Written by Clay Boersma, Bartender, Sheldon King, Brewer, and Josh Stewart, Brewer
Four hours after meeting up before sunrise, Sheldon, Josh, and myself arrived in the small Asheville airport on Friday morning after a lovely sunrise flight through the Smoky Mountains. While Josh was lining up our rental car, Sheldon and I found a promising sign familiar to our Grand Rapidian eyes: brewery maps and “ale trail” guides mixed in with all the familiar tourist literature at the airport kiosk. Asheville, NC and Grand Rapids, MI have traded the title of “Beer City, USA” back and forth in recent years, and although my born-and-raised bias to Michigan holds strong, I can see why. The area has attracted satellite production facilities for three of the biggest names in the American craft game: Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium. On top of that, the beer scene within Asheville proper is booming, with 8 breweries within walking distance of each other, and about 15 in the area.
As our Burger King breakfast began to wear off, we decided to check out Sierra Nevada’s facility for some lunch on the way to the hotel. The scenery on the drive was gorgeous-- rolling grassy hills and tree-covered mountains with low-hanging clouds earning the title of “the Smokies.” We took a country road to an automated gate with a copper gilded logo reading “SN.” Like a drive to a distant ranch or a Napa winery, we went down a winding, dipping private road, at least a half-mile long, complete with statues of hops cones and old-school stovepipe brew kettles. We arrived to a building the size of a shopping mall. The entire brewing, inventory, and packaging areas were visible through a walkable self-guided tour. We marveled at the sheer scale, watching hundreds of thousands of bottles of Märzen flip and clink their way into six and twelve packs. Inspirational, to say the least.
It was time for a beer.
The three of us found our way to a table outside the taproom, overlooking a dozens-of-acres-large beer garden. We had some duck fat fries and soon found out the hard way that Joshua Stewart is better than both Sheldon King and Clay Boersma at bocce ball. I drank a pleasant ale brewed with peaches, black tea, and corn grits (what could be more appropriate when arriving in the South?), sessionable at an even 4.0% ABV.
After agreeing that we could spend forever there but probably shouldn’t, we headed to Asheville to check out the famed Wicked Weed brewing company, known for their sour and wild ales. We sipped on snifters loaded with fruit, lactobacillus, and brettanomyces, working up some healthy heartburn, and headed to Brevard to set up the Perrin tent at the Burning Can beer festival.
Sometimes you think you’re lost until the second you realize you’re exactly where you meant to go. This was the case as we pulled into Oskar Blues’ REEB Ranch outside of Brevard. A police officer was directing traffic down a dirt road into a ranch seated in a valley in the mountains of the Pisgah forest. Festivalgoers were setting up their tents in a light drizzle, and Oskar Blues employees were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, making sure that all the participating brewery’s cases of beers had arrived, that everyone had a tent, that invoices were lined up just right, that the stage was ready for music, and on and on.
We got our tent ready for the festival and proceeded to the barn for a homebrew competition. This was particularly fun for a beer geek like myself- White Labs, a leading industry provider of yeast strains for both homebrewers and professionals, was hosting. Brewers who would be pouring at the festival the next day were the judges. The competition was between different homebrews that had all used two new experimental varieties of yeast. Because of this, we got to taste how these two varieties performed across a number of styles. My vote went to a California Common (the style made famous by California’s classic Anchor Steam) brewed with Melbourne yeast. I love that semi-sweet, wheat English muffin flavor characteristic of the style, and this guy nailed it on a five-gallon scale. Soon we will have a California Common on tap at Perrin—Connor Klopcic’s “Brewer’s Choice” series beer—and this got me extra-pumped to have such an under-brewed style around to share with guests at PBC.
Pulled pork, brisket, hush puppies, cole slaw, potato salad, and the best Carolina BBQ sauce known to man will do it to you—we headed back to the hotel and parted ways for a nap. Shout out to OBB’s catering crew on that one… I feel both full and hungry just thinking about it.
This was a recipe for a nap. We checked in to the hotel and parted ways for a couple of hours before heading to Oskar Blues’ Brevard location to check out how our partners down South were doing things.
We arrived late in the evening and poked around for a wayward cellarman or packaging guy who might be able to show us around. Surprise, surprise, Dale Katechis (read: Dale’s Pale Ale), the owner of Oskar Blues, walked up to the bar and ordered a G’Knight to sip with Randy, a packaging manager who had just clocked out. This was a welcome surprise—the owner himself was here to have a beer, and promptly offered to show us around the brewery himself. We checked out the vast warehouse and marveled at the action of a new 300-barrel fermenter that had just been filled with Dale’s Pale Ale, fermenting vigorously, sending epic amounts c02 into a blowoff bucket, splashing around in zymurgological bliss. We met a couple more OBB brethren dealing with a forklift malfunction, checked out the rest of the brewery, watched a guy chug a Ten Fidy while we sipped our Pinners and Pilsners, and headed home for some serious sleep.
By 10 AM, the three of us were all in canoes, floating down a river in the mountains. This is one of the most special elements of Burning Can- it is not only a beer festival, it is a camping festival, a running festival, a mountain-biking festival, a food festival. The folks at OBB create a happy place in the wilderness for people to exist in for a couple of days, and much fun is had, rain or shine. The float was beautiful, and even involved some rapids. Josh and Sheldon zig-zagged across the river at first, but eventually got a hang of it. I was solo in a canoe and confidently zipped around until almost tipping over. No, a canoe is not a kayak.
We made it back just in time for the beer festival, pouring cans of Perrin Black, Grapefruit IPA, No Problems Session IPA, 98 Problems IPA, and Lotsa’ Problems Imperial IPA. We quickly learned that in the Carolinas, they are called “Ahhh P.A.s,” not “Eye P.A.s,” as we know them here in Michigan. The beer was very well-received; a lot of folks were impressed that we had come all the way from Michigan. Grapefruit definitely flew the quickest—despite its name, this is more a fruit-forward beer than a hops-forward one: many people who thought they didn’t like hoppy beers were all about GFIPA.
After pouring for six hours, it was finally time for the brewers themselves to crack a can. We had heard of a waterfall on the property, and found a trail on the far end of the property. After a quick 15-minute hike, we found ourselves beneath the falls, looking down a corridor the falls’ river had carved through the trees. This was the highlight of the whole trip for me- sipping a refreshing pale ale in the woods with friends, exhaling after a busy day of talking and pouring and talking and pouring, preaching the gospel of all the work that’s done here in Comstock Park for the enjoyment of thousands, spreading a little bit of that love all the way to the Carolinas.