“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”
If you’re reading this article on you’re smartphone, you’ve already failed Mr. Muir. Instead of logging into Untapped, you could be witnessing the untapped beauty that the many national parks and wilderness have to offer only a short distance away. Most Louisvillians don’t even know that their fine city contains the largest municipal urban forest in the United States in Jefferson Memorial Forest. It’s in your backyard. Literally.
Last summer, I took Muir’s words to heart and ventured on his trail in the heart of Yosemite National Park in California. Although lots of camping and hiking were involved, many trips to breweries and bars were also factored into the trip. To me, witnessing the General Sherman was just as special as pulling up a seat in Toronado and Russian River. With Memorial Day weekend being wide open, I knew I had to go lose myself in the mountains and drink some good beer in between.
Although it may have lost this years title of Beer City, USA to the likes of Grand Rapids (MI), Asheville (NC) doesn’t feel like it has to leave the throne just yet. A home to a sprawling number of small craft breweries combined with the beauty of the mountains (not to mention a vast water supply) has led to larger craft breweries like Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium to make it their East Coast vacation home.
I packed up a tent, trail shoes, a few empty growlers (Side note: most breweries only let you fill their own growlers) and started the short trek to Asheville. Within the first five minutes of being in North Carolina, I spotted a black bear cub playing alongside the road. A sign of good things to come or possibly, my ultimate death by the jaws of a black bear that would rather feast on my beer soaked liver than foraging for damn berries. Since I left right after work, I rolled into town about 10:00pm and checked into a cheap hotel. I threw my stuff in the room and headed straight for downtown to venture out the much-hyped Wicked Weed Brewing.
It’s really hard to believe Wicked Weed brewing has only been open since December 2012. They get their name for the brewery from a 1519 quote from King Henry VII, “Hops are a wicked and pernicious weed”. The outdoor patio was packed with long tables and a fire pit raging, the perfect escape for a summer’s night of drinking. Also, a perfect meeting place for all of Asheville’s hipsters. I was in a heaven of arm tattoos and skinny jeans. All the tables were full, but I managed to snag a seat at the upstairs bar facing the outside patio. Immediately, a waitress handed me a pint glass of pretzels and I asked her for suggestions. I scanned the chalkboard and went with her choice of their flagship Double Freak IPA. Wicked Weed was covered in bourbon barrel staves so I felt right at home. The Double Freak didn’t last long, so I chose the X Passion Fruit Saison. A lighter, crisper beer that didn’t give me as much passion fruit as I was expecting. Knowing I’d be back, I left the Weed and walked a few blocks to Barleys Taproom to see if anything good was on.
Barleys had a few people strung out in some seats, but other than that it was pretty empty for a Friday night. I sat down and ordered Foothills Bourbon Barrel Stout for $4.50, which seemed to be a great price for an excellent representation of the style. The draft list was all North Carolina beers with a few oddities thrown in there. It was starting to get late and another Bourbon Barrel Stout wouldn’t do me any good, so I went against my beer judgment and headed back to the hotel.
Surprisingly sober, the next morning I headed to the North Carolina Arboretum to run the ever-popular Shut-In Trail. The gravel path started about 2 miles straight uphill then connected to single-track that meandered through the hills paralleling the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trail is engulfed by a tunnel of rhodendron and pines, hence the name “shut-in”. After about nine miles on the trails and encountering only a handful of people, I popped off the trail and ran the Blue Ridge parkway back down to the trailhead. I ended up stopping about every half mile to take in the views while trying not to get hit by on-coming traffic.
After running in pitch-black mountain tunnels, I figured it was time for a beer and I headed to French Broad Brewery. Most known for it’s 13 Rebels ESB, I opted for a sampler of all their beers (including a one-off barleywine) in an attempt to re-hydrate. The IPA and the ESB were excellent beers but the barleywine left a little to be desired. Leaving French Broad, I made my way to Thirsty Monk for an Oskar Blues tap takeover. Since Oskar Blues opened a brewery in Brevard, NC, they’ve been taking over the Asheville beer scene. Thirsty Monk had your usual OB offerings and also had a port barrel aged Mama’s Little Pils. I would compare this to a pilsner with a shot of Carlo Rossi wine in it. Gross.
I walked across the street to Jack of the Wood to see a show and dabble in the many offerings of Green Man Brewing. One thing I noticed is that most people at the bar were from out of town (mainly Florida) and were just there to get away and ‘drink the beer’. After a few Green Man IPAs and porters I was doing the same thing as them. Needless to say, I took a cab back to my campsite that night.
I woke up the next day a little groggy and craving water like a junkie craves a buzz. I packed up my gear and headed to Montreat, NC to dabble in the trails that Montreat College had to offer. As soon as I drove into the town, I was greeted by a cobblestone entrance and a straight climb up the mountain. The sounds of bagpipes filled my ears while townspeople flocked to the local church to attend service. I kept driving up until I found the Graybeard Trailhead. The Graybeard trail was pretty much 5.5-mile up to the peak of Graybeard Mountain with creek crossings and many small waterfalls along the 2,000-foot elevation gain. Needless to say, the trip down was much easier and faster.
After the trek, I popped a Dales Pale Ale stovepipe, sat on a bridge and soaked up the wilderness. I threw my dirty shoes in the bed of my truck and headed towards my favorite destination in Asheville, Wedge Brewing. Two years ago I visited Wedge and fell in love with the atmosphere. Maybe it was the free peanuts in the shell or maybe it was the Iron Rail IPA…I don’t know, but it always led me to tell others to visit the Wedge.
The Wedge is the brewery I want Louisville to have. Right off the river. Big outdoor area with patios and as laidback as they come. Oh…free peanuts helps as well. I went with a sampler and then got into a game of bags with some locals. After the sampler, I grabbed the flagship Iron Rail IPA until I ended my run on the bag boards. Of all the spots, Wedge still holds a special place in my heart. The kind of brewery where you can get lost at. Not drunken, I don’t know where my phone is at lost, just mentally lost.
After the Wedge, I knew I had to make one final stop at Wicked Weed and check out what the lower bar had to offer. The setup downstairs was awesome. You could view the brew setup, the barrels, and also take a seat outside. I went with the Triple Freak (11%) to start. Go big or go home on my last day I guess. I then chose a beer called Sir Ryan the Pounder and had to ask for clarification that this wasn’t collaboration between Wicked Weed and Against the Grain.
Although Asheville has a ton of local beer spots to offer, I was really amazed with how little presence macrobeers had in Asheville. It seemed liked every bar I went to had nothing but local and NC beer on draft. Miller and Bud were nowhere to be found. Life in Asheville is good. Although the title has been lost, for Kentuckians, Asheville provides one of the closest beer vacations you can get minus the hustle and bustle of Chicago. If you’ve never been, go. Enjoy the mountains. Enjoy the culture. Enjoy the localism.