We arrived in Asheville, North Carolina, a couple days ahead of this year’s 2015 Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference on an evening filled with sunny skies, humid mountain air and the promise and excitement always present in completing cross-country vacation travel.
The momentary inconvenience resulted in a fortunate alternative. Asheville is the kind of summer destination with few hotel rooms available on short notice. Our only choice was a surprisingly affordable private “villa” nestled among towering oak trees supporting giant stands of English Ivy.
Though the villa’s decor could stand to be brought out of the 70s, the deck overlooking a pond on the nearby golf course provided the perfect spot to enjoy local beer we’d sourced from the nearby grocery store.
I had to pause and think when Cheryl asked “what’s that noise?” Sipping Highland beer in the fading light,”what noise?” was my answer until realizing I’d been blocking out the sounds I’d heard for more than two decades growing up in Virginia. Cicadas, it turns out, remain unnoticed white noise years after leaving the South.
Those cicadas tugged at other childhood memories and we spent the next half hour recalling nights chasing lightning bugs. A spark of phosphorescent light caught the corners of our eyes causing one of those did-i-really-see-what-i-think-i-saw moments. Yes, we had indeed seen a lightning bug as the thousands of subsequent flashes silently revealed.
Thanks Asheville. Wicked Weed Brewery and Barley’s Taproom, Asheville’s oldest beer bar, may have provided our introduction to the beer scene – the principal reason we were there – but the city would capture our attention in unexpected ways throughout our visit.
I grew up only a 3.5 hour drive from Asheville, but had never visited the city or one of its star attractions, the Biltmore. We took full advantage of the opportunity and spent the better part of the day exploring the house, grounds and winery.
After checking in at the correct hotel, we hit the Thursday night tasting at Bruisin’ Ales, one of the best bottle shops anywhere. While Dave Rogers of Big Boss Brewing Co. poured us some excellent beers, it began to feel like old home week as writer friends stopped in and renewed acquaintances.
The conference began Friday afternoon as it always does with a “state of the craft” address from the Brewers Association’s Julia Herz and her rarely equaled enthusiasm. Following a panel discussion by some of the pioneers of the Asheville beer scene we headed off for our two highly anticipated field trips.
First up was Oskar Blues. The Colorado-based brewery recently built a new facility in Brevard, NC, a good 45 minute drive from Asheville. Though much larger, the facility reminded me of Missoula’s original Kettlehouse Brewing location – first and foremost a manufacturing facility, second a spartan, but lively and packed taproom.
Being VIPs for the day, we got the full tour, tasted a variety of seasonals and even got to “break” the news of the pending arrival of Oskar Blues’ first canned IPA.
Our second field trip deposited us at the front doors of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s new east coast facility, a massive manufacturing facility and equally impressive tap room where nothing at all could be described as “spartan.”
Even describing our arrival as being “deposited at the front door” skips an important feature. Borrowing a technique from Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of the Biltmore’s enormous landscape, visitors arrive via a long entrance road hidden in the thick hardwood forest which blocks any view of what awaits. One final turn instantly reveals the Grossman’s’eastern home, arising out of the forest like beer’s Valhalla.
As if that wasn’t enough, we stepped off the buses into a receiving line comprised of Brian Grossman and other Sierra Nevada officials along with the brewmaster and others from Brauhaus Riegele, the German brewery with whom Sierra collaborated for this year’s Oktoberfest beer.
Following a tour of the brewery we ambled down a long pathway to an opening in the forest by the French Broad River where we were treated to an Oktoberfest in July. German sausages and North Carolina pulled pork combined perfectly with Sierra’s not-yet-released Oktoberfest beer, the first of a project to collaborate with a different German brewery each year to create the seasonal beer.
Day two of the conference was filled with sessions ranging from tips on using WordPress, to discussions with beer distributors from Oregon, North Carolina and Florida.
That wordpress session may sound less than captivating (actually the opposite), but when led by a guy (Brandon Kraft) whose twitter handle, @Kraft, is often mistaken for the giant purveyor of processed cheese slices, the entertainment value is well worth the price of attendance.
I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion called Moving Beyond the Beer Review with Bryan Roth (This is Why I’m Drunk), Oliver Gray (Literature and Libation) and Jessica Miller (Hey Brewtiful) each explaining how they use their interests and expertise to create excellent content on their blogs. (Presentation slides are here.)
A keynote address by Co-founder and CEO of New Belgium Brewing, Kim Jordan, capped off a stellar day of presentations. I’ve separately written about the AB-InBev presentation which presents quite the conundrum. That post also includes my thoughts on Asheville and the value of the conference.
A post conference excursion to the South Slope neighborhood of Asheville and its seven breweries within walking distance provided the final touch to an excellent experience. You can come along for the tour in these photos:
A sign that would work anywhere in Asheville
Approaching Burial Beer Co
Inside Burial Beer Co
Burial Beer Co.'s equipment
The back patio at Burial Beer Co
Happy explorers at Burial Beer
The crowded and popular taproom at Burial Beer
The crew at Asheville Brewing Co
Sean, Craig and Ryan
Catabaw Brewing Co
A rest at Catawba Brewing
Back bar at Catawba Brewing
A flight at Catawba Brewing
Green Man Brewing with the new Green Man facility under construction beyond
The Dude Abides at Green Man Brewing Co
The taproom at Green Man Brewing Co
Snacks between breweries
Twin Leaf Brewing
Tap Room at Twin Leaf Brewing
Wicked Weed's Funkatorium
At the Funkatorium
Getting the tour at the Funkatorium
Sours galore at the Funkatorium
More than 750 barrels at the Funkatorium
Quietly turning sour at the Funkatorium
Wicked Weed Brewing Co. Taproom and Restaurant
Next year’s conference is headed to Tampa, FL home of Cigar City Brewing Co. and 45 other area breweries. Though the date falls on my favorite weekend in Missoula, the Missoula Marathon and all its festivities, odds are we’ll be headed to Tampa and many more beer adventures with friends.
- There was a noticeable trend among the central and western North Carolina breweries of putting basil in beer. I never need to try another.
- Almost entirely unnoticed during most of Kim Jordan’s speech, her partner of 6 years, Dick Cantwell was listening from a front row table. Dick, co-founder of Elysian Brewing (and dissenting partner in the sale to AB In-Bev), is now the Brewers Association’s Quality Ambassador.
- To heighten the stark contrast between Oskar Blues’ and Sierra Nevada’s facilities, Oskar Blues had a noticeable lack of air conditioning, an interesting choice in the hot, humid, North Carolina summer.
- Like every beer destination with a variety of breweries, the quality among breweries ranged from world class to barely drinkable. The age of the brewery was not always a good predictor.
- Want to visit? Check out Explore Asheville, an excellent place to get a feel for the area, including its beer culture.