Saturday, July 14, 2012

Beer City USA

Apologies in advance.  It's a long one. I thought of breaking it into two, but thought you could simply read it at your own leisure.

The Beer City poll is run by Charlie Papizan, who wrote The Complete Joy of Homebrewing in the 80s and founded the Great American Beer Festival, so it's a legit title, though it's only been an online poll since 2009.  Asheville, NC has won or tied in all 4 years.  It wasn't the real reason we chose Asheville for our vacation this year, which included camping in the Smoky mountains, whitewater funyaking, and staying in a historic hotel, but the beer scene was definitely a nice addition.  Asheville is a funky little city in the middle of the Blue Ridge mountains.  Down every other street are majestic views of mountaintops, quite different than the scenery in Philly.

Asheville is sort of a hippie town.  There is a drum circle every Friday night where people dance around and bang on bongo drums, it's hard to explain.  Anyhow, Asheville and the rest of Western North Carolina has a bunch of breweries, beer based restaurants, and so forth.  I will give you a rundown of some of what I tried.

While camping in the Smokies we had a summer ale from Pigsah Brewing Co. that was very nice.  Maybe it was just the hot weather and the context: we had just set up camp and done a bit of hiking, so we were ready to grill some bratwurst over the fire for dinner, but this beer tasted so delicious and refreshing. 

The next day we went whitewater kayaking on the Nantahala River, one of the most fun experiences of my life. 

Later we went to Nantahala Brewing Co.  Their noon day IPA may have been the best all around beer on the trip.  We also tried an imperial IPA made with lemongrass and local honey that was very nice, from their Trail Magic Series.  Trail Magic is when you do a good deed for someone along the Appalachian trail (or something like that).

Once in downtown Asheville, we hit up Chai Pani, a fast casual Indian place right across the street from our hotel.  They were featuring Asheville Brewing Company's Shiva IPA, which was very solid.  Chai Pani had a funny t-shirt, too: "Namaste, y'all."  Barley's Taproom and grill was a cool spot later in the day.  They have 56 taps in their two story bar, which was a former hardware store in downtown Asheville.  At Barley's I had a wit from Catawba Brewing called White Zombie--it was pretty underwhelming.  For one thing, it was filtered, which is sort of a strange choice for a wheat beer, but also it was just kind of boring.  We did meet a local guy at Barley's who recommended a few more brews to try while we were in Asheville.  You definitely find yourself in more conversations in the South.  Mostly it's a refreshing change from the buttoned up Northeast Corridor, unless it's a homeless person screaming at you because you didn't give her a dollar to support her "food addiction." 

For dinner that night, we ate at the Thirsty Monks.  We shared a smoked trout sandwich and asian pork tacos.  My wife was irritated that the tacos came on flour tortillas, a taco no-no.  But the trout sandwich was very nice, and I had a real good hefeweizen from Sweetwater Brewing over in Atlanta.  The beer was called Waterkeeper and supports water preservation in the Southeast.  My wife had another one from Asheville Brewing called Fire Escape, made with jalepeno peppers.  It was good but too much for a full pint pour.  What shocked me consistently about Asheville was how cheap everything is.  Our bill for 3 beers and two meals at Thirsty Monks came to under 30 bucks.  I don't think I ever paid more than $4.50 for a beer, and most were priced at $4.  Thirsty Monks also had a cool downstairs bar that featured Belgian and Belgian inspired brews on tap:

Tupelo Honey Cafe did a nice job the next day of fighting the hangover from the night before.  This meatloaf is blended with bacon, then baked, then pan fried upon ordering.  Wow. 

We did a self guided historical walking tour of Asheville to walk off the calories.  Then we headed over to the River Arts district, a cool series of galleries along the French Broad River.  Just when we were getting tired of looking at expensive art and hopping along from gallery to gallery in the blistering heat, we came upon Wedge Brewing Company.  We just happened to be first in line for their 2 PM Saturday opening time, but boy was there a mad rush behind us.  We just sat and watched the mayhem and enjoyed a solid wit and pale ale, respectively.  The space definitely fits in to the art scene, with individually designed tap handles, hand blown pint glasses, and wild sculptures and wall hangings.

Then we headed over to Asheville Pizza and Brewing for lunch.  The pizza was good, but somehow tasted a bit like Ellios.  Another Shiva and a Roland's ESB for me.  I liked the Star Wars cantina section:

Then we went back to the hotel for a nap and recovery.  As an aside, I was fascinated by our hotel.  It was a former department store from the early 1900s to the 70s.  Is everything in Asheville repurposed?  Anyhow, the elevators say "4th floor, women's wear."  I thought it was so cool, but when the one elevator didn't say it, I expressed great disappointment.  The guy in the elevator with me was like, "Oh, yeah, because it's was a department store or something."  To me it was the whole reason I chose the hotel. 

For the last hurrah, we headed to the Admiral.  It doesn't look like much, but it may be the best restaurant in town. 

The chef lived in Philly for a while, and the Admiral t-shirts sport a familar logo.

We started with cocktails, mine was a Dark N Stormy made with homeade ginger ale, it was fantastic.  My wife had a Hendricks cucumber/lemon/tonic or something that was also good, if a bit too sweet.  This steak tartare, along with everything we ate, was very good, but also a bit busy.  This description of "good but busy" would fit several of the menu items we tried.  Just look at this plate, you have the pickles, paprika, salt, pepper, sri racha aioli, sri racha, bread, and porter cheese, quail egg in the shell, regular egg on the side...all in addition to the steak.   All good, but a bit much all together.

The green tea gnocchi was perhaps the most creative dish, an Italian palate with Asian paint, if you will.  One complaint about the menu was that they had two sizes, small plates and large plates.  The small plates were not exactly small, and the large plates were large.  It just made it sort of hard to mix and match if you want to try a bunch of items with just two people.  In addition to the cocktails, we had an IPA from Wedge which was good.  As we were leaving they were turning the place into a hipster dance party.  We got out just in time.

To sum it all up...Like all beer and food scenes, you have some hits and some misses.  The food was really good, and cheap.  I still think in terms of food, you get a bit more diversity in a larger city, in terms of what constitutes upscale, ethnic options, etc. (this could be a whole series of posts).  And I still feel Philly is a better beer drinking city, but as the young man we met at Barley's attested to, "Asheville is the vaction spot for alchoholics."  It was a lot of fun and will definitely take some time to dry out.

Brews not mentioned: Highland Gaelic, a nod to the Scottish settlers of the area.  Green Man ESB.  Rocket Girl Lager.  Pisgah Pale Ale.  Nantahala Up River Amber (California Common/Steam Beer), Nantahala Bryson City Brown (English Mild)

Final thought: Locals from here which I saw down there were basically limited to Victory, Weyerbacher, and Dogfish.  The bottle shop we stopped in had a bunch from Weyerbacher, not just Merry Monks.  But on tap, besides Dogfish IPAs I saw only Victory Lager and Prima Pils.  One guy was steady going to the Prima Pils, which is a good beer but nothing so special.  Interesting how beer markets work.


  1. looks like a cool city, the star wars cantina section is awesome. i nearly spit out my drink while reading this part. "they were turning the place into a hipster dance party. We got out just in time." also, i think the new york and philadelphia area is just used to great pizza, they may think ellio's is top of the line down in North Ca'lina

  2. Agreed about pizza in the South. Not our finest cuisine. One of the first adjustments I made when I moved to Philly was learning that Domino's, Pizza Hut, and Papa John's are NOT considered quality pizza places here. Also, I learned that while delivery exists here in theory, pick-up is the default method. Which I still think kind of defeats the point of ordering pizza.

    Glad you had a great time in Asheville! Chris and I will have to visit. Also glad you got a chance to taste Sweetwater. Sweetwater Blue is one of my favorite beers.

  3. Leslie,
    Looking forward to Breaking Bad on Sunday. I actually like Papa John's, it's the garlic butter sauce...I agree that delivery is the main point of pizza. I think Philly has some really good pizza, but oddly I prefer the pizza joints in South Jersey. I think pizza is sort of a comfort/familiarity thing. You'll have to tell me about Sweetwater Blue.