North Carolina's Best Craft Beer Isn't From Asheville
Considering how much press Asheville's food scene has landed in recent years, you'd think the region's best craft beer was being made at its many downtown breweries. And while that's true to some degree—Burial Beer Co.'s raucous taproom and Wicked Weed's sour-centric Funkatorium are both worth a flight or two—the truly good stuff is hidden in plain sight an hour outside the city.
That's where you’ll find the modest headquarters of Fonta Flora Brewery. Located on a quiet street in Morganton, North Carolina, it's a point of pride for this town of 16,000 people. Many pack the place every week despite a divisive, left-field drink list that leans heavily on locally sourced ingredients like figs, beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, scuppernong grapes, wild plums, and the 200 pounds of prickly pears head brewer Todd Boera harvested by hand earlier this month for a barrel-aged blonde.
"I was pulling needles out of my body for days," he says half-jokingly, "so I really hope that beer is worth a damn."
Judging by the gold medals Fonta Flora has garnered since its launch four years ago, and the growing number of groggy tourists who plan their vacations around its limited hours, said beer will most certainly be worth a damn. That doesn't mean it'll earn this small company—rounded out by Morganton natives Mark and David Bennett—a pile of money, though. As Boera likes to say with a laugh, "We didn't see much business from winning GABF medals for a dry Irish stout and a beet saison. Maybe if we'd won for an IPA or a fruited sour, things would have been slightly different. Either way, we're not in a hurry to make more beer; we're here to make it better."
One of the ways Fonta Flora hopes to do that in the coming year is through the farmland it acquired from the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina and Lake James State Park. Last spring, the tight-knit team planted about 25 paw paw and 30 persimmon trees on the 49-acre property. Clusters of chokeberries, blueberries, elderberries, spicebush, and viburnum followed suit a few weeks back, and patches of carrots, beets, and fennel are on deck for next spring, just in time for the opening of a second tasting room.
In other words, Fonta Flora—like one of its closest friends/contemporaries, Jester King Brewery just outside Austin—is on its way to becoming a farmhouse-style brewery with an actual farmhouse. According to Boera, "folks can expect one of the most badass outdoor and agricultural settings to consume a craft beer in the Southeast." Not to mention a level of authenticity other brewers lack, as if every pint pulled at Fonta Flora is literally connected to the land around you.
That's been Fonta Flora’s mission from the very beginning, actually, starting with an elusive variety of heirloom corn (a.k.a. "Bloody Butcher") Boera spent months searching for. After several leads, he finally ended up on Fox Farm in Burnsville, North Carolina.
"It's operated by Alan and Susan Fox," explains Boera, "the sweetest and hardest working couple I have ever met. Susan makes jams and cheese while Alan does just about everything else, including taxidermy and blacksmithing. I cleared them out of their Bloody Butcher corn that year and continue to do so now.
He continues, "In a few days, I will head up the mountain for my annual pilgrimage to a beautiful farm, operated by wonderful people. Having the opportunity to put money in their hands and their beautiful corn in my beer is the most satisfying experience I can imagine as a brewer."
It’s also quite a treat for consumers who demand more from a craft beer market that's become increasingly competitive and crowded, to the point where every new product seems to be meticulously sourced, designed, and produced. Johnny Belflower faces this embarrassment of riches on a daily basis at his stellar Tasty Beverage Company shops in Asheville and Raleigh. When it came time to pick a partner for the latter's fifth anniversary beer, Fonta Flora answered the call with a complex Früt Lüps saison featuring bright citrus notes and foraged sassafras leaves.
"We're obviously advocates for Asheville's breweries," explains Belflower, "and everybody should visit its South Slope, but Fonta Flora is always worth heading out of town for. They're easily one of our favorite breweries in the country, let alone North Carolina. For me, it's simply that they're great people with all of the right intentions, making incredible beer. Todd and [longtime manager] Sara [Maya] are some of the nicest people I've met in the industry and I’ve never tasted a beer there I didn’t enjoy. I can't think of anything else one would want."