Thursday, May 14, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville, NC: Part 1

"So where shall we go for this year's trip?" My wife asked.  Not wanting to take an international trip, she and I discussed options of a road trip.  High on the list of destinations was Asheville, North Carolina--often called Beer City USA.  Having never been to the state, much less this city bursting with breweries, I was quite in favor of this ultimate goal.  What follows is a long winded travelogue about how to eat and drink your way through the city, with some random other stuff thrown in for interest.  We drove from Minnesota down through Champaign/Urbana Illinois, to stay with my dad for 2 nights.  There we had the best barbecue of the trip at Black Dog, and I got to reconnect with an old friend.  Yes we visited two breweries while there, but I've written them up in the past, so I won't go into them this time.

A quick word about Asheville before we begin.  The town began in the 1700's as a trading outpost, and really hit it's stride in the 1880's after the railroad arrived.  George Vanderbilt also arrived around that time and built a huge (castle) home that took over 6 years to complete.  The city has kept much of it's turn-of-the-century appearance, and retains a very eclectic and unique feel.  The area has drawn a large number of artists (bohemians and hippies) and has grown to be a huge tourist destination for those drawn to art, craft brews, and great food.  Most of the stores and restaurants in the downtown area are locally owned and not the usual chain stores you find everywhere else.  Don't worry, you can find your favorite big box stores outside of town.  Overall this place is an interesting mix of the old and the new, a progressive gem nestled in the otherwise conservative South.

I like the juxtaposition of old and new in this shot--I think it really shows what Asheville is...

Day 1

We arrived in Asheville fairly late in the evening on a Friday.  After checking into the quirky and pleasant Hotel Indigo, we foraged out for our first taste of the scene.  Most of the "action" in Downtown Asheville is within an easy 5 to 15 minute walk from the hotel, so we rarely had to drive anywhere during our stay.  I figure we burned off at least a few beers worth of excess by walking a lot during our trip.  Being Friday night, the town was hopping!  There were crowds of tourists walking the streets.  Musicians, jugglers and artists busking on nearly every other street corner gave the evening a chaotic and almost overwhelming aspect.  Passing the central square we came upon a huge crowd gathered to watch and listen to a huge drum circle.  With echoes of drums still drifting on the wind along with honking horns, and snatches of guitars, we continued our trek across town.

We arrived at our destination of Wicked Weed Brewing for a very late dinner (9PM) and found them to be packed to the gills.  This brewery has a very large seating area and long bar, with high ceilings and a huge mural of Henry the 8th on one wall.  We ordered a beer at the bar while we waited outside for our seating, taking the time to watch the crowds wander past.  One raucous group of guys was seated in the chilly outdoor patio and at one point the bouncer needed to move them along.  It got much quieter after that.  We eventually got seated and had some wonderful food and wonderful beers.  I had a crispy-on-the-outside bison meatloaf with greens and a spicy mustard sauce that was heavenly.  Even drinking 8 oz pours of beers we couldn't even try a third of the huge tap selection.  Beers ranged from IPA, to a great hoppy red ale, to a strange but tasty beer loosely based on a mint julep.

Sj and Henry 8 at Wicked Weed

We ended up coming back to Wicked Weed on our final day in Asheville and continued to work on the list of beers.  It wasn't until the second trip that we noticed a stairway at the far edge of the bar leading to a second basement tasting room and patio featuring even more beers to try!  Wicked Weed is right next to The Orange Peel (a famous music venue) and while there saw someone try to climb up from the patio to the line into the music hall.  Once again a bouncer magically arrived, made him settle up a bar tab and vacate.  I really loved the ambiance (despite being crazy crowded and loud), food, and beers at Wicked Weed!  These guys are in the very top of the Asheville beer scene for me and are really doing things right.

Day 2

Day two we slept in a bit to recover from our previous day's drive and late dinner.  The cheerful staff at the Hotel Indigo served me some great local coffee and sent us on our way with ideas of great places to find beer.

We headed first to Early Girl Eatery, a farm to table local restaurant known for southern comfort food and great breakfasts.  We arrived shortly before they opened and joined the long line waiting to get in.  Yup, it is that kind of place!  The tables are covered in brown paper and one wall has samples of some really impressive artwork from folks who have dined at the restaurant in the past.  Did I mention that Asheville has a lot of artists?  I had a wonderful southern breakfast featuring grits and biscuits smothered in bacon gravy.  Yum!  We were excited to discover that the ceramic sugar containers at each table were made by one of Sj's old friends from Alabama, Patty Bilbro.

Next we walked a ways past the local bus station and into the "brewery district" for a visit to one of the city's oldest (1998) craft breweries--Asheville Brewing Company.  The bar itself was small and a bit over-hot already at noon on this fine spring day, so we settled outside in the large covered patio.  Service was a little spotty out there, but the servers were pleasant when they actually came to the table.  They had a lot of beers of varying styles, but most were just mediocre.  The best of the lot for me were the Bronson Oat Brown and the Holy Ninja Oyster Porter.  A big deal was made about their recently released double IPA, but I didn't love it.  The brewery is known for pizza, pub food, and being kid friendly.  They can some their beers and I found them in restaurants and bars all over town.  Worth a spin by, but not the best place we found in town.

We had planned on stopping by another brewery with our fairly slow service, we ran out of time and headed to our pre-arranged Eating Asheville High Roller tour.  We had planned this in advance based on some good reviews I had seen in print and on-line.  We met at a used bookstore/wine bar for the first leg of the tour and then moved to several great venues across the downtown area for snacks and drinks.  At Cuchina24 we had a sample of the singular best bolognese pasta I've ever had, served directly to us by the executive chef.  Based on that dish alone we set up reservations for a late dinner there later in the evening for more of that and vegetarian pasta featuring fresh local ramps.  The tour was a lot of fun, with stops at places I wouldn't have discovered on my own. I highly recommend the tour and it was great to get this done early in the trip.

After the tour we wandered around the city and checked out some local shops and art galleries.  One of my favorites was an old Woolworth's that had been converted into a large art gallery, complete with 50's era soda fountain!

I got the Funk

Our last stop of the day (other than dinner at Cucina24) was the Wicked Weed Funkatorium.  Not content to rest on their laurels as a great local brewery, Wicked Weed has been developing a name for sour beers over the past several years.  Within the last 6 months or so, they opened the Funkatorium: a large barrel aging facility for their sour program, featuring a ton of their sours on tap and a small snack menu.  With it being so new, many locals we talked to hadn't even been to it yet.  Since this was a Saturday, they only offered a set sampler of 4 beers, but on slower days will do custom samplers.  We shared this and really enjoyed all of the beers we tried.  I really loved this small, dark tasting room with it's enormous barrel filled back room, filled to bursting with silently souring beers!  We would end up back here several times over our trip, mainly for repeat glasses of the epic raspberry flavored Red Angel.  That was probably my favorite beer of the whole trip.

Sampler at Funkatorium...

Not a bad way to start a trip.  Keep up with this here blog over the coming week for more details so you can start planning your own Asheville beer and food trip!

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