Asheville's Ambitious Brewers Are Pushing the Boundaries of Beer
It was August in North Carolina, and John Parks was up to his knees in peaches. “They all ripen at different times, so it’s tricky,” he said as he sorted some 1,600 sweet-smelling pounds’ worth.
Parks, 36, is head brewer at Zillicoah Beer Company, and on the outskirts of Asheville in the light-flooded warehouse that serves as his cellar and tasting room, he was finishing up a wild peach lager, adding the best stone fruit to a wooden vat called a foeder, where it would sit for four months, infusing the naturally fermented beer with perfumy flavor. He took a minute to lead me to the bar for a tall mug of Berliner Weisse, tapping it slowly so that the foam built to a high, thick meringue that grabbed the brew’s heady aromatics and released them into my nose with each jiggly sip.
That expert pour, and the beer itself, a light-bodied but full-flavored commingling of herbaceous Saaz hops and honey-on-sourdough pilsner and wheat malts, were the impressive culmination of a dream that started over a decade ago when Parks and his business partners, Jon and Jeremy Chassner, were bandmates and home brewers in Tallahassee, Florida.
“We never thought what we love to do would make us money,” Parks told me, “but moving to Asheville changed that. Asheville is where young people come to retire. We could brush the 9-to-5 tunnel vision off and make a living making beer.”
He’s right. Here in the North Carolina mountains, it’s a beer maker’s nirvana. Some credit the water. With its neutral pH, the clean mountain elixir is a blank canvas, says brewer Carl Melissas. “We don’t have to fight minerals. We can just add back in what we want.” At Wedge Brewing Company, named for the warehouse filled with artists’ studios where he’s been cranking out beers for more than a decade, Melissas can emulate the calcium sulfate–rich waters of the Thames, for instance, by adding gypsum to his London-style Iron Rail IPA; it brings out the bite in the hops.
Beer lovers can also thank the culture of the town. It’s a complex brew of outdoorsiness (post-hike ale, anyone?); a lively artist and maker tradition that encourages craftiness in other endeavors; plenty of old-timey, Art Deco buildings perfect for housing small food and drink businesses; and loads of tourists and their thirst. “There were nearly 11 million visitors in 2016, and 6.6% of them listed beer as their primary reason for coming. So it’s easy to keep breweries afloat, even if people come just for one pint,” says local beer historian Cliff Mori.
Indeed, since 1994, when retired engineer Oscar Wong launched Highland Brewing, the city’s first craft producer, in the basement of a downtown pizza joint, only a few breweries here have ever bitten the dust. The Asheville Brewers Alliance lists 51 members in and around town, and though you’d think that would make for a crowded field in a city with less than 100,000 residents, the scene keeps growing. “In Asheville,” says Mori, “there’s room for everybody.”
That includes classicists like Zebulon Artisan Ales’ Mike Karnowski, a maker of vibrant French-style saisons and other European styles. On a Friday or Saturday afternoon when Karnowski and his wife, Gabe, welcome the drinking public to sit on Adirondack chairs in their tiny alleyside brewery in Weaverville, this self-named “curmudgeon” will give you a detailed earful of English porter history as he pulls you a roasty-toasty pint painstakingly recreated from a 1922 recipe.
It also includes Gary Sernack, a former chef who treats the beerworks at Bhramari Brewing Company like a gonzo test kitchen. When I visited his South Slope brewpub, he poured me an IPA called Phuket Dude, inspired by Thai green curry. Its spicy, fruity nose came from the addition of lime leaf, lemongrass, toasted coconut, blue ginger, and galangal. Basil gave its hoppy finish a bright green pop.
“This scratches that creative itch the same way cooking does,” says Sernack. “But it’s not like table 32 needs their food on the fly. I can work at my own pace.”
Not that Bhramari ignores the food. Most breweries in Asheville welcome food trucks; some partner with local restaurants. At the two-year-old Hillman Beer, the dry, delicious, and amusingly named Straw Boobies, a fruit-infused saison, goes great with house-cured pastrami from sandwich-maker-in-residence Rise Above Deli. But Bhramari, unlike most breweries here, serves a full menu, and chef Joshua Dillard is just as creative with the brew kettle ingredients as Sernack is. What spent grain doesn’t go for cattle feed (for the beef in his burger), he turns into soft pretzels.
But as out-there as things get at Bhramari, Sernack’s ambitions are modest compared to some of his peers. One morning, I walked with Burial Beer Company’s Doug Reiser across the grounds of a camp that had been built for the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s. I’d met Reiser, an energetic former litigator, the night before at a maker’s fair at his original South Slope taproom, where jewelry designers and potters were selling their wares to a happy hour crowd sucking down his Baptized in Blood witbier and The Ballad of Chaos imperial brown ale.
At the new Forestry Camp, as they call it, Reiser; his wife, Jessica; and his partner, Tim Gormley, are taking Burial to the next level. Their production brewery there cranks out 10,000 barrels of beer annually—10 times what their original taproom can produce. When I visited, renovations were ongoing for a cocktail cellar, a party lawn, and a restaurant overseen by chef Brian Canipelli of Asheville’s Italian hot spot Cucina 24. Reiser had just launched Ambient Terrain, a series of rustic lagers made in collaboration with other craft breweries around the country. But beer was just the start of the wares he was planning to produce at his new facility.
“We made a rice lager last week and turned the spent rice into fried rice. We’re curing local peppers in bourbon barrels. We’re making house vermouth. We’re gonna use beer cultures for yogurt, and the chokeberries that grow on the property will go for house kombucha. Why not? I would love to say everything we make is in-house one day.”
Reiser’s expansion has local precedents. Highland, for instance, has grown over the years to become the Southeast’s largest family-owned native craft brewery. Today, it’s housed in a former movie studio with a rooftop bar and a massive array of solar panels powering its round-the-clock beer production. Asheville’s first tasting room, the punk-rock bar where Green Man Brewery launched in 1997, burst its seams long ago and swallowed up buildings down the block. Today, you can sit in a sleek, art-filled barroom overlooking Green Man’s bottling line and have a certified Cicerone walk you through the malty, Brit-style ESB and its flowery Trickster IPA.
And new brewers keep coming. One of the city’s youngest beerworks is Brouwerïj Cursus Kĕmē, a handsome spot that opened in the summer of 2018 on the site of a former dump for 18-wheeler trucks along the Swannanoa River. Cursus’ Jeffrey Horner fashioned his high-gloss bar out of old truck beds and used their engine blocks to hold it up. The taps run through the trunk of a fallen black locust tree, which hangs on a wall that Horner charred using the Japanese technique shou sugi ban.
There’s a grassy biergarten, an outdoor kitchen where patrons grab sausage-and-duck-egg croissant sandwiches, an orchard to harvest fruit for cherry-laced kriek, and even a small hop farm on-site. It’s a post-industrial wonderland for enjoying beers brewed over a live fire and fermented with house-cultured yeast inside large, medieval-looking barrels.
Horner made beer for 19 years in Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; and New York’s Hudson Valley. He ran production at Nantucket’s Cisco Brewers. How did he land in an old dump by the river? He poured me a rauchbier he called Incendia. It tasted of wood smoke and ripe cantaloupe. “I was looking for the right community in which to make esoteric beers,” he shrugged. “The scene just brought me to Asheville.”
Ashville's Best Brewers
Bhramari Brewing Company
Beer even defines the food here: The excellent burger has a stout wort glaze and hop-smoked, truffled American cheese. Try it with a pint of Lorelai IPA. 101 S. Lexington Ave.; bhramaribrewing.com
Brouwerïj Cursus Kĕmē
Sip beers brewed over a live fire and fermented with house-cultured yeast at this high-gloss bar fashioned from the beds of old trucks. 155 Thompson St.; cursuskeme.com
Burial Beer Company
Open this fall, Burial’s Forestry Camp brewery houses a restaurant overseen by James Beard Award semi finalist Brian Canipelli. 40 Collier Ave.; burialbeer.com
Green Man Brewery
Sit in a barroom overlooking the bottling line and have a certified Cicerone walk you through their malty ESB and other excellent ales. 27 Buxton Ave.; greenmanbrewery.com
The rooftop bar of Asheville’s first craft brewery is the place to try their flagship Gaelic Ale, a delicately hopped, perfectly balanced pint. 12 Old Charlotte Highway, Suite 200; highlandbrewing.com
Wedge Brewing Company
This brewery anchors a studio space for 20 working artists founded by metal artist John Payne. 37 Payne’s Way; wedgebrewing.com
Zebulon Artisan Ales
This small-production outfit focuses on French-style saisons and other European styles. Open Fridays and Saturdays only. 8 Merchants Alley, Weaverville; zebulonbrewing.com
Zillicoah Beer Company
Taste open-fermented farmhouse beers and lagers at a sunlit brewery and warehouse on the river at the city’s outskirts. 870 Riverside Drive, Woodfin; zillicoahbeer.com
Where to Stay
The Bunn House, a new, five-room boutique inn, offers self check-in in a 1905 home in the heart of Asheville. The first-floor suite includes a full kitchen. Take a brew up to the roof deck at sunset (Rooms from $279). At The Inn on Biltmore Estate, adjacent to the 8,000-acre Biltmore property, you can make like a Vanderbilt by sipping a house martini in the dining room (Rooms from $299). If sports and spas are your thing, go play at The Omni Grove Park Inn. Founded in 1913, the 513-room complex has a grand dining terrace with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The oldest part of the property offers Arts and Crafts charm, while the newer wings are more modern (Rooms from $284). At the just-opened, 128-room Kimpton Hotel Arras, tuck into a hearth-fired pizza at Bargello, a new restaurant from restaurateurs Martha and Peter Pollay (Rooms from $495).