Asheville may have only 75,000 residents, but with more craft breweries per capita than any other city in the nation, it’s a big town when it comes to beer. The city has five beer festivals – including the Best Firkin Beer Festival – and even boasts a Brews Cruise, which takes guests on guided tours of the city’s microbreweries. Brewing took root in the city in 2004 when Highland Brewing Company opened its doors. Others soon followed and now beer has gone beyond being just a drink. Beer lovers can find local beers incorporated into everything from condiments to ice cream to dog biscuits for man’s best friend. The region has even attracted larger beer makers such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues, which are setting up East Coast operations in western North Carolina. But North Carolina’s craft beer scene isn’t just limited to the mountains: You can savor the taste of local beers at more than 100 breweries statewide.
The Evolution of a Beer Town
Asheville’s beer culture all started back in 1994, when Oscar Wong, a retired engineer living in Charlotte, moved to Asheville and opened Highland Brewing Company in a rustic basement space below Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria in downtown Asheville.
What began as a home-brew hobby became the first successful brewery operation in Asheville landing Wong his status as godfather of “Beer City USA.” Since then, Asheville has seen more than a dozen breweries of all sizes and styles open their doors. Asheville offers everything from tiny nanobreweries adjacent to taprooms, to a tasting bar offering exclusively wild and sour beers, and from outdoor patios where everyone feels like a local, to a “mostly organic” operation that sources local flavors like coffee and pumpkin—plus everything in between.
Today the craft beer scene in Asheville has reached a fever pitch with several annual beer festivals, brewery tours by foot, car or mega-bike, and every kind of sweet treat infused with craft brew goodness.
Asheville is four-time winner of the annual Beer City USA poll, hosted by Charlie Papazian with Examiner.com. This designation helped put Asheville’s beer scene on the map and garnered the attention of Sierra Nevada and New Belgium Brewing, both of whom are establishing East Coast homes in the area.
And the local brews themselves are making quite a splash. In 2013, brew scene newcomerWicked Weed brought home a gold medal from the Great American Beer Festival, andAsheville Brewing Company’s longtime favorite Ninja Porter won its category in 2014. Many other Asheville breweries have collected medals and accolades at competition across the U.S.
Track down the city’s best pints and pours with this guide to a full day of brews with a view.
A Tale of the City Behind the Famous Craft Brews
It could be the water, the welcoming community or a little bit of mountain magic. But for some reason, Asheville has become a craft brewing mecca in the Southeast.
And as the story of local beer continues to be written, hop enthusiasts may be interested to know the story of Asheville that can be read on our local labels.
And this is only the just a sample from among 22 area breweries.
- The Hills Are Alive | Highland Gaelic Ale: The flagship beer of Asheville’s oldest brewery pays homage to the early Scots-Irish settlers of the Blue Ridge Mountains, who were drawn to the geography that reminded them of home. We also have these early residents to thank for the area’s musical heritage—Western North Carolina’s traditional sounds have given rise to bluegrass and old-time genres that continue to influence popular music.
- America’s Largest Homes | Sierra Nevada Pale Ale: Once upon a time, a well-known visitor named George Vanderbilt chose to build his BIG house in Asheville. In fact, the 250-room Biltmore is the largest privately-owned home in America. More recently, one of the nation’s BIGGEST craft brewers, Sierra Nevada, also chose the area for a new brewhouse. Sierra Nevada’s flagship beer and Biltmore both have a devoted fanbase—more than 1 million people plan a visit to Biltmore each year to enjoy a taste of life in the Gilded Age.
- From Flights to Flying High | Hi-Wire Lager: Talk about a high wire! Asheville’s zipline tours boast some of the highest, longest and fastest ziplines in the Southeast. And nothing works up an appetite for a cold beer like flying through the trees amid stunning mountain views. If water is more your scene, feel the adrenaline rush on whitewater rapids.
- South Slope on the Rise | Green Man ESB: The legendary Green Man symbolizes rebirth and renaissance, and Green Man Brewery’s 1997 opening has certainly brought all that and more to Asheville’s nascent “brewing district,” the South Slope. This neighborhood is now home to nine breweries plus bottle shops and taprooms.
- Take a Hike | Highland Brewing Company’s Seasonal Beers: The Asheville area boasts more than 2,000 miles of trails for hiking and biking. But there’s (almost) no need to consult a map—just grab one of Highland’s seasonal brews, each of which is named for a nearby wilderness area protected by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. The newest addition, Lost Cove American Pale Ale, is named for a moonshiners’ ghost town in Pisgah National Forest.
- Arts and Craft Beer | Wedge Iron Rail IPA: Being named the favorite local IPA in hop-heavy Asheville is a big deal, and so is everything that’s happening in the River Arts Districtneighborhood that Wedge Brewing Company calls home. The Iron Rail takes its name from the industrial buildings and train tracks that line the French Broad River. But like the Wedge’s popular outdoor patio, the district has blossomed into a vibrant-yet-edgy mix of galleries, restaurants and 180+ artist studios.
- Expect the Unexpected | Asheville Brewing Company Ninja Porter: Whether this is your first or tenth visit to Asheville, it’s safe to say they are some things you just won’t see coming. Whether it’s a male nun riding a 10-foot bicycle, or world-class food served at a cinder block dive bar, it’s best to just expect the unexpected.
- Drinking Buddies | Pisgah Brewing’s Greybeard IPA: Look east toward the nearby town of Black Mountain, and you’ll find Pisgah’s tucked away taproom and notable concert venue, this year hosting the likes of Jason Isbell and JJ Grey & Mofro. Like Asheville, the brewery’s year-round IPA brings a touch of West Coast sensibility and a whole lot of refreshment. And beer is not the only hidden treasure in Black Mountain—stick around post-pint to discover unique shopping and artisans, and tasty small-town dining.
- Breakfast + Beer | Burial Beer Co. Skillet Donut Stout: What goes together better than donuts and coffee? It’s no question that Burial has found a great pairing inspired by South Slope neighbor Vortex Doughnuts. This breakfast-themed stout is a sweet reminder of how much this “Foodtopian Society” loves its local eateries, and any opportunity for collaboration.
- Sweet & Sassy | Thirsty Monk/Open Brewing Honey Badger Brown: Brewed with copious amounts of local honey harvested right here in Bee City USA, this brown ale is a little bit sweet and a lot bad-ass—fitting for a city that was named one of the “friendliest cities in the U.S.” and is also home to five James Beard semi-finalists, the record-breaking hiker who took on the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, and one of the top 5 rock clubs in the country.