A Tasty Craft Brew Tour, North Carolina Style

Asheville, Charlotte and the Triangle

A Tasty Craft Brew Tour, North Carolina Style

Fullsteam Brewery is a hot spot in Durham

If you’re a connoisseur of craft beers, consider the facts: North Carolina is home to more than 180 local breweries, celebrates Beer Month throughout April and has a town voted “Beer City USA” for four straight years. Our state just might be your “brewtopia,” which makes it ideal for a three-day tasting tour.

3-Day Itinerary:

Day 1: Enjoy the mountain scenery as you stroll the eclectic streets of Asheville in search of local craft beers, food and fun.

Day 2: Charlotte may be the “Queen City,” but its burgeoning beer culture and urban setting make it fit for a king (keg).

Day 3: You’ll find local breweries offering tasty choices on virtually every corner of North Carolina’s Triangle cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Day 1: Drink in the flavor of Asheville, four-time “Beer City USA” honoree

Asheville has been the recipient of many interesting recognitions and top rankings, including being voted one of the happiest places in America and “Beer City USA” for four consecutive years – a combination the local brewing community may try to convince you makes perfect sense. But you can judge for yourself as you check out a mountain town where bohemian uniqueness is embraced, street corners are staked out by musicians and artists, and virtually every restaurant, bistro and bar has taps flowing freely with local nectars.

Prepare for your brew tour with a robust breakfast or brunch at Early Girl Eatery or Over Easy Café. Then consider a stop at Bruisin’ Ales to get you in the mood and maybe pick up some unique treats to take home. This locally owned shop, consistently rated as one of the top beer retailers in the country, generally has around a thousand beers on the shelves and a friendly, knowledgeable staff to provide guidance, and maybe a sample.

Head over to Thirsty Monk where constantly rotating taps offer local and American craft beers upstairs, while the downstairs bar is devoted to traditional Belgians. Across the street is Jack of the Wood, a Celtic-style pub that offers its own Green Man English-style ales and a menu of other beers – be sure to ask what’s on cask.

A couple of blocks away is Asheville Brewing Company, a friendly spot where you can mingle with locals, munch on a pizza and check out a menu of imaginative brews done in house, such as Rocket Girl, Ninja Porter or jalapeno-infused Fire Escape. Time it right and you can get a tour of the brewery, or maybe catch a movie projected on the wall of the huge outdoor patio.

In addition to its brew scene, Asheville also is renowned as heaven for foodies with restaurants and cafes offering virtually every type of cuisine. But while you’re strolling around, keep an eye out for some of the numerous food trucks that set up around town. In fact, a good location to find a truck as well as some tasty beverages is Wedge Brewing Company in Asheville’s River Arts District, where you can sit outside by the French Broad River and sip a beer concocted just steps away.

Make time for Wicked Weed Brewing with its street-side restaurant on top and brewery downstairs, plus a cozy tasting room where you can sample the wares or nip a pint with aging barrels in plain sight. Situated next door to the venerable Orange Peel, this is the perfect staging area if you’re headed to a show. Live music is a staple in Asheville, from street performers to regional and national artists appearing at The Orange Peel, Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall, and Isis Music Hall. If you’re in town on a Tuesday evening, consider Westville Pub for the “blues jam.”

If you’re interested in not just tasting but learning more about the brewing process, you can get behind-the-scenes access with a “brews cruise,” offered by several local operators. Or top off the evening with some levity by hopping on the purple LaZoom party bus for an around-town comedy tour (and you can bring your own beverages).

Day 2: Discover craft brews fit for royalty in Charlotte

Charlotte has made its name as one of the rising cities of the “New South,” with a fast-paced uptown scene complemented by sedate older neighborhoods and rural suburbs. But in such trendy settings as the NoDa arts district, South End and Dilworth, local brewers have proven the Queen City is no slouch when it comes to concocting craft beers with an urban edge.

Once a mill town now evolved into an arts and entertainment district, the NoDa area is the ideal setting for a brewery that creates small-batch premium beers, and is aptly named NoDa Brewing Company. Find a place in the tap room and try out the variety of brews within view of the production floor, including award-winning Coco Loco. Tours are run each afternoon around happy hour time, during which you’re invited to grab a pint and learn more about the brewing process. Stop in on Tuesday for the “NoDable Series” that showcases a new small-batch beer each week.

If you need a bite to eat, food trucks often set up shop outside the brewery. And NoDa’s restaurants and shops are close by in a neighborhood setting that’s always alive with activity, including live music at Neighborhood Theatre, Evening Muse and the Chop Shop. Definitely check out Growlers Pourhouse where the operating recipe is “Craft Beer & Beer Food.” Rated one of the country’s top beer bars by Draft Magazine, Growlers has a refurbished 1936 beer engine that serves up hand-pumped cask ales and a food menu designed to pair with beer – the Reuben was deemed the “best sandwich in Charlotte” by The Charlotte Observer. If you want to expand your brew knowledge, come in for “Beer Ed” on the first Tuesday of each month.

From uptown or in historic South End, hop on Charlotte’s light rail train and then hop off for a visit to Triple C Brewing Co. The location explains the Light Rail Pale Ale among the brews on the menu, which also features the popular Baby Maker Double IPA. The spacious taproom, with its exposed brick walls and wood roof, is a favorite local gathering spot where dogs also are welcomed. Depending on the time, you may find a local musician entertaining.

A little farther down the light rail line in the warehouse district is Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. Its authentic German-style biergarten is the perfect spot to kick back and sample a formidable line-up of fresh beers from the city’s first brewery. The Copper Amber Ale and Captain Jack Pilsner are consistent offerings, but the emphasis is on seasonal beers made from quality ingredients that comply strictly with the world famous German Beer Purity Law of 1516.

The easy access to the light rail means it’s easy to check out the local brews and then stroll around Charlotte’s urban core where you’ll find museums – from the Levine Museum of the New South to the NASCAR Hall of Fame – and restaurants featuring virtually every kind of fare, from nouveau American at 5Church to soul food at Mert’s Heart and Soul. The nightlife jumps along College Street and in EpiCentre with its collection of eating spots and clubs.

If you want to take along some of the brews you’ve uncovered, check out Good Bottle Co. and its extensive selection of local, regional and national craft beers. There’s always something new and exciting, and a knowledgeable staff to provide guidance.

Day 3: Taste your way around Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill

North Carolina’s Triangle region is known for higher education, high-tech industry and research – all of which take smarts. Then again, Raleigh bills itself as “America’s Smartest Beer Drinking City,” while Durham was named by Southern Living as the “Tastiest Town in the South.”

Durham’s recognition for food and drink includes a healthy craft brewing culture. A perfect representative of this evolution is Bull City Burger and Brewery, with its farm-to-fork approach to food and a brewery putting out fresh ales and lagers seasonally. Stop in on Saturday for a brewery tour and tasting of beers currently on tap, and growlers are available to carry home the ones you like. Of course, as the name implies, the build-your-own burgers are local favorites, while the dirty fries draw rave reviews.

Fullsteam Brewery is another Durham brewery that uses local hand-harvested ingredients and heirloom grains, while also collaborating with local chefs and musicians to craft unique custom beverages. The results? How about Hogwash, a hickory smoked porter, or Workingman’s Lunch, a tribute to the Southern tradition of an RC Cola and a MoonPie. Fullsteam’s tavern and indoor beer garden serve the brewery’s output, experimental batches and selections from other North Carolina producers. Local food trucks set up shop outside, and inside you can expect music and special events.

If you seek surprises, Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough lives up to its name. The folks here produce beers on a seasonal basis only to suit time of year and changing moods. It’s also a “rustic” approach, meaning beers are not filtered or pasteurized, with the emphasis on full-bodied flavor. Therefore, you never know what taste sensation awaits at the Mystery Brewing Public House.

For a taste of higher education in the brewing arts, head to Franklin Street in Chapel Hill for a crash course in handcrafted beers at Carolina Brewery. Start with the award-winning Sky Blue Golden Ale and Firecracker Pale Ale, and end with a dusky Oatmeal Porter. Pair your favorite(s) with full-bodied fare you’ll find in the Carolina Brewery restaurant (there’s also a brewpub in nearby Pittsboro).

The state capital of Raleigh and its surrounding communities have become a hotbed of craft brewing in recent years. Raleigh Brewing Company not only turns out a line of well-crafted beers – from Blatherskite Scottish Ale to Uncommon Curiosity Lager – but also distinguishes itself as the first female-owned brewery in North Carolina. You can take a tour on Saturdays, and take home growlers and kegs.

Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina runs a full schedule of tours Thursday through Saturday that offer insights into the brewing process and also allow you to taste the output – usually eight different beers are on tap. The company’s Tap House is situated in the town’s train depot (circa 1903) and features a 38-foot mahogany bar, which provides plenty of room to consume brewery-fresh beers. Live music also is on tap.

Shop for favorites and discover new brew options at Raleigh’s Tasty Beverage Company, where you’ll find more than a thousand packaged beers and a few on tap. The emphasis is on local, craft and specialty beers from around the world, with recommendations freely offered by the experienced staff.

A great way to explore the Triangle beer scene is with a Beltline Brew Tour. These private, guided tours provide special access to selected breweries and opportunities to sample the craft beers being produced.

Please drink responsibly and travel safely while visiting North Carolina breweries and festivals. Enjoy all each area has to offer by mixing and matching activities to your particular interest. Be sure to check days and hours of operation for each venue.

Gary Carter is an Asheville-based writer who covers a range of topics for magazines, online publications and his blog, Eliot's Tales 4 Gen B.

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