Eighteen local breweries in eight days.  One-hundred and nine distinct craft beers.  That’s my kind of stay-cation!  Technically, we sampled beers from all 19 Western North Carolina breweries but because of the casual, no-defined-plan approach my wife, Jenny, and I took to this year’s vacation, we overlooked the fact that Highland Brewing Company was closed the last day of our tour due to a private party.  We still drank their beer, though, on draft at Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria – coincidentally, the place where Highland started.  After reading the recently-released book Asheville Beer by Anne-Fitten Glenn we came up with the idea of going to every brewery and tasting every beer crafted in Western North Carolina.

We’ve lived here for a little over five years and had been to most of the breweries already.  We had our favorite breweries and we had our favorite beers.  But we hadn’t had them all and we had never evaluated each beer and each brewery with the best discernment that two non-foodies could muster.  But we tried our best!

As Ms Glenn points out in her book, 2012 has been a huge year for beer in Western North Carolina (WNC).  Four micro-breweries opened (the three in Waynesville and one in Weaverville – each described below) and three big breweries decided to open second locations in WNC – Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues.  2012 was a big beer year for Jenny, my wife, and me, too – we started home brewing with help from local beer shop Hops & Vines.  This fall we even tried to emulate our favorite seasonal, Cold Mountain by Highland, by throwing random amounts of vanilla bean, hazelnut, cinnamon and cranberries into 5-gallon a winter ale kit to see what happens.  In a few more weeks, after the brew has properly bottle-conditioned, we’ll see what happened.  I did mention we’re not foodies, right – or expert brewers?  And that’s partly why I wanted to write a quick glimpse of our tour for Blue Ridge Outdoors – we’re like you.  We’re average Western North Carolinians who love local beer and tried to save a few bucks by pulling off an inexpensive but interesting stay-cation.  We hope you enjoy the article, but we hope more that you get out there and try the beer for yourself!

Some Lessons:

1.  Beer in Western North Carolina is really good!  We knew this.  I held WNC beer in high regard before our tour but after reading Asheville Beer and trying every beer from every brewery, I feel even more strongly that what we have in WNC when it comes to breweries and beer is really special.

2.  When you drop your preconceptions, you’re rewarded with amazing new experiences.  I thought I knew what kind of beers I liked.  I still like what I thought I liked, but now I know, and am not ashamed to admit, I really like light beer!  When I first started drinking craft beer, I fancied myself as a robust stout and porter kind of guy… then I was a really a smooth porter & amber/brown ale dude.  Then just a solid, smooth, flavorful amber/brown man.  But now, after a tasty exploration of over 100 local beers, I can thoroughly appreciate the lighter side of beer.  There’s some really good, really flavorful and enjoyable light beers out there!  So open your mind before you go tasting and you might find some new favorite brews!

3.  Not all WNC breweries and beers are created (or crafted) equally.  And not all are perceived equally.  Jenny liked a lot of beers I’d never get a pint of; I savored many she thought were just OK.  I’m pumped that we have so many breweries but they’re not all of the same quality and their beers are not amazing just cause they’re made locally.  Some had plastic sampler cups, sour beers and no tasting guides; others had nice flight platters with generous six-ounce glass samplers with detailed beer descriptions and tasting guides.  Some had cramped tasting rooms with blaring music and others were aesthetic beauties to behold encapsulated in thriving restaurants.

You’ll have to experience the breweries and beers for yourself to hone your personal preferences.  We’ve provided a short glimpse of the best of each brewery below but our opinions are just opinions.  And there are at least as many opinions about beers as there are beers and beer drinkers.  So have fun, explore, take it all in and hopefully you’ll discover your favorite brews and breweries!

4.  The beer scene is alive and constantly changing.  One brewery (Craggie, in Asheville) closed during our tour and one opened (Blue Mountain Pizza in Weaverville).  A couple breweries put out new seasonals after we had already visited them making our goal of trying every beer brewed by every brewery in one week even more elusive.  Big brewers are headed to WNC and more microbreweries (Altamont, Wicked Weed, and others) are planning on opening or starting to brew beer.  So there’s always something new to discover in the Western North Carolina beer scene.

Brewery Reviews – the short & sweet of all 19 WNC breweries.

Asheville

Asheville is a great beer town!  After traveling all over Western North Carolina, we’ve realized that Asheville really has amazing, well-established breweries.  Again, we knew this… but wow!  The maturity level of Asheville’s breweries is what struck us – there’s so many well-established breweries.  Unfortunately, Craggie Brewing Company closed the day we started our tour so we did not visit or review their brewery.  However, the same day Blue Mountain Pizza in Weaverville started pouring their very own brews… look for their review below!

Highland Brewing Company  highlandbrewing.com

Beers on Tap

7-plus of the region’s most mature brews.  Highland is like the granddad of WNC breweries… they know what they’re doing and do it well.  The winter seasonal Cold Mountain ranks as my all-time favorite beer.  I will not tell you how many cases I bought this year but 2013 is looking good for my Cold Mountain consumption.

Atmosphere

Even though we didn’t make it this week, we frequent Highland and appreciate their large, open brewery.  Highland has one of the larger taprooms and frequently holds community events and film releases.

Asheville Brewing Company  ashevillebrewing.com

Beers on Tap

Nine beers representing a solid range across the craft brew spectrum.  Their seasonal Big Thankful Porter, made with sweet potatoes and pecans was a delicious interpretation of a fall seasonal with a smooth porter body and a complex depth.

Atmosphere

With two separate brewing locations, ABC has plenty of room for you to enjoy their beer.  ABC was one place I realized I took for granted.  They’re amazing!  Great food and two distinct locations (the Coxe Avenue location with tons of outdoor seating, the Merrimon Avenue location with tons of dine-in movie theater seating).

Green Man Brewing Company  greenmanbrewing.com

Beers on Tap

Six beers; 3 of them were black (2 porters and a stout).  The ESB is my favorite, brewed-year-round beer with well balanced malty, honey, toasty mouthfeel and mild hop finish.  Green Man was the only brewery at the time of our tour which had a cask brew (porter) available.

Atmosphere

A true neighborhood, English-style pub.  Green Man is the best soccer pub in the region with a gritty but friendly feel to it.  A big bar with amble stools & a couple wine-barrel tall tables round out the indoor space adjacent to their brewing area.  A bonus for visitors is that Buxton Avenue holds the French Broad Chocolate Factory and Tasting Room next door to Green Man and Asheville Hardware across the street – a woodworkers candy factory.  For these reasons it’s my favorite street in town and has sucked a lot of my money out of my pocket.

French Broad Brewing Company  frenchbroadbrewery.com

Beers on Tap

Five beers covering the range of craft beers with by far the strongest IPA in the region – a hop explosion.  Their Kolsh was sunshine bright; a refreshingly drinkable, wheaty, earthy light beer that helped me realize light beers are worth drinking.

Atmosphere

A tiny, dusty tasting room that frequently hosts live music.  A nice outdoor space is currently under construction.  Be sure to note the fish-scale brew tanks on a visit – they’re unique among WNC breweries.

Wedge Brewing Company  wedgebrewing.com

Beers on Tap

Five beers with a strong showing of two IPAs.  One of Jenny’s favorite beers of the region is the Iron Rail IPA – a hop forward IPA with citrus & sugary apricot tasting notes.

Atmosphere

Wedge has just about the best outdoor space of any WNC brewery.  Tons of parking, cornhole boards, food trucks and ironwork decor, this river-side brewery in Asheville’s River Arts District is a casual setting that’s local (and Jenny) favorite.

Oyster House (located in the Lobster Trap Restaurant)  oysterhousebeers.com

Beers on Tap

Currently three beers represent Oyster House’s offerings with more on the way when their new West Asheville location is open.  We enjoyed a full pound of Lobster Trap’s shrimp with our Moonstone Stout (made with oysters).  If you like stouts, you’ll like this beer… the oysters are not overpowering at all and lend a sweet tartness to the brew.

Atmosphere

Brewmaster and owner Billy Klingel was on hand to provide personal service from behind a copper-topped bar set in a fantastic local restaurant.  He’s anxiously awaiting the arrival his new brew tanks to get his West Asheville location up and running.

Thirsty Monk Pub & Brewery (South Asheville) monkpub.com

Beers on Tap

Thirsty Monk nano brewery located on Hendersonville Road in South Asheville filled four of their twenty taps with their own beer.  They had two of the most interesting non-traditional beers around.  Their Pumpkin Belgian Ale was very mellow & balanced with a soft pumpkin hue in the background, sweetened with vanilla bean.  Thirsty Monk was the only brewery to offer a home brewer’s recipe with Jacob Childrey’s Maple Pecan Belgian Brown (winner of Just Economics “Just Brew It” competition) getting the nod.  Organic pecans soaked in maple syrup helped give this ale subtle sweetness under a complex dark brown flavor.

Atmosphere

Monk South is a great neighborhood bar and nano brewery.  They were the only brewery to offer an actual tasting guide… many breweries had thorough beer descriptions & menus but the Monk cared enough to provide coaching on how to taste beer.  While we were there we picked up on the rumor that Monk South is moving their location to Biltmore Park.  While in a way, the new spot will be just down the street, the Hendersonville Road location will surely be missed and hold plenty of great memories in the minds of those who frequent it.

Lexington Avenue Brewery  lexavebrew.com

Beers on Tap

Six beers on tap with six glass samplers on a nice wood flight platter… LAB seems to care about the details throughout their restaurant/brewery operation not the least of which are the beers themselves.  LAB was one of only two breweries to offer a nitro stout (the other was Pisgah).  The nitro pour smoothed the stout out allowing one to search for the subtle, mild coffee and chocolate notes hidden in the beer.  Their Brown Ale provided a robust, flavorful, balanced malt experience that paired perfectly with their Truffled Pomme Frites.

Atmosphere

The LAB was one of those places that, when I stopped to really consider the quality of the brewery, the beers and restaurant, took me by surprise.  I’ve been to the LAB a lot over the last couple of years but I think in all that time I’ve missed it’s true quality.  Simply put, it’s got great food, a nice range of really good beers and an exceptional atmosphere set square in downtown Asheville.  It truly is a prize!

Waynesville

Headwaters Brewing Company  facebook.com/headwatersbrewing

Beers on Tap

Seven beers all holding water-related names like “Heady Eddy Pale Ale” and “Rip Current Red.”  The Skipping Stone Stout was one of my favorite stouts of the region – smooth and light mouthfeel with subtle bitterness and a mellow malty flavor.

Atmosphere

Asheville – it’s right of the highway.  Go, taste and see that Waynesville has beer.  This brewery is located at the back of a long row of buildings in what some locals called a “storage shed.”  Don’t let the description fool you – the innards of Headwaters are welcoming with a large bar, flatscreen TVs and several games including darts, foosball, checkers and a 10-foot basketball goal with it’s own netting so the ball doesn’t bounce around and spill all that delicious beer.

Tipping Point Tavern  tippingpointtavern.com

Beers on Tap

An IPA, Brown, Amber & Blonde give something for everyone to enjoy.  The Blonde was my personal favorite and another one of those light beers that surprised and confirmed (by that point in the week) that I like light beers.  It seemed like sweet white wine in the mouth but was all beer in the hoppy finish.

Atmosphere

We timed our visit to take in the Waynesville Holiday Parade on Main Street – which Tipping Point provided front row seats to from within their large front windows.  Tipping Point is a great tavern/restaurant space with good food and a selection of regional beer alongside their own.

Frog Level Brewing Company froglevelbrewing.com

Beers on Tap

Five beers kicked off our regional brewery tour as Frog Level held the distinction of the first brewery we visited.  The Bug Eyed Stout was rich & decadent with subtle coffee in the background.  The beer is made with coffee roasted at the next-door Panacea Coffee Company.

Atmosphere

Frog Level Brewing currently boasts the only legal outdoor drinking space in Haywood County with a beautiful back deck over looking Richland Creek in downtown Waynesville.  The long, industrial brick building provides ample space for the brewery to continue to grow.

The Rest of the Region

Nantahala Brewing Company, Bryson City, NC nantahalabrewing.com

Beers on Tap

The whopping eleven beers on tap at Nantahala are worth the trip to Bryson City!  They have everything – IPA, Blonde, Pale, Amber, Brown, Belgium, Hefeweizen, Porter and several high gravity beers.  The Dirty Girl Blonde was the first light beer of our trip to blow my mind.  Maybe it’s cause I’m from just south of St. Louis where “Budweizer” is what you get when you ask for a local beer, but this light, clean, mild, easy drinking beer reminded me of home.  The Bryson City Brown was another favorite and one of the region’s best browns – mellow, nutty, smooth with a mild hop aftertaste.

Atmosphere

Nantahala shares space with PaddleFish Kayaking company in downtown Bryson City.  A small taproom opens to a large, shared game room with tables & chairs that spills out onto an open air front deck overlooking the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad depot.  We enjoyed all eleven beers while watching little kids in pajamas board the “Polar Express.”  Santa even drove by in a Chevy pickup… no lying.  Nantalaha Brewing Company is a true gem of WNC breweries.

Brevard Brewing Company, Brevard, NC  brevard-brewing.com

Beers on Tap

Five beers – four permanent taps and a rotating seasonal comprise Brevard Brewing Company’s own taps.  They nod to next-door (same town) big boy Oskar Blues with Dale’s Pale Ale on tap and a few other locals are also represented.  Brevard’s Munich Dunkel was amazing – to quote their tasting guide “if a porter and an Oktoberfest had a baby, this would be it.”  And their Smoked Porter Seasonal was one of the most interesting seasonals in the region – smoky smooth flavor coming from the malt that’s kilned with beechwood, this velvety beer would be perfect with a peppercorn-rubbed New York strip.

Atmosphere

The relaxed bar-only taproom in downtown Brevard provides a welcome respite for folks who like to play hard in Pisgah National Forest or who’ve shopped or worked hard in downtown Brevard.  We were greeted by the resident brewery dog, Hops, and a visiting dog, Barley, while sampling Brevard Brewing Company’s hearty ales.

Southern Appalachian Brewing, Hendersonville, NC  sabrewery.com

Beers on Tap

Southern Appalachian has five home-made brews and again I was captivated by a Belgian Blonde.  Sweet honey, citrus zest with just enough bitterness to remind you its beer and not white wine.

Atmosphere

The bar is set up with ample stools and tables and chairs all in front of their large brew tanks and boasts a huge outdoor space with lots of yard games and outdoor seating.  We enjoyed live music in what was probably the most dog friendly of all the breweries we visited – staff jumped to get our pups a bowl of water and offer hearty treats from a large glass jar that sat square on top of the bar.  (Note:  Just about every brewery was dog friendly in WNC.  Only Tipping Point and Oyster House could not accommodate dogs due to the lack of outdoor seating at their restaurants.)

Heinzelmannchen Brewery, Sylva, NC  yourgnometownbrewery.com

Beers on Tap

Seven German-style beers was a surprising number from a brewery that’s packed into such as small space.  Middleworld Brown & Blackforest Stout were my favorites but the Hoppy Gnome made it into our beautiful Heinzelmannchen 2-liter growler for the trip home.  (Best growler in the region is a unique distinction.)  Jenny favored this mild-hopped brew that I thought had some buttery bread and mild malt notes to it.

Atmosphere

Co-owner Sheryl Rudd was on hand to provide beer for the humans and water for the dogs.  Sheryl and husband Dieter Kuhn have been making great craft beer out of their location in downtown Sylva since 2004.  The quaint tasting room has enough space to kick back and try a flight of some exceptional brews.

Catawba Valley Brewing Company, Morganton, NC  catawbavalleybrewingcompany.com

Beers on Tap

Twelve beers put Catawba on top for the most beers served by any brewery in WNC.  And they’re amazing.  Catawba has incredible range and hefty line up of high gravities.  From the Loretta, brewed with cantalope & cayenne to the super-light Farmer Ted’s Farmhouse Cream Ale to the complex, robust Brown Bear Ale with its mellow malt & toasty notes, Catawba really does have a beer for anyone’s tastes.

Atmosphere

Morganton has an exceptional brewery tucked away in a nondescript building in the middle of their downtown historic district.  Do they know this?  Surely they do… more aptly put; does the rest of the region know this?  Catawba is amazing!  They’ve got a huge tasting room with tons of seating, a large, permanent stage and highly visible brewing and canning operation.  And did I mention 12 beers?  The nice folks of Morganton will be happy to know that their’s was the friendliest brewery we visited.  It seemed like just about everybody in the place came up and introduced themselves to us. They had a little help from some local friends that met us at Catawba who, I think, knew everyone, but still… Morganton has some friendly people!  The nice folks of Asheville will be happy to know that co-owner Scott Pyatt is planning on opening a second Catawba location in Asheville in the near future… I’m looking forward to more of their beer and their hospitality!

Pisgah Brewing, Black Mountain, NC  pisgahbrewing.com

Beers on Tap

Ten of their own beers included some of the classics – IPA, Porter, Pale – and a lot of quirky yet quality brews.  Pisgah offered one of the region’s two Nitro Stouts (the other was at Lexington Avenue Brewery), a Blueberry Wheat, Dopplebach, Belgian Reserve, Coffee Porter and a Bacon Stout.  I’ve never been a big fan of flat out fruit-flavored beers but the Blueberry Wheat was really nice – sweet blueberry throughout supported by a balanced, light crisp beer.  The Belgian Reserve, with its sweet maple honey notes, light and refreshingly crisp, was my personal favorite.

Atmosphere

I’m trying to figure out why I don’t go to Pisgah more often.  It’s right down the road from Asheville and provides an understated bar with a wide range of beer offerings and even Heinzelmannchen’s alcohol-free root beer on tap.  They’ve got a big stage, outdoor area and nearby field to let the dogs run in.  To my knowledge, they’re the only brewery with an outdoor fire pit – a nice touch for all the cool nights in mountains.

Blue Mountain Pizza, Weaverville, NC  bluemountainpizza.com

Beers on Tap

Jenny and I were happy to visit Blue Mountain during their first week of pouring their own beer and tried them both: Belgian Golden Ale and Cascadian Dark Ale.  I chose a pint of the clear, pale yellow, crisp Belgian to go with our meal.  A nice light beer capped off our week of brewery tours as Blue Mountain was the last of 18 breweries we visited.

Atmosphere

Nestled on the quaint North Main Street in downtown Weaverville, Blue Mountain Pizza blew our minds with the quality of their food and their welcoming, small-town atmosphere.  Rocket Science provided some high-quality live music and the pizza was some of the best I’ve had in Western North Carolina.  Be sure to stop by and support WNC’s newest brewery.

Jon & Jenny Lowrance live at the foot of Mount Pisgah where they home brew, walk the dogs and take it all in.

For more great brew info, check out our Southern Appalachian Beer Guide.