Why Asheville Is the Best Beer City in the USA

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[Illustration: Zac Overman]

"Cake at 1. Burial at 4," flashed the text across my phone. A grim day honoring the recently departed? More like the makings of a typical Saturday in Asheville, North Carolina. Burial, to clarify, is the name of a popular local brewery. The cake was for the first birthday of my friends' son. Their plan for celebrating the milestone was quintessential Asheville: food, nap, beer.

Later that warm February afternoon, my husband and I joined the motley crew of 30- and 40-somethings and their babies gathered around picnic tables on Burial's outdoor patio. With my 12-week-old son tucked into a carrier wrapped around my chest, I patted my baby's back with one hand while doing my best not to spill the mason jar of coconut-brown ale in the other.

While I bounced and walked, a familiar face caught my eye. There on an outdoor stage sat my OB/GYN, handing her toddler a bag of Cheetos. I walked over to introduce her to my baby, who had been born after her shift at the hospital ended.

In another city I may have felt embarrassed about bringing a newborn to a brewery. But this is Asheville, where breweries often serve as neighborhood cul-de-sacs. My doctor bashfully made excuses about her kid's non-organic snack while gushing over my son's round cheeks.

Here, drinking local isn't a fad. It's a lifestyle, an extension of the city's close-knit community—and it has deep roots. "Historically, western North Carolina was a frontier—it was very difficult to get here," says Anne Fitten Glenn, the author of Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing. "It still has that mentality: You do what you can within the community to survive."

The Asheville beer boom got its start in 1994, when retired engineer Oscar Wong began tinkering with beer in the basement of a downtown bar. His Highland Brewing Company emerged as the city's first legal brewery since Prohibition and tapped into the city's craft beer potential. More than two dozen breweries currently operate in the county centered on Asheville, boasting one of the highest brewery-to-resident ratios in the country. Some 50 breweries dot the surrounding mountains of western North Carolina. On any given day in Asheville, more than 100 local craft beers can be found on tap.

Major craft brands Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium have recently opened big-budget outposts here, in part thanks to the free and abundant water flowing from the mountains, said to feature ideal pH levels for making beer.

I don't know if it's the pH levels that make the beers here so good. All I know is that nowhere else in the country do breweries run the social scene with such panache. A couple of years ago, as a newcomer to Asheville, I arrived for the first part of the three-day release party for Highland Brewing Company's Cold Mountain, a spiced winter ale named for the nearby 6,030-foot peak that inspired the bestselling book and movie. Right away, I could tell this was no ordinary beer release. At the base of the brewery's steep, wooded driveway, a bouncer with a walkie talkie directed me to an overflow lot. (Highland has long since grown out of that basement; these days its sprawling, solar-powered campus in the hills of East Asheville includes a rooftop bar and tree-lined meadow.)

Once I finally made it inside the cavernous brewery, neon stage lights flashed around an Asheville band revving up the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of jubilant locals. Highland sold more than 8,000 pints of Cold Mountain over the course of those three nights—not bad in a town of 87,000. The beer has such a cult following that one particularly ardent fan operates a Twitter handle, @ColdMtnTracker, with year-round updates ranging from grocery shipments to garage stashes.

In Asheville, people don't drink to wash off the grime of urban grit or to swallow the stress of the rat race. Drinking is a way to support our neighbors and toast our good fortune for living in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Drawn by our year-round appeal and anything-goes atmosphere, tourists spend some $2.6 billion here annually. There are highs and lows that come with living in a tourist town, but most of us live here because we love the mountains and the sense of community, even when it means juggling odd jobs in order to stay.

No matter your mood or the season, there's a craft beer here that fits the bill. We slip cans of Catawba's surprisingly addictive Peanut Butter Jelly Time brown ale into our backpacks as we head out on spring hikes to waterfalls. As wildflowers blanket the surrounding mountainsides, we sip Wicked Weed's rustic ales infused with rose petals and honeysuckle. After a hot day floating down the French Broad River, a Wedge Iron Rail IPA tastes like summer in a pint glass. We reach for a rich Green Man ESB to top off a day of basking in fall foliage along the Blue Ridge Parkway. On chilly winter days, we warm up with Burial's Skillet Donut Stout, garnished with a freshly glazed donut hole from the shop around the corner.

For that matter, most things happen in Asheville with a side of suds. I have relaxed flat on my back, practicing shavasana, on the concrete floor of Catawba Brewery, part of the "Bend and Brew" series of yoga classes, which are followed by beer tastings. I've sipped free beer at the Asheville Art Museum while browsing locally made pottery and letterpress cards during the annual Big Crafty arts festival. I've nursed a bruised ego over fresh-from-the-tank Oskar Blues beer after turning back early on a group mountain bike ride that left from the taproom in nearby Brevard and coursed through the roots-tangled trails of surrounding Pisgah Forest.

The day I found out I was pregnant, I did what any Asheville resident might do. I went on a group run that meets at Highland—most of the city's running clubs end with beer—and then made lame excuses about why I wasn't drinking. One recent Monday, I checked in with a friend to see if she wanted to hit up a new mama support group; instead we met at the New Belgium taproom to commiserate about working from home while caring for an infant. Even my lactation consultant hosted a client-appreciation party at—where else?—a local brewery.

I've celebrated holidays at breweries, stopping for a pint and homemade sugar cookies on the way to church on Christmas Eve and eating eggs pickled in saisons for Easter brunch. At my weekly farmers market—Wednesday afternoons in the River Arts District—you can grab an Asheville beer at the lawn bar before stocking up on organic kohlrabi and small-batch vinegars.

The last of those is a natural union, considering brewers work hand-in-hand with the region's growers and producers. Local beets, chokeberries, and honey flavor seasonal ales, sure, but there's also a growing crop of hops farmers. And there's Asheville's Riverbend Malt House, which steeps, germinates, and dries malt for the region's brewers from locally farmed barley, wheat, and rye. Soon there will be an in-town source for yeast, too, with the East Coast expansion of California's White Labs in the burgeoning brewery district south of downtown.

Like most things in Asheville, the beer scene runs on collaborations. You can satisfy a sweet tooth with ale-infused truffles, cake, and ice cream. You can douse your ribs or veggie burgers with barbecue sauce spiked with Asheville Brewing Company's Ninja Porter. Chefs take discarded spent grain and make delicious pretzels, pizza crust, and beignets.

And you can feel good about where your beer money is going here, too, because not only are you supporting your neighbors, they're supporting worthy causes. In April, 13 breweries donated $1 a pint to a local advocacy group for survivors of sexual assault. Highland helps raise funds for mountain ecology—its saison is even named for the native Saw-whet owl. And in light of North Carolina's controversial anti-LGBT law, HB2, Wedge Brewing Company has started stamping "#F*CK HB2" onto their cans below the expiration date.

Asheville's beer scene boils down to the sense of community that endures long after the kegs are drained. So, no, it's not just a great beer city because you can bring your baby to the brewery. Here there's no question: The next generation is already in place to continue the party.