Appalachia: Beercation!


JEFF FITZGERALD (this article was first published on November 15, 2012)

The tasting room at Starr Hill in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo via http://www.starrhill.com

I am of an age (45, though I read on a 50 year-old level) to remember the dawn of the craft beer movement in the South. Living in the small town of Clifton Forge, Virginia, and coming of legal age in the late eighties, I recall a time when Moosehead (Canada’s PBR) was considered a sophisticated import. Preppy d-bags (yes, we had some) swilled Heineken, and Michelob was my redneck sister’s idea of an ultra-premium beer. Then, quietly, little six packs of something different started appearing on the shelves of my local Kroger. Pete’s Wicked Ale and Samuel Adams Boston Lager were among the first of a new generation of beers that broke with the typical American lager.

My love affair with beer, so far as you need to know, began on August 24, 1988, the day I turned of legal age to purchase and consume alcohol in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Back in my more sociable days, I could show up at a social gathering with a sixer of Pete’s Wicked Ale and be assured that one of two things would happen: either no one would touch my beer, or if someone did recognize what I’d brought and appreciated it, we’d end up friends. My appreciation of beer has also netted me several girlfriends, which is probably why I never bothered to learn much about wine.

I didn’t experience fresh-brewed beer until the early nineties, when the short-lived Blue Muse brewpub opened in Roanoke. After they closed, it was several years before Legend Brewing in Richmond and Starr Hill in Charlottesville afforded me the opportunity to renew my love with fresh beer. It’s almost like knowing nothing but frozen and chain pizza, then having a good local pizza place open just long enough to give you a taste of the real thing, then being left with DiGiorno and Pizza Hut pie again. No matter how good the rising-crust pizzas are, or how much Dominos improves their recipe, it’s still not the same.

Beer is food. And like food, it almost always tastes better fresh. At one time, tiny little local breweries were ubiquitous in towns all over the South. The beer was served from the keg, either in a glass on premises or in a large container called a growler to take home. Until the mid-1800s, most American beers were ales. Strong, heavier beers intended to fortify – they were essentially liquid bread. However, even with the heartiest stouts and porters of today, I wouldn’t recommend trying to make a sandwich with them. And for goodness sake, don’t put them in the toaster trying to make a brown ale out of a pale ale.

Attendees taste beer at The Great American Beer Festival. Photo copyright Brewers Association, via The Great American Beer Festival.

With the influx of Czech and German immigrants came a new style of beer, the lager. Lighter, more refreshing than filling, and more difficult to brew, lagers fell right in step with the rapidly expanding, on-the-go American lifestyle that, thanks to the train and the invention of commercial refrigeration, could now travel from coast to coast in weeks instead of months. And with far less chance of dysentery. The Midwest, particularly St. Louis and Milwaukee, became a hotbed of the new beer styles, owing both to the climate (the lagering process requires cold temperatures, served well by Wisconsin winters and cool underground caves in St. Louis) and the geographic location right in the middle of the country and convenient both to the railroads and the Mississippi River. In a few short years, brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Lemp in St. Louis, and Pabst and Schlitz in Milwaukee, had grown to massive companies.

Small breweries managed to compete against the big boys up until Prohibition, the single dumbest act in American history. Outlawing alcohol in a nation composed of some of the finest elbow-bending stock from all over the world made about as much sense as putting Paula Deen in charge of the FDA. The move destroyed small breweries, which wouldn’t begin to recover until the 1980s. By this time, the homogenization of American culture had drastically lowered expectations when it came to beer. Most people chose their brew by either brand loyalty or price, since there was little appreciable difference between most of them. My Dad was a fan of Old Milwaukee, which even now does win prizes for being the best tasting American lager (though, in fairness, that’s like winning an award for being the most intelligent reality TV star).

Now, quality beers are being brewed in Roanoke again, with Big Daddy’s and Roanoke Railhouse. World-class microbreweries are now operating within a short drive from the Star. Just north of here, Devil’s Backbone is winning gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Wild Wolf, Blue Mountain, Starr Hill, and Blue Lab are all doing good work. There has never been a better time to be a beer fan in my corner of the Commonwealth.

Unlike most Southerners on the East Coast, I don’t think of vacation in terms of beaches or amusement parks. I like to travel off the beaten path a bit, preferring non-traditional vacation spots. Taking a jaunt to Asheville, at the height of the Autumn foliage, and catching a football game at my alma mater Mars Hill College, seemed to be a perfect getaway. It didn’t hurt that Asheville has become a happening little town since I was there last in the mid-eighties, and one of the hottest craft beer destinations in the South, rivaled by my own local “Brew Ridge Trail.”

The Great American Beer Festival. Photo copyright Brewers Association, courtesy of The Great American Beer Festival.

My plan was to visit my old college for the first time since the eighties, then sample as many beers as I could in three days and two nights. I had allowed for four ounce samples, spaced out over enough time that I would keep my blood alcohol content under the legal limit. Under normal circumstances, my BAC is around .03% even if I haven’t had anything but a cup of coffee and a piece of dry toast. A quarter-century of beer appreciation has taken its toll.

A few words about tasting beers: As much as I love sampling a variety of beers, it is not always the best way to experience a brew. Some beers benefit from a particular combination of circumstances. Budweiser, for instance, may seem like watery mass-produced near beer, but it is absolutely ideal for a languid summer afternoon at the ballpark. Tsingtao, a Chinese beer, is not my favorite for sipping, but it is just the thing to go with a nice plate of Singapore mei fun. From my own journey, I sampled the highly-recommended Gaelic Ale at Highland Brewing, only to come away disappointed. Like so many of the beers I tried, it was good, but otherwise unremarkable. Later, I tried it again with a stromboli at a little local pizza joint, and it was an entirely different experience.

I started my vacation close to home, at the nationally-recognized Devil’s Backbone Brewery Outpost in Lexington. As fond as I am of their Vienna Lager, which took the Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival, I have to say that the biggest surprise was their Old Virginia Dark Lager. I am a fan of dark lagers, such as German schwarzbiers, and discovered a new favorite. I’m eagerly awaiting a taste of their just-released Kilt Flasher Scottish ale, which was not available a few weeks ago when I was there.

I arrived in Asheville and found the town very different than it was when I first saw it in 1985, as a 17 year-old college freshman. Mars Hill College, in 1985, was a tiny Baptist college in a dry county. College social life on campus rarely rose above a PG rating, so any real fun that was to be had required a short trip to the south. Back then, it was an Old Money town best known as the home of Biltmore House. In the interim, it has grown young and hip, but without the cloying sense of hipster transience. Asheville today seems like an old vine that has grafted on a new shoot and kept growing.

Asheville Brewing Company during Jeff’s Beercation. Photo by Jeff Fitzgerald.

Without a doubt, the best flight of beers I sampled the entire trip was at Asheville Brewing Company. With a kitschy location on Merrimon Ave, and equally well-known in the area for serving pizza and showing second-run movies cheap, it would be easy to underestimate them. But all five of the beers I tried were outstanding in their own way. The star of the flight was their Fire Escape jalapeño ale, a real treat for those who appreciate good beer and a liberal amount of heat. Not just a beer with jalapeño added as an afterthought, this ale was built from the ground up. Fun to drink, and I bet would be even more fun with a sombrero-sized plate of Mexican food. I believe it is currently only available at the brewery, but they are looking into bottling it.

Also worth mentioning from Asheville Brewing was their Rocket Girl lager. Fair or not, I tend to judge the skill of a microbrewery by their lagers. Ales are easy, lagers are hard. That said, their Apple Bottom brown ale was also lovely. Unfortunately, it is also brewed in limited supply and not available anywhere except at the brewery.

(Disclaimer: While my beertenderess happened to be an exceptionally attractive redhead, the type for which I have been known to buy jewelry, that added no weight to my opinion of the fine products of the Asheville Brewing Company)

Highland Brewing, the progenitors of the craft beer movement in Asheville, has a lovely tasting room at the brewery located away from downtown. Housed in the same building as a craft distiller making “legal” moonshine that I had to fight the urge to sample, because my liver already felt like a Kenyan runner legging the Boston Marathon while wearing ski boots. Owing to its convenient location, though, I did visit Highland twice. The first time for a flight, and the second time for a pint of their surprising Thunderstruck Coffee Porter. It’s like a good beer and a nice cup of coffee at the same time, which would make for an interesting breakfast.

Thunderstruck Coffee Porter. Photo by Jeff Fitzgerald.

To be quite honest, I don’t think I gave French Broad Brewing a fair shot. I had been looking forward to their Wee Heavy-er Scottish Ale, but when I arrived, the small tasting room was crowded and noisy. I don’t like crowds and I don’t like noise, so I was already in the wrong mood. The five-beer flight was pleasant enough, but unremarkable. The Scottish ale didn’t stand out, but I believe that may have had more to do with my mood at the moment and the aforementioned fact that some beers just go better with food. I’ll have to make another trip down and give French Broad a fair shot.

I had every good intention of visiting several other notable Asheville microbreweries, but I had the (mis)fortune of timing my visit to coincide with Moog Fest, the multi-venue electronic music festival. I planned my vacation to include a football game between my de facto alma mater, Mars Hill College, and Tusculum College. I booked my hotel room in August, intent only on seeing my Mountain Lions on the gridiron and drinking beer. I was fortunate, in that I had secured lodging when not a single hotel room remained available in western North Carolina. But the festival had so consumed Asheville that I was unable to negotiate downtown and missed Craggie, OysterHouse, Green Man, and Lexington Avenue breweries.

Having loved beer for more than half my life, I’m of two minds about the current craft beer movement. On one side, there is the fact that there are more quality microbrews available now than at any other point in my lifetime. But there are also a lot of unremarkable, indistinguishable beers being tapped just for the sake of capitalizing on the trend. How many IPAs, loaded with hops and little else, are there crowding the shelves now? How many mildly pleasant but otherwise anonymous brown ales flow from countless taps across this great land? It is, at worst, an embarrassment of riches. A pint of nondescript but freshly brewed brown ale is still worth a case of Beast.

Perhaps the most telling sign of how far the craft beer movement has come came when I visited the Ingles supermarket in Mars Hill. In 1985, it was hardly a supermarket, more of a glorified convenience store. And Madison County was dry, no alcohol could be legally sold within its borders; an increasingly antiquated concept in itself. In 2012, the Mars Hill Ingles rivals my own Incredo-Kroger in its breadth. And its beer selection, which in my day was unheard of in itself, was the equal of any I’ve seen. Their microbrew section was as large as most grocery stores’ whole beer section, and expertly selected to include a staggering breadth and depth of brewers and styles. The thought that it might now be the one who shows up to the party with a sixer of Natty Light who is the odd man out seems ironic to me, but in a good way.

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