Good Times On Tap On Brews Cruise
It came to Mark Lyons like a bolt out of the blue. For a long time, Asheville has had a burgeoning microbrew scene, but the breweries had never really become a part of the area’s visitor industry. Lyons, however, was about to change that.
“It was an epiphany”, he says, “It all came at once. The idea, the concept… even the name.”
And thus the Asheville Brews Cruise was born.
It only made sense. With six microbreweries currently in business and more on the way, Asheville will soon have more brewers per capita than Portland, Oregon – the microbrewing mecca. Lyons decided to “tap” into that vein and bring beer aficionados from near and far to some of Asheville’s breweries, to learn about the process, philosophy, and history of each. And, of course, to sample the beer. With a background in the tourism industry and a 12-seat Ford passenger van, Lyons – and the Brews Cruise – was on its way. For the cornerstones of his tour, Lyons chose three popular breweries that serve up three very distinct tastes and experiences.
The Founding Father – Highland Brewing Company
The first stop is, appropriately, the Highland Brewing Company, which became Asheville’s first brewery when it rolled out its initial keg in 1994. After 12 years in a tiny downtown Asheville location, Highland moved into an unused soundstage on the Blue Ridge Motion Pictures property, just east of town. Before pulling up to the brewery’s loading dock, Lyons proudly points out a large water tank “wet stage” where waterfall scenes from “Last Of The Mohicans” were filmed.
Inside, visitors are greeted by a Highland brewer and a first sample of the brewery’s wares, a small cup of St. Therese’s Pale Ale. From there, the group learns about the unique history of Highland, which was founded by a retired nuclear engineer and originally used retrofitted dairy equipment and bottled its beer by hand. Now, Highland has the capacity to brew 20,000 barrels of beer each year, and is one of the largest microbreweries in the nation. In Asheville itself, Highland’s beers now have more taps in bars and restaurants than Budweiser.
The tour winds through the brewery and learns about the entire beer-making process, from barley and hops to brewing and bottling. Along the way, visitors are treated to more samples of Highland’s diverse line of products, from the light and dry Kashmir IPA to the dark and robust Oatmeal Porter.
World Beer, Asheville Flavor – French Broad Brewing Company
As the Brews Cruise van winds through Biltmore Village to its next stop, the live music emanating from the French Broad Brewing Company is a sign that this isn’t the typical microbrewery. In fact, the tasting room here is also a well-known hotspot for locals to gather in an intimate setting to hear Western North Carolina music acts five nights a week. The brewers here see it as a perfect way to develop face-to-face interaction with their most loyal customers.
The host here is also quick to point out that the French Broad Brewing Company doesn’t brew the typical microbrew, either. French Broad employs the European tradition of brewing lager, which microbreweries usually avoid because it takes longer to make and eats into revenue. Here, the Brews Cruise sets up at a picnic table just outside the brewery and tastes several samples, including the popular 13 Rebels ESB Ale and a German-style brew called an “altbier,” which carries a bitter finish and comes with the option of mixing with flavored syrups (such as spearmint, pomegranate, and lemon) to help make the brew a little smoother.
After about an hour of beer education and sampling, Brews Cruisers wander into the tasting room to buy their own growlers (a returnable glass bottle that holds a half-gallon of beer) or souvenir glasses. Then, it’s back into the van to continue the tour.
Brew & View – The Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company
After a quick stop at the Bruisin’ Ales beer store downtown, the Brews Cruise returns to its starting point – The Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company.
Regulars call it the “Brew ‘N’ View,” because along being a microbrew and pizza place, it also shows second-run movies for $3 a ticket. The place is loud, fun, non-smoking and family-friendly, which disguises the fact that it also is a major player in the local brewery scene.
Here, the tour group takes seats in the restaurant and samples more local brews, including the Shiva IPA (an employee favorite), the Ninja Porter, and the Rocket Girl. With the official tour portion of the Brews Cruise over, the group takes a more relaxed attitude, slowly sipping beer, ordering food from the menu, and discussing what was seen and tasted on the tour. Lyons calls the three breweries on the Cruise a “great snapshot” of the current Asheville microbrew scene.
Eventually, talk turns to how a city of 72,000 people came to be such fertile ground for microbrewing. “Asheville is an outdoors town, and Asheville is an arts town,” says Lyons. “Those things tend to lead people to demand more complexity in things like beer, and much of the time, it takes a local microbrew to meet that specific local demand.” Now, thanks to the Brews Cruise, visitors can get their own sip of that unique Asheville flavor.
added: December 10, 2010
updated: January 3, 2011
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