specializes in small batch handcrafted beers, but goes a step further by growing their own hops. Virginia was once considered the “hop capital of the new world,” a distinction they hope to revive. It’s all done in a gorgeous setting at the base of Shenandoah National Park.
Signature Beer: Full Nelson Pale Ale: A strong pale ale with an intense hop flavor gleaned from Blue Mountain’s homegrown hops.
Limited Release: Dark Hollow Artisanal Ale: A stout aged in bourbon barrels, combining the art of brewing and distilling.
The Scene: This upscale brewery and restaurant is situated on a working hop farm. Think winery elegance, but with killer beer instead of vino.
Adventure Pairing: Hike the Shenandoah National Park, which sits just north of the brewery. Check out Blackrock Summit Trail, an easy hike through a boulder field culminating with an outstanding view.
DEVIL’S BACKBONE BREWING CO. Roseland, Va.
The newest brewery to the Charlottesville area, Devil’s Backbone sits at the base of Wintergreen Resort, capitalizing on the marriage between outdoor sports and craft beers. In its short tenure, Devil’s Backbone has earned a reputation for brewing a large variety of beers with universal appeal.
Signature Beer: Wintergreen Weiss: A traditional Bavarian-style wheat beer with a fruity finish.
The Scene: Devil’s Backbone sits inside a Rocky Mountain ski lodge style building, with a brew pub and restaurant that pulls quality live local music each weekend.
Adventure Pairing: During the winter, hit Wintergreen and ski the Highlands, a consortium of black diamonds served by its own high-speed lift. During the summer, bring your mountain bike and hit the slopes with fat tires.
STARR HILL BREWERY Crozet, Va.
Established in 1999, Starr Hill is one of the most respected craft breweries in the Southeast, winning a number of national and international awards over the last several years. Owner Mark Thompson learned the brewing ropes in Oregon during the ‘90s, and brought his West Coast brewing skills to the Old Dominion.
Signature Beer: Dark Starr Stout: Silver medal winner at the 2008 World Beer Cup and local favorite. Considered the most decorated dry Irish stout in the country.
Seasonal Beer: The Love: An unfiltered wheat beer with a light body and a hint of banana that’s only available May through August.
The Scene: Tastings are only available on Saturdays, but Starr Hill is part of the new Virginia Beer Trail (see sidebar), which mimics the popular wine tour.
Adventure Pairing: Mountain bike Walnut Creek Park outside of Charlottesville for tight, twisty singletrack. Afterward, catch a show; Starr Hill is renowned for supporting local and national musicians.
MOUNTAIN STATE BREWING CO. Thomas, W.Va.
After graduating college, two stepbrothers pursued their dream of introducing high quality craft beers to their home state of West Virginia. They borrowed money and couch-surfed while building their brewery and brewpub themselves. In the few years since Mountain State opened its doors, its beers have become the favorite of the West Virginia outdoor community.
Signature Beer: Almost Heaven Amber Ale: A nut brown ale that’s only lightly hopped and characterized by a caramel finish.
Seasonal Beer: Invention and experimentation is key. Keep a lookout for a blueberry beer once the fruit is in season locally.
The Scene: The timber-beam and stone brewpub is a magnet for locals and traveling outdoorsmen alike. Expect the brewpub to be the most lively après-ski or bike scene in the valley.
Adventure Pairing: During the winter, ski the cross country trails of Whitegrass (they have Mountain State on tap). During the summer, bike Canaan Valley’s seriously technical singletrack. Check out Moonrocks for classic C.V. singletrack. •