I traveled to western North Carolina this past week to brush up on the exploding beer scene in Charlotte, pay a visit to some hot breweries in Asheville and inadvertently experience my first zipline (more on that later). It was an exhausting, fun, educational trip that really upped my respect for the Tar Heel state’s breweries. Everyone knows Asheville is a beer mecca, but I still found surprises each day. Here are my take-aways from the whirlwind trip … with apologies to N.C. readers, who likely think I’m late to the game on some of this:
1. Charlotte’s South End is where it’s at. Seemingly every city says its brewing scene is expanding, but Charlotte’s pace is break-neck. Since Olde Mecklenburg Brewery opened in 2009 as the city’s first craft brewery, 28 breweries have popped up and 15 more are in planning. Most of that energy is concentrated in South End, where Wooden Robot and Triple C command well-deserved attention. Wooden Robot’s custom-designed foeder should be churning out some fun new brews shortly.
2. Beer drinkers should check out the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Yeah, I didn’t get it either at first. What’s the connection between beer and the world’s largest man-made whitewater facility? Surprisingly, this multithousand-acre complex, which includes activities like rock climbing, ropes courses, ziplining (my first time! And I survived!), kayaking and mountain biking, is also home to a beer garden, full restaurant, all-canned-beer bar and plenty more ways to grab a brew to celebrate a long day in the sun. They also draw thousands for their concerts and special events; admission to Thursday and Saturday River Jam concerts is free—just pay for beer and parking. The U.S. Olympic whitewater slalom racing team also trains here, so you could pass an Olympian on the grounds.
3. Sierra Nevada’s Mills River facility is even more impressive than I imagined. I’ve seen some large-scale breweries: Lagunitas’ Chicago operation; Bell’s new Comstock, Michigan behemoth … but Sierra Nevada’s East Coast outpost was still an eye-opening testament to what a company can create if it starts from the ground up with lots of talent and, yeah, some cash. Copper-decked vessels, a full outdoor amphitheater, a hydrated grain mill, gigantic lab and of course, a beautiful restaurant are all excellent reasons to sign up for one of the tours here.
4. Asheville’s South Slope is on fire. Asheville enjoys a reputation as one of the best beer cities in America, and seemingly every brewery in its South Slope neighborhood is in some state of expansion. I checked out Hi-Wire‘s newest Big Top location (a huge scale-up from its former spot adjacent to Ben’s Tune Up), paid homage to funky, wood-aged goodness at Wicked Weed‘s Funkatorium (Wicked Weed last month announced its fourth expansion, which will see a new, 57,000-square-foot facility on 17 acres in Asheville dedicated to wild and sour beers), said hi to the fine beers at Burial (also upping production with a new, 20-barrel system that will see Burial’s distribution expand to new Southern states), and got a look at Green Man, which recently began canning and debuted a new tasting room and packaging facility. Whew.
5. Fonta Flora needs to be on your radar. We’ve sung the praises of this GABF gold-winning brewery before, but the recent purchase of a farm some miles from the current Morganton brewery will allow these awesomely friendly people to take their agriculture-based beers to the next level. Fonta Flora has also decided in the last few months to switch from announcing bottle releases to spontaneously releasing beers from the taproom; lines were becoming crazy and the small brewery couldn’t handle it. So stop by and you might get your hands on something special. The sunlit, music-filled taproom is a lovely place to visit, bottle release day or not.