ON AND OFF THE BEATEN PATH :: Asheville NC—A Beer and Art Lovers Town

by David Daugherty on April 26, 2011

After much anticipation, we made our way into Asheville NC. I had read so much about the strong, growing, and award winning craft beer community, rivaling the other states who have dominated the industry for years (had a conversation with one owner about this and his response to follow), I was ready to dive in!

I found the city of Asheville interesting to get around. I don’t have GPS, but I don’t think it would have helped, mainly because most of the crucial street signs I was looking for were absent. My suggestion should you come here: find a place to park and walk. It’ll be a hearty walk, but most of the breweries aren’t too far from each other, and when you work up a good thirst, there’s a payoff.

This was my first visit to Asheville and I was taken by the city immediately, blown away by the scenic mountain views. The people are very nice and helpful, and there was a relaxed feel to it, a nice easy laid back town…a “free spirit” town. As one storeowner put it, it’s an artsy hippie town and very dog friendly. Think back to the late ’60s and there you have it!

Asheville Brewing Company

We first found ourselves at Asheville Brewing, 77 Coxe Ave. It was a beautiful day and we decided to sit outside. After ordering a Shiva Ratri, an American Double IPA they were calling their “Anniversary Double IPA,” ABV 9.50% (great way to start the day) served in a small snifter, I made my way into the small brewery for a conversation with Doug Riley, Head Brewer/Partner. The first things I noticed as I entered were the impressive brass brew kettles. Doug told me that the kettles had been sitting on a farm somewhere in Washington State. They had originally been acquired by a wealthy man who gave them to his sons, thinking they would start a brewery. When this never happened, the old saying, “one man’s loss is another man’s gain,” went into effect.

Asheville Brewing Company

The operation is small, so I asked Doug about their packaging. He explained that they only keg and bottle in 22 oz. bottles, which is very labor intensive, so they’re kicking around the idea of canning. According to Doug, canning is better on the environment (Ed: we recently ran a piece on our YBN facebook page about the problems in recycling beer bottles having much to do with the move to cans), much cheaper than bottles and can be taken to State Parks where bottled beer is not allowed. I would say that’s a plus on every level. I mean really! What could be better than wrapping up a great hike, taking in the beauty of a State Park, with a cold one, legally?

Shiva Ratri

End of lobbying/dreaming and back to the Brewery. Not only do they make great beer, but the pizza is wonderful. We ordered the pizza buffet, because as I was walking around talking to Doug, I noticed that they had some really good looking pies laid out. Pizza with artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, spicy sausage, just to start! Now that the Shiva Ratri had had a chance to settle a bit, the flavors of the beer really stood out. I would say it’s a standalone beer, pairing it with anything would just kill it. It had a reddish/orange color with a citrus/alcohol aroma, the flavors, mostly citrus. I was surprised that the big hoppiness of a Double IPA was absent, something I was expecting after getting that initial hit of massive citrus. It was also sweeter with an evenly malted character. A nice surprise, nicely done.

Wedge Brewing Company

Having made a new friend in Doug, we headed off to the next stop, Wedge Brewing Company, 125B Roberts Street, situated in the River Arts District. An interesting location to start with, the space in this building housing the brewery was where slaughtered hogs were once stored. It was easy to shake off that image as I found the combination of art and beer quite charming. Owner Tim Schaller was there and a gracious host. He personally set me up and poured a sampler of everything they had available on tap and I have to say I was pleased.

  • I started off With Julian Price Pilsner, ABV 5.6%, a very earthy champagne type pilsner.
  • Next, Payne’s Pale Ale, ABV 5.3%.  This is an American Style Pale Ale using Rye and Pale Malts giving it a clean, citrusy mouth feel.
  • Iron Rail Pale ale was next, ABV 7.2%, a tasty English Style India Pale Ale, using British Pale, Belgian Crystal and Canadian Honey Malts. Add to that Kent Golding, Centennial and Cascade Hops, added five times during the brewing process, including Dry Hopping. Instead of saying anything technical about this beer, the only thing that fits is Mouth Explosion! This was a very good Pale Ale as well it should be, winning a Gold Medal at the Carolina Championship of Brewing.
  • Next up, Community Porter, ABV 7.6%. Their process is fascinating, their description spot on: “English Style Robust Porter with a West Coast twist, Carob and Maple are added into the Kettle. First Gold Hops are added just to balance the Malt Sweetness. Organic Pale, Munich, Chocolate, and Caramel malts comprise the Grain Bill. Aroma: Caramel (Burnt Sugar), Faint Hops Tasting/Flavor: Combination of Carob and Coffee Finish: Espresso and Hops.”

I got to the point where, with all of these wonderful flavors in each beer selection, I simply didn’t want to leave, but I had the good fortune of two more to go! I love what I do folks and this was a perfect place to do it, so I sucked it up and powered through.

To that end, greeting me was the Russian Imperial Stout, ABV 9.2%. Feeling no pain by now, my notes insist I go back to the brewer for the details: “Originally created for the Russian royal family by English Brewers. With the untraditional addition of 168 lbs. of raspberries, this brew is Intensely Decadent. Aroma: Espresso/Dark Chocolate Tasting/Flavor: Chocolate Mousse with Raspberry Layers. Finish: Tart Fruit with Burnt Undertones.” I wanted more of this but the last on the list is a monster!

Simply called The Rail Bender with an ABV of 10.2%. it’s described as the “hop lovers barley wine.” Taking in the wonderful, sweet aroma created by the Honey Malts, I could only think, “This is the Iron Rail IPA on steroids!” This deep copper colored strong ale uses 3 times the Honey Malt and twice the hops with the IBU’s coming in at 100! I definitely wanted more of this Double IPA/Barley Wine but I think Judy would have had some difficulty pouring me into the truck!

Before leaving, (I have great bounce back powers) I had a nice chat with Tim. I asked him in light of all the new breweries opening this year, how he felt Asheville ranked and matched up with other areas of the country such as Colorado. His response, “We are the #1 craft brewing community in the nation, no argument, no comparison, end of conversation! Period!” I wasn’t going to argue with him. I had to say that even though this was just my second brewery visit thus far, I was more than impressed with not only the quality but also the taste of the beers and their progressive brewing insight. The recipes here, folks, are some of the best I have tasted. Tim told me he started the brewery at age 63. He’s 65 now and has no plans of expanding, content with the way things are, and feels any expansion would compromise quality and taste. The interesting thing I learned from him was that the reason the beers in Asheville are so tasty is the water. Theirs is so neutral, they can make the water do things in the brewing process most places in the country have a hard time doing. This allows them to create any style of beer and it tastes exactly like that style should.  We enjoyed our visit, but we had one more brewery to visit.

The last brewery of the day was downtown called The LAB or Lexington Avenue Brewery, 39 N. Lexington Avenue. We parked a few blocks away and walked through some of the shops, taking in the local scene before ending up at the brewery. Nice neighborhood for a visit. Once inside, you can see that the brewery is presented in a more modern, contemporary aesthetic, complete with lighting on the brew tanks which changed colors every few minute or so and a 92′ curving wood bar. A good feel overall.

We got there just in time for Mariachi Monday! I paid the guys to come over to the table and perform a romantic song to celebrate our anniversary, which of course embarrassed Judy a little. Still feeling good after leaving the Wedge, I ordered a pint of their Chocolate Stout, ABV 7.5%. It was surprisingly smooth with a nice liquor presence, creamy chocolate and roasted malt mouth feel. The aroma, full-on chocolate. Did I mention it was a CHOCOLATE stout?

Judy ordered the LAB Flight, a 5 oz. sample of all 6 Lexington beers. Not a beer drinker, she did very good identifying most of the samples (I must be rubbing off on her). Looking at the picture from left to right, the beers are White Ale, ABV 4.3%; American Pale Ale, ABV 5.9%; India Pale Ale, ABV 6.2%; Oktoberfest, ABV 7%; Chocolate Stout, ABV 7.1%; and Golden Strong Ale, ABV 10%. Not surprisingly, she wasn’t a big fan of the IPA but the Pale Ale “wasn’t too bad.” I got both of those and found the IPA to be very good. Her favorite was the White Ale.  Made in the Belgian Style spiced with coriander, orange peel and chamomile. We enjoyed the beers, the atmosphere and the mariachi music as we finished our beers and headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow was the big day, our anniversary, when we were going to spend the day at the Biltmore Estates to tour the house and grounds. Found out there was a nice pub on the property serving their own beer so I will be reporting on that next.

With that said, Day 1 in Asheville could not have been more enjoyable.

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