I took a road trip to Asheville, North Carolina with my family and discovered that it is a utopia for craft beer breweries. I took this trip with my wife and our 16-month-old baby girl. We met up with my sister and brother-in-law who drove down from New York. We visited 17 breweries in the area and I rated each of them on three categories: beer quality and taste, ambiance and food (if applicable). Keep in mind that I am basing these scores on my own personal palate and the things that I enjoy in a brewery. You can refer to my scoring criteria if you need a better understanding of how I rate breweries. My reviews and ratings are highly impacted by the fact that I’m the father of a young child, so accommodations for toddlers definitely influenced my scores.
Asheville is a cool place with amazing hiking trails, waterfalls, art, culture, music and generally cool vibes. But let’s get into the reason you’re here – the beer and the breweries that make it. I had spent time in Asheville on a previous road trip and ever since, I always wanted to return. This time I came with a plan – I polled my Twitter followers and friends for the best breweries and read blogs ahead of time to make sure I hit all the best ones. I think I definitely succeeded with the breweries I managed to visit, but if not, I definitely plan to go back again some day.
1. Sierra Nevada – Mills River, NC
Sierra Nevada got started in Chico, California by a couple of home brewers and has exploded into the seventh-largest brewing company in the United States. While the headquarters is still located in Chico, Sierra Nevada has an amazing brewing compound just outside of Asheville in Mills River, NC. This facility is like the Wonka Chocolate Factory of breweries. There is something for everyone here.
When you approach the brewery, you have to travel up a long driveway to reach the facility which is tucked into a forest. They have many tour options, but I will tell you honestly that I never take the brewery tours. I head directly for the tasting rooms and explore the grounds on my own.
You can sit down and dine at the onsite restaurant, sit at the bar inside or head to the most impressive area, the back porch/yard. The outside of the brewery is a huge property with a garden, play area for children, outdoor bar with food, various food trucks and vendors that come and go, a huge stage for live music, a hiking trail and a path that leads down to the French Broad River (only open on weekends when weather permits).
The grounds seem to sprawl on forever, with pockets of people enjoying music in Adirondack chairs, playing corn hole and other lawn games, eating great food from the food trucks or outdoor bar and of course, enjoying great beer created by one of the original craft breweries.
My favorite beer on the day that I visited was the Rauchbier Ale. This beer is brewed with a beechwood-smoked malt that makes it taste like a campfire in your mouth. The smoky flavor is not overpowering or obnoxious and it actually finishes very smooth. Unfortunately, this beer is only available in Sierra Nevada taprooms, so you have to make the trip if you want to try it for yourself.
2. Oskar Blues – Brevard, NC
If you are a long-time listener of the podcast, you will understand my bias here. Along with Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues is one of my favorite “mainstream” craft breweries. In fact, Dale’s Pale Ale is one of my all-time favorite beers. It’s crisp, refreshing and pushes the boundary between pale ales and IPA’s just enough to still be a hop-forward, easy-drinking, refreshing beer.
Much like Sierra Nevada, North Carolina is not the headquarters for Oskar Blues. The brewery was founded in Lyons, Colorado (I have also visited this location, for the record) and now operates in three major cities to distribute across the United States and 17 other countries. If you’re staying in Asheville, you can take a very scenic drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains to Brevard and see some amazing views and waterfalls.
Anyway, if you’re a fan of craft beer, this location is a must-see when in the area. There is a very industrial, blue collar feel to the facility when you enter. There is a food truck parked outside, the yard is littered with corn hole boards, and a large mural spans about 50 feet behind the outside bar. From the outside, you can look into the warehouse which seems to stretch on for miles with giant fermenter tanks. The staircase to the second bar overlook the production floor as you make your way to the gift shop/second tasting room.
It’s hard not to feel at home in the upper tasting room. It has that spruced-up dive bar charm that just makes you feel like throwing beers back all day and night. I didn’t need to sample a lot of the beers on tap because I have had them before, but that didn’t stop me. I can honestly say that I enjoyed most of the beers they had available. If I had to choose a favorite on the day, it would be the Can-O-Bill Tropical IPA. This is part of a series they are doing that is based on a certain herbal flavor. As a dad I can appreciate the cannabis pun. This beer has just enough fruit flavor to level out the bitterness of the hops. It drinks smooth and you can definitely taste the roots of Dale’s.
Other notable staples are the dry-hopped double red IPA, G’Knight and the dark beer for people who don’t think they like dark beer – The Old Chub. The Chub is an interesting beer because it’s very light-bodied for a scotch ale, yet still packs a big punch at 8% ABV. It has a slight smoke to it and some semi-sweet flavors to balance it out. You can also sample many experimental brews and variants of their staples in the two tasting rooms.
3. Burial – Asheville, NC
Burial is the first pick on the list for those of you who still believe that craft beer shouldn’t be mass produced. However, I’m going to warn you now – get to Asheville soon and visit this brewery before they blow up. They have slowly been creeping across the east coast with distribution and in my opinion, it’s only a matter of time until this brewery becomes a readily available brand. This opinion may be my own selfish hope to have access to Burial beer on a regular basis.
The space itself has a very apparent graveyard theme with coffin-shaped tap handles, dim lighting, grim reapers and grisly artwork. This theme is juxtaposed with a glorification of Tom Selleck – including a giant mural on the outside of the building of Tom and Sloth from the Goonies. When I asked why there were so many Tom Selleck references, the bartender said “we just like him” – and that was a good enough answer for me. If your beer is good enough, you can idolize whomever you want and I will come back.
The space itself is kind of a winding journey through different areas that each have their own vibe. Inside the entrance, that you find after opening the reaper scythe door handles, you find the bar. All ordering is done through the bartenders, then you are free to find a spot that speaks to you. You can walk up a ramp and sit inside at high top tables, go outside to sit at a picnic bench or even a hollowed out truck. There is a downstairs section to the outside with a music stage and more tables or you can even go sit on the small rooftop patio overlooking the southside slope of Asheville.
Let’s get to the most important part of the brewery – beer. The beer is all manually stirred, meaning they don’t use rake machines during the mashing process. The hands-on effort definitely shines through in the beer because it simply tastes like it was made by people who give a shit about good beer. This is another spot where I enjoyed pretty much every beer I sampled.
My favorite brew at this stop was Display of Vulgarities – a thick double IPA that hazes out the bitterness. It’s citrusy up front and leaves a nice oily/juicy mouth feeling on the back end. I also highly recommend the Skillet Donut Stout. It’s basically sweet coffee and donuts packed into an 8% ABV oatmeal breakfast stout. They use this stout as a base for many experimental flavors including hot chocolate, bourbon, breakfast sausage, peanut butter and many more that you can hope to find on draft in the brewery.
While these were my picks at the brewery itself, I took a four pack of Savages of Ruminating Minds and this became my new favorite. I liked it so much that after we finished this four pack on a hiking trip, I decided I had to go back and pick up another to bring back to Florida with me. This beer, aside from having a really cool label, is a silky smooth hazy IPA that drinks really light for a 7.2% ABV IPA. It’s juicy up front but finishes fairly dry, making you want to drink more.
If I could recommend one brewery in the city of Asheville, which I would never do to anyone I cared about, I would say that Burial is an absolute must-visit. They do have a kitchen in-house, so you can order food at the bar and pick it up at the back kitchen window. Unfortunately I did not eat here because I was intent on filling up on beer, so I cannot vouch for the culinary credibility. But even if the food sucks, I would still recommend this spot to anyone on a beer expedition worth taking.
4. Wicked Weed – Asheville, NC
Wicked Weed is actually the first brewery I ever visited in Asheville. Back in 2016, my family and I took a two week road trip from our home in New Jersey to our new home in Florida. We stopped for a day trip in Asheville and from that moment we knew we would always come back.
I had a vivid memory of this brewery from my first visit. It has a nice front patio with a giant circular gas fire pit and the inside opens up like a huge German beer hall. High ceilings, everything has a vintage carved wood look to it, including the creative flight holders – which hold six beers instead of four, by the way.
This brewery clearly has its roots in west coast IPA and German-style beers, which gives a great base for their creative style. They take a sharp turn off the beaten path with experimental flavors, barrel aging, ciders and farmhouse and sour selections from their Funkatorium facility (also located in Asheville).
Out of the 17 breweries we visited, this was the only one where myself and the three others with me all agreed on our favorite beer. It was unanimously the Freak of Nature Double IPA. This is a west coast style double that is extremely hop-heavy and even though it has the bitterness that comes along with that, it doesn’t linger because it is tapered with a dry finish. This beer flushes your palate with pine and hoppy dankness but it’s still very refreshing and drinks extremely smooth for an 8.5% ABV beer. If you’re a fan of sour beers, this place is an absolute Mecca, especially the Funkatorium.
In 2017, Wicked Weed was acquired by Anheuser-Busch as part of their expanding family of craft breweries. Before you go craft-shaming them, let me explain why this was a fantastic move for the brewery. They made a lot of money on the deal, they sold less than 50% of their shares so they still have creative control and full rights over their recipes and they were able to obtain job security for all of their employees whom they treat very well. Not only a brilliant move, but now their delicious beer is easily accessible outside of North Carolina! This place is definitely a must-visit.
5. New Belgium – Asheville, NC
I have been a longtime fan of New Belgium‘s Fat Tire amber ale, so I was definitely excited to visit this brewery. As a running theme, this brewery did not start in North Carolina, but in Fort Collins, Colorado. The founders were inspired to start the brewery while biking through Belgium in 1988 – hence the very prevalent bicycle theme.
This brewery has a very clean look. Lots of poured concrete, red steel and the look of a space that was designed with every tiny detail serving a purpose. It sits on the French Broad River in Asheville and it has a large deck that overlooks the river as well as Adirondack chairs and picnic tables with water views. Naturally, there is also a bicycle trail that runs past the brewery, so if you’re into exercise and drinking, I’m sure you can plan a bike excursion.
New Belgium is very dedicated to the environment. So their facilities have a strong foundation in sustainability, fighting climate change, and other Captain Planet-type ideologies that make you feel like you are saving the world by drinking their beer. So that’s always a plus.
Speaking of beer, let’s talk about it. I’m sure if you are reading this article, you have probably tried a Fat Tire. They also have a Fat Tire Belgian White, which is like a better version of Shocktop or Blue Moon. It’s light and drinks very crisply. In recent years, the Voodoo Ranger series has also become an iconic staple for New Belgium.
My favorite beer was in the Voodoo Ranger line and it’s called Juicifer. This beer smells like fresh pineapple bread and as the name suggests, it’s extremely juicy. It’s a hazy IPA, so the hops are present, but the bitterness is dialed way down with citrusy maltiness. They do can Juicer and it is distributed, but only for a limited time, from my understanding. So if you can get your hands on some, stock up!
Like most other breweries, New Belgium is producing a lot of sour beers. Although I often say that I am not a fan of sours – this is the one brewery where I actually enjoyed the sour beer. My favorite sour (if I had to choose) was the Err on the Side of Awesome. It’s a blend of a dark and golden sour with cherries. It is tart up front, but then it smoothes out with a dry finish, almost like a Malbec wine. Believe me, if they can win me over with a sour, they are definitely doing something unique.
Overall, this is a very cool brewery. They offer a variety of food trucks, which I did not sample and they have an extensive list of tours that you can sign up for. But again, I’m not a tour guy, I’m a straight for the taproom to make my own assessments guy. I would definitely recommend this stop, especially if you’re traveling on two wheels.
While this list is my top five must-visit breweries, I did visit 17 in total and I was rarely disappointed. So I do want to include some others that may interest you if you are planning a big beer excursion:
Highland – The first legal brewery in Asheville since prohibition. Outstanding facility including a giant taproom, outdoor concert garden and rooftop bar. Favorite beer – Wanderlush, a hazy IPA with lemon notes and very low bitterness.
Green Man – Two locations, a dive bar and a three-story architectural spectacle. Great English-style beers and very cool ambiance. Favorite beer – Tropical Smoothie, which must have been a limited release because it’s not on their website.
Bhramari – Very outside-the-box beer, good food and cool atmosphere. This was the spot that many of the locals recommended and it didn’t disappoint. Favorite beer – Neon Ghost.
Whistle Hop – This spot is worth checking out for the ambiance alone. The tap room is built into an old train car, with another train car parallel with seating and games. Favorite beer – Cherry Brute IPA, dry-hopped and sweetened with house made cherry syrup.
Black Mountain – 20 minutes east of Asheville in Black Mountain, NC. Fairly new and small brewery with a cool back deck. Favorite beer – Wood Fire Pale Ale, smoky but still light and hoppy.