I love craft beer. This is probably obvious to anyone who’s read the blog before or scrolled through some of our photos on Instagram. I specifically love a well-brewed craft beer, created with purposeful intent by someone who honestly cares about the end product and sharing that finished good with the public. I’ve been homebrewing on and off over the last decade or so, starting out with the most basic methods and gradually working up to the all-grain process, which is essentially what happens in a real brewery – turning malted barley, water, hops, and yeast (and sometimes other things) into a finished ale or lager. I’m far from an advanced brewer, but I understand brewing basics and I like creating my own recipes and following them to eventually taste the end result. So when we first visited Asheville, North Carolina roughly five years ago, I could barely contain my excitement.
Asheville, as you may already know, has become a craft beer haven over the past 20 years, currently ranked as the number one U.S. city with the largest number of breweries per capita (up from third place in 2016, surpassing Portland, Maine and Boulder, Colorado). We were originally invited to visit through friends in our town at the time who had friends living in Asheville, and we gladly accepted. That first visit was a whirlwind of brewery tours, beer bars, and various restaurants all enjoyed while taking in the sights of the city.
That first trip was instantly memorable – so much so that I returned shortly thereafter (with Ashley’s gracious permission, of course) to attend the Brewgrass Festival, Asheville’s popular bluegrass and craft beer event featuring live music and beer tastings from breweries all over the region. So as we were planning our RV route south for the winter, we knew we wanted to swing through Asheville to both take part in the lively craft beer culture and hopefully catch up with a couple of friends we rarely got to visit over the past few years.
Tucked away in the Blue Ridge mountains where the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers meet, Asheville could be a quietly unassuming country town if not for the proliferation of breweries, the strong artistic and musical culture, and the presence of the Biltmore Estate. Back in the late 1800s, the youngest son of the railroad tycoon William Vanderbilt decided after frequent visits to Asheville that he’d like to build a summer estate in the area – his “little mountain escape” – which remains to this day as the largest privately owned house in the United States.
Biltmore attracts over one million visitors a year to Asheville, offering tours, restaurants, seasonal displays, lodging, and a host of other amenities. During the planning and construction phase of the estate, the architect Richard Morris Hunt had the idea to create a village outside of the Biltmore Estate grounds to create a pleasing welcome for Vanderbilt’s visitors, and to house the employees working to build the sprawling, opulent estate. We did not visit the Biltmore Estate. We did, however, spend a couple of hours walking around the village area, which is now mostly a tourist attraction with restaurants, clothing shops, art galleries, and a hotel. A couple of locations featured handmade (some of it local) arts and crafts, which was interesting – check out the Southern Highland Craft Guild or the New Morning Gallery if you’re in town.
In addition to these crafty offerings, Purl’s Yarn Emporium is a fixture in the downtown Asheville area. Ashley attended a stitch group gathering at the store and made a couple of friends while working on various projects. The patrons of Purl’s participate in yarn bombs throughout the area, covering public items in knitted and/or crocheted pieces to raise awareness for various topics.
But Biltmore Village isn’t where we spent most of our time in Asheville. We chose to visit with our friends (who kindly allowed us to park the RV at their house for the week), sample more breweries and eat at more restaurants than we should have, and stroll around the downtown area. I’m not going to list all of the places we visited on this trip because I think that would be pretty boring (even more so than my other updates) but I will cover some of the stand-out places that are worth your time and maybe even your money.
We’ve been steadily making our way south in search of warmer weather on our journey to Key West for the winter. The day after we arrived in Asheville, we witnessed the first snowfall of the season – unexpected but exciting, and nothing accumulated, so no big deal. It did, however, give us even more of a reason to stop by the French Broad Chocolate Lounge to warm up with a couple of liquid truffles. FBCL makes fantastic high-end chocolate confections, ranging from simply elegant chocolate bars, to artfully flavored truffles and amazing beverages (if a tiny cup of the richest hot chocolate you’ve ever tasted really counts as a beverage). We visited FBCL on our very first trip to Asheville, and we’ve talked about it ever since. They’ve since moved into a new location as the business excelled, and while not as quaint and inviting as the original store, the chocolate remains as the best we’ve ever tasted.
The weather remained chilly during our recent visit, but we didn’t see any more snow. Our friends did inform us, however, that we arrived in prime leaf-peeping season and we probably wouldn’t have found any availability at the local state parks or RV campgrounds as a result. The city didn’t seem overly busy during the week, so we took advantage of the lighter crowds and crossed a few places off of our list before the leaf-hungry hordes descended on the town.
We’ve never had bad food in Asheville, although I’m sure you could find some without trying too hard, but if you stick to the local restaurants or regional chains, you can’t go wrong. We had a great breakfast at both Early Girl and Biscuit Head, although the crowds can be overwhelming on the weekends. Try to get to Biscuit Head during the week if at all possible – and you can also probably skip lunch that day after eating a Biscuit Head breakfast. Huge biscuits covered in a variety of toppings, biscuit sandwiches loaded with fillings, and even a biscuit and gravy flight (to mimic a beer flight, you choose three gravies). Worth waiting in line and elbowing your way through the crowd.
Even better than biscuits, the tacos from White Duck Taco Shop are transcendent – I’m not exaggerating, they are the best tacos I’ve ever had. If you’ve never been there, I know you’re probably thinking, “Tacos! Big deal!”, but really they are exceptional. We went to the downtown location on a Sunday morning during their new brunch hours and they were fairly empty, so we didn’t have to wait in line to order and we easily found a table. I started with the steak, egg, potato, and cheese taco, followed up with the fried green tomato BLT, and went back to order a Creole shrimp and grits taco. All were flavorful, well-seasoned, and just right. Ashley liked her choices as well, but I was too busy eating mine to pay much attention to what she might have been saying (until she said she wanted to try the dessert, a Mexican chocolate pot de creme with pistachios).
While visiting a couple of breweries, we had snacks from a two different food trucks that were also outstanding. Ashley ordered a hot dog from the Foothills Honest Meats truck at the Hi-Wire Brewing Big Top location, which was more than just a hot dog – Foothills makes their own hot dogs, not to mention the relish which can be added upon special request. Ashley rarely (I would say “never”, but that’s no longer true) orders a hot dog anywhere, so take that as a recommendation on the quality of the food from Foothills. We also had food from El Kimchi which was parked at the Wedge Brewery during our visit. El Kimchi is a truck serving a fusion of Mexican and Korean food, and while that might sound outdated or weird, it is thoroughly delicious. I ordered the kimchi hot dog (probably because I wanted to keep with Ashley’s theme) which was over the top with flavor and fixings. The beef dog was served on a soft bun, topped with avocado cream, pico de gallo, bulgogi beef, and the namesake kimchi. Too big to eat directly as served, but no matter – just tear into it and consume as necessary. Their kimchi is the best I’ve ever had and the hot dog was totally worth the mess on my hands and face. And beard. Ashley had the rice bowl with Korean beef, which she also said was very good.
One final restaurant is worth mentioning, before we move onto the beer. Sierra Nevada recently opened a massively impressive brewery outside of Asheville, which we visited thanks to our friends in town because we probably wouldn’t have gone without their company and recommendation. I think it’s fair to say that every craft beer fan is familiar with Sierra Nevada’s beer, and being able to find rare and unique brews now on tap at the Mills River brewery is a wonderful experience. The food offerings in the enormous restaurant are also exceptional. Served small-plate style, each dish is delivered as it’s prepared – so the whole table might not get the order at the same time, but that’s part of the experience. Just share what’s on the table, sample your beers, and enjoy some conversation. Sierra Nevada is worth a slight trip out of town for both the food and the beer, but the grounds are so impressive, you could probably just drive out to walk around and never have anything to eat or drink while you’re there.
I should mentioned that we almost had dinner from the buffet at the Earth Fare grocery store, but our friend Eric wouldn’t allow that to happen. To our other friends who may be reading this blog and who also know Eric, it’s best to read the next section in his voice. For everyone else who doesn’t know him, just imagine a soft Appalachian accent from southwestern Virginia.
After Laurie’s half-hearted suggestion to grab food from Earth Fare (because it’s good, to which Eric agreed), Eric animatedly replied.
“We are not going to Earth Fare! Eric rarely puts his foot down or refers to himself in the third person, but Eric’s putting his foot down. Someone’s going to ask where we took our guests, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, we took them to the GROCERY store!’ Welcome to Earth Fare, you can have ANYTHING you want!'” he exclaimed, amidst unbridled laughter from everyone in the car.
I would like to point out that we would’ve gladly eaten from Earth Fare (maybe next time Eric!), and we try to be neighbors rather than guests when visiting people in our RV, but we’re happy to spend as much time as possible catching up no matter what.
Craft beer is one of the main attractions for many visitors to Asheville and the city has attracted breweries since the mid-1990s due in part to the pristine nature of the water, which filters through the protected watershed of the Great Smoky Mountains. The city boasts 26 craft breweries as of early 2017, with a total of 60 in the surrounding region. Even more astonishing is the fact that only one brewery has closed since the boom began in the 2000s (R.I.P. Craggie Brewing, with your various flavored and unique – if not well received – offerings). So if you’re visiting Asheville and have no breweries on your list, yet you’re searching for a good craft beer, just walk into the first brewery you find and order a style you normally like. It will be difficult to find a truly bad beer.
Some of the original breweries like Highland, Green Man, Asheville Brewing, and French Broad (now called French Broad River) offer solid selections and have loyal followers. Slightly newer breweries, opening a few years after the original four, like Pisgah, The Wedge, Hi-Wire, and Burial have earned a place in the hearts of locals and deserve recognition. Wicked Weed was a crowd favorite when they first opened, but have recently encountered controversy and fallen out of favor with some of the locals after the business was acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev earlier this year. Their beer is still fantastic and they’ve opened a place called the Funkatorium which specializes in sour and funky barrel-aged beers, which is worth seeking out if you enjoy those styles. We’ll see how or if the beer changes in light of the recent acquisition. Newer breweries like Hillman, Twin Leaf, One World, and Bhramari produce exceptional beers and provide interesting spaces to hang out, most with some type of outdoor gathering area.
Much larger breweries have recently moved into town over the past five years, like Sierra Nevada as mentioned earlier, New Belgium, and Oskar Blues (in Brevard, about 30 miles outside of Asheville). Multiple interviews with brewery representatives report that the businesses were not only attracted by the water, but maybe more importantly by the Asheville culture with its emphasis on outdoor activities, sustainable business practices, and even the relative bikability of the surrounding area.
On our most recent visit, Burial and the Funkatorium were outstanding favorites for the quality and variety of beers available. Sierra Nevada had the most impressive facility in terms of grandeur, but I also liked Burial’s multiple choices of location to relax with a beer, as well as the basement brewery setting of One World, and the half-inside half-outside seating at Hillman. And of course the huge outdoor gathering area at The Wedge, which is a perfect place to meet with friends on a sunny afternoon (including Ashley’s dad, who was taking a motorcycle trip south and made a detour to visit with us for a day). Finally, I should mention the Thirsty Monk which is a great place to find local beers as well as imported Belgian offerings. The ground floor is dedicated to American craft beer, while a walk down the skinny staircase to the basement bar opens up an almost overwhelming selection of Belgian beer including Thirsty Monk’s own Belgian-style ales. They’ve apparently also opened a rooftop bar, which we did not check out on this visit.
Asheville also has a bustling music scene, with the occasional busker on the corner, drum circles in the square downtown, and impromptu bands on Sundays by the Asheville City Building, to well-known acts playing at The Orange Peel venue and weekly jam sessions at Jack of the Wood. We managed to attend the Sunday afternoon Irish session at Jack of the Wood, and wished we were around more often to observe and maybe even eventually participate. Jack of the Wood is a comfortable “locals” hangout with an Irish pub feel and Green Man Brewery beers on tap (the building was the original location of the Green Man Brewery), in addition to other offerings. The bar also hosts a weekly old time session, a bluegrass session, and live bands on the weekends. Check out the video for a sample of what happens at the Irish session. Someone starts a song, everyone else joins in, musicians come and go as the evening wears on, and everyone has a good time. Apologies for the video quality – we didn’t intend for it to be website content, but here it is anyway.
We also caught a bluegrass band at French Broad River Brewing on a Friday night while sampling a couple of beers. Established in 2001, French Broad is one of the earlier breweries in Asheville (the first was Highland Brewing in 1994) and remains a popular location, especially among the locals. The small taproom offers a place to hang out and grab a pint, generally quiet with the exception of the sometimes rowdy crowds that briefly pass through on one of the Brews Cruise tours. French Broad deserves a mention in the “Beer” section of this article, so don’t overlook this brewery on your own visit to Asheville.
Lastly (at least for this visit), Farm to Fender is a small restaurant located outside of Asheville on the southern side. We went for brunch on a Sunday because they had a bluegrass band playing, which made for a lively, enjoyable visit. The food was decent, not necessarily outstanding, but they source their ingredients locally as much as possible which adds a little social responsibility to the food – which is a noble pursuit. Definitely worth a stop if they have a band playing, just be prepared to squeeze in at the bar if all the tables are taken.
So that wraps up our bustling week in Asheville! We definitely had fun experiencing the city again, but more importantly we’re glad for the time spent with friends. As this entry comes to a close, I’m drinking a Green Man Wayfarer IPA from a Pisgah Brewing glass (obtained through a trade with Eric) and wondering when we’ll fit our next trip through Asheville into our itinerary. Until then, thanks for reading and cheers!