Where to Find Craft Beer in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Knoxville
Not terribly long ago, we explored the idea of confronting Jack Frost mano a mano and actually heading north in our wintry beer travels. Bold, but there’s a more comfortable way to soak up beer culture that puts hop bite ahead of frostbite. And with craft beer culture permeating every corner of the country, consider visiting existing and emerging hot spots in the American South.
It took the South a bit longer to appear on the beer map, considering, historically, it was more difficult to brew quality beer below the Mason-Dixon line (hotter temperatures spoiled the beer. Plus, no hops). But modern technology and passion know no bounds. So forget about talk of secession—the South is rising and even Yankees ought to pack a few growlers and shorts and prepare to eat more biscuits and gravy with breakfast than some folks might ordinarily get all year.
When RateBeer.com users vote two beer bars in Atlanta among the top in the U.S. (OK, one’s in Decatur, but they’re less than four miles apart), it’s clear The Big Peach plays a dominant role. No wonder the brewery population has reached double digits.
Brewerywise, it starts with Red Brick Brewing (2323 Defoor Hills Road). Georgia’s first craft brewery, founded as the Atlanta Brewing Co., counts Hoplanta IPA and Red Brick Brown among its core beers. It created the Brick Mason series for bigger beers, including a Double IPA and Vanilla Gorilla that sees a smoked porter receive smoked vanilla beans before aging in whiskey barrels. Red Brick’s 17th Anniversary Ale is an imperial version of its brown ale, then aged in Jim Beam barrels.
SweetWater Brewing Co. (195 Ottley Drive NE) in the Buckhead neighborhood, was founded in 1996 and has grown into one of the country’s largest on the strength of its flagship 420 Extra Pale Ale. Its growing barrel program keeps it at the forefront of intriguing new beers. Visit the brewery for a tour Wednesday through Saturday, but really, just skip the tour and spend your time kicking it at the tasting room, where a ten spot gets six 5.5-ounce beers.
Atlantans have thrown their arms around 5 Seasons, now with three locations stretching from 5 Seasons-Midtown (1000 Marietta St.) to the original in Sandy Springs tucked inside The Prado shopping center (5600 Roswell Road) and 5 Seasons-North in the suburb of Alpharetta (3655 Old Milton Parkway). Two talented brewmasters helm the brew houses, both esteemed for the brews. On the pub side, the fare leans more toward gastro than grub. There’s no going wrong with the Organic Brisket Reuben with amazing hand-cut sweet potato fries (with cocoa chili). The entrees are always elegant, and, this being Atlanta, definitely go for the Coca-Cola Cured Duck Breast. (Do this preferably after visiting the World of Coca-Cola, aka the Coke Museum, at 121 Baker St. NW; worldofcoca-cola.com).
As if brewpubs aren’t fun enough on their own, Twain’s (211 E. Trinity Place in Decatur) is both a billiard hall and brewpub. Well, it started tapping only other people’s beers, but in ’06 the pub wisely started to brew its own. The Tropicalia Project is its series of single-hopped IPAs. The food menu is beered up, too, in small but fun ways like making spent-grain bread and offering IPA-brined pickles. With pool tables as well as shuffleboard and arcade games, hope you weren’t in a rush to go somewhere else.
The beer joint often seen as synonymous with Atlanta is the Brick Store Pub (125 E. Court Square in Decatur). On the main floor, it feels like you’re in a British pub, down to the horseshoe bar and British classics such as shepherd’s pie on the menu. The draft list is far-reaching, but you’ll certainly find a few taps dedicated to in-state brews from SweetWater and perhaps something from Athens’ Terrapin. Upstairs, the beer culture changes to little Belgium in the Belgian Room. Here, you can get your geek on with a bottle list that’s even longer than the one printed for downstairs, and—it goes without saying—pricier, too. But hey, Cantillon is worth the cost, and it’s on the list.
Newer on the Decatur scene but from the same Gallagher brothers who brought us The Pub is Leon’s Full Service (131 E. Ponce de Leon Ave.), its name taken from its former use as an actual filling station. Here, beer shares the spotlight with its cocktail brethren, and the munchies menu has gone more upscale, including Georgia shrimp and clams in a white wine broth. But fans of finger foods will love the frites served with a staggering array of dipping options (the curry ketchup and smoked tomato mayo are my faves) and the most talked about is the glassful of bacon strips with a side of peanut butter for dipping.
The Porter (1156 Euclid Ave.) in Little 5 Points is the other beer mecca in town. With over 800 beers to be enjoyed (including 40 on draft), how could it not be? Order a glass of the L5 Project Imperial Porter from Wrecking Bar, one of Atlanta’s other fine new breweries, or a bottle of Hard Time Barleywine from one of Georgia’s newest and most exciting micros. Happily, since you’ll be doing some serious drinking here, you get to do serious eating, too. The half-pound burger is a meal to behold, and if the Wrecking Bar is your first stop of the day, at least on weekends, the brunch options are mouthwatering. The toughest decision you make may be whether to go sweet with pancakes topped with bananas flambé and toasted pecans, or savory with a “Biscuit’wich” holding scrambled eggs, cheese and choice of breakfast meat (including soysage for those who don’t do meat).
Since I forgot to mention that Leon’s offers a bocce court, now’s a good time to do so, seeing as Ormsby’s (1170 Howell Mill Road) in Westside sports bocce action, too. It even hosts (Atlanta Bocce) league play. The smartly curated draft options are apt to include some of the other Atlanta-area breweries such as Monday Night Brewing, which morphed from three guys who met in a Bible studies group and learned how to homebrew together into a company that, after a year in operation, is expanding into a 30-barrel brewery that’ll see the addition of a tap room and, duh, bocce courts.
Last but nowhere near least is Taco Mac, the chain of family-friendly sports bars that kick-started beer education in Atlanta—now with 22 locations—and expanding throughout the South. By getting patrons to enroll in the chain’s Brewniversity program and continue trying new beers (not hard when the bars have over 140 taps), Taco Mac deserves the credit for expanding people’s craft-beer perceptions and palates.
In fact, once you have more than a few beers punched on your member card, you can gain access to The Fred (5600 Roswell Road), hidden away in the basement of the Taco Mac-Prado location. Taco Mac beverage director Fred Crudder says he has the best job in the world. This is his tangible proof: Order up a Mac ’n’ Cheese Kobe Burger, pair it with something off Fred’s Secret Stash list you thought you’d never get to try, and sink into a night of rarefied beer culture.
It’s no secret that Asheville is king of the Carolinas when it comes to craft beer culture. It’s home to a dozen breweries and counting. Happily, the other pockets in Cackalacky are catching up, and Charlotte, a little over a hundred miles east, is staking its claim as an emerging beer town. That might sound strange considering it’s the Tar Heel State’s largest city and home to a handful of Fortune 500 companies, not to mention the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but locally brewed beers are a relatively new deal here.
North Carolina beer featured prominently in national media outlets when Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention, including Raleigh-based Lonerider Brewing crafting the “official beer” of the CNN Grill. Once the market was tapped, it just keeps flowing and growing. Guiding us through Charlotte’s scene is Win Bassett, executive director of the North Carolina Brewers Guild (and former All About Beer staffer).
If at all possible during a beercation, stay active. In Charlotte, that means heading to the U.S. National Whitewater Center (5000 Whitewater Center Parkway) with a man-made recirculating river with Class II-IV rapids. Fun for couples, just the guys, or the whole family. The impossibly good deal of the AllSport Pass includes all of the following: whitewater rafting, whitewater or flatwater kayaking, “War Canoes,” stand-up paddle boarding, a mega zipline, 46-foot mega freefall, rock climbing, adventure/ropes course, mountain biking and more. The center also organizes Microbrews Cruises, wherein participants paddle down the Catawba River before arriving to a campfire dinner hosted by rotating breweries from far and near.
Win points out that the story of Charlotte craft beer starts with the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery (215 Southside Drive) in the South End district. OMB started brewing its authentic Bavarian lagers in 2009, always adhering to the Reinheitsgebot—the German Beer Purity Law—so you won’t find outrageously flavored beers, but you will discover a killer altbier in its OMB Copper. Soak up the suds in the traditional bierhall or soak up some rays out in the biergarten. Visit on weekends for free tours at 2, 3 and 4 p.m.
A year later, Four Friends Brewing (10913 C Office Park Drive) opened its doors with easy-drinking beers such as Queen City Red, taking its name from CLT’s nickname, even if several other American cities also call themselves Queen City.
Then in 2011, also in South End, came Triple C Brewing (2900 Griffith St.). The beautiful wood-rich taproom has a picture window revealing the gleaming brewhouse where three levels of beers are born. Dip your toes into the water with a single-C beer such as Golden Boy. Ain’t nothing intimidating about a 4.5 percent beer that’s a golden treasure of refreshment. Among the CC Series is the quintessential Greenway IPA (6.5%, 65 IBUs) as well as an intriguing Smoked Amber that “people flock to,” according to Bassett, which is accentuated with German chocolate wheat malt. For the advanced connoisseur, the CCC Series is reserved for high-gravity or barrel-aged beers such as Baby Maker Imperial IPA and Up All Night Breakfast Porter.
From there, Bassett’s tour heads a few miles up to the hip North Davidson Arts District, better known as NoDa. So it stands to reason that by late 2011, NoDa Brewing Co. (2229 N. Davidson St.) arrived on the scene and, as Bassett says, has “made the most noise” thanks, in part, to its NoDable releases of one-offs each Tuesday.
NoDa’s affinity for incorporating rye shows in a few beers, most notably NoDaRyeZ’d (for pronunciation help, think of what a notary public does), a double RyePA, as well as other styles such as Rye Not (stout), Rye So Serious (Belgian dark strong) and Ramble On (red ale). Then again, its Coco Loco American Porter garnered a medal at last year’s Great American Beer Festival and the brewers play around with it, as is the case with their version made with rum-soaked vanilla beans.
Opening directly across the street from NoDa is Birdsong Brewing (2315 N. Davidson St.). Bassett says brewer Conor Robinson is a wee 24 years old, but is “pumping out great beers” indicative of a mature craft palate. Robinson added some heat to Birdsong’s standard Free Will Pale Ale to create Jalapeño Pale Ale. In addition to coriander as a traditional witbier ingredient, Robinson’s use of thyme makes Doin’ Thyme Wit a savory, food-friendly beer.
Increasing Charlotte’s brewery population to six will be brewing operations in the new Heist Brewpub (2909 N. Davidson St., Suite 200). Calling its menu “twisted American cuisine” from fire-cooked foods down to house-made sodas for kids and non-imbibers, this pub situated in the Heist Building will offer Charlatans, er, Charlotteans, another opportunity to drink local. In fact, if all goes according to plan, brewery No. 7 will open with the currently-in-planning Free Range Brewing.
When it comes to beer bars, while there are over two dozen affiliated with Charlotte Beer Week, Win’s top picks begin with Mac’s Speed Shop, a Carolinian institution with two locations in Charlotte (2511 South Blvd. in South End and 2414 Sandy Porter Road in Steele Creek). Here at this biker-themed bar, you’ll not only find great BBQ such as hickory smoked brisket, but also a whopping beer menu with beers from breweries across the state, such as Big Boss, Duck Rabbit and Highland.
As if to illustrate that it’s built on the strength of the beers, The Liberty (1812 South Blvd.) is bolstered by columns made of actual kegs. Draft offerings run the gamut from Old Meck right up the road to rare kegs from San Diego’s Ballast Point, to say nothing of its impressive bottle (and can) list. While the Charlotte Observer says the bar has best “new school” burger, it’d be perfectly easy to nosh on its array of munchies and small plates with the likes of house-made pretzels, BBQ pork rinds, and house-cured meats, as well as the beer drinker’s favorite, poutine.
While in NoDa, Bassett suggests Revolution Pizza (3228 N. Davidson St.) for its signature NoDa pie (topped with pulled pork, peppadew peppers and caramelized onions, and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Oh my!). He further suggests pairing it with either the NoDa Coco Loco (great with pork) or Birdsong’s Jalapeño Pale Ale (“to bring out the spiciness of the peppadew”).
While down in South End, visit Duckworth’s (4435 Park Road, as well as 14015 Conlan Circle in Ballantyne), where the draft list runs 60 beers long and you can order “beer blends” such as “Cream of Wheat” made with part hefeweizen, part stout. The food menu also features pizzas but continues onto Carolina BBQ, and a page full of Philly-style sandos.
Before returning home, fill up your shopping baskets and, in turn, your trunk or checked baggage, at Common Market (two locations: 2007 Commonwealth Ave. in Plaza Midwood, or 1515 S. Tryon St. in South End) where there are free craft beer tastings most Wednesdays at the Plaza Midwood location and Thursdays at new the South End one. Also new on the scene is Salud Beer Shop (3306 North Davidson St.), a cute bodega with hundreds of bottles (and six taps) to choose from.
Tennessee isn’t the brightest star on the American beer map, but Knoxville, a little over a hundred miles from Asheville (this time to the west), is turning up the fire ’neath the brew kettles. Set at the foot of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s best known as the college town home to UT’s Volunteers. It was also the site of a World’s Fair . A central structure of the fair, the Sunsphere—a five-story-tall gold globe—remains a beacon in town.
One primary draw to visit here, if not live here, is that the city includes about 1,000 acres of protected land centered on the Ijams Nature Center (2915 Island Home Ave.) on the Tennessee River. Head out for a day of hiking, mountain biking, birding, kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding on one of the waterways, and you have the great outdoors to yourself.
Coming out of the hills—or quarries—it’s time for drinkable rewards. The Smoky Mountain Brewery has four locations in Eastern Tennessee—all with a 15-barrel brew house on premises—including one in Knoxville’s Turkey Creek mall (11308 Parkside Drive). In operation since 1996, the brewpub puts forward its clean German-style lagers, such as Thunder Road Pilsner, but doesn’t hide its tasty British-style ales, such as Appalachian Pale Ale, quickly becoming its best seller. The food menu is heavy on pizzas, burgers, and other sandwiches, but if you want a place that specializes in barbecue, head next door to Calhoun’s (625 Turkey Cove Lane). Both Calhoun’s and the Smoky Mountain Brewery are part of the Copper Cellar family of restaurants, and all four Knoxville locations serve their beer.
In downtown along the main drag, Gay Street, home to burgeoning nightlife thanks to great bars and venues such as historic icons the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre, the Downtown Grill & Brewery (424 S. Gay St.) has kept locals quenched since 2006. Also referred to as the Woodruff Brewing Co. (it’s located in the Woodruff Building), the brewpub is huge. But even considering how packed it is any given night of the week, the pub manages to feel cozy. Its seven core beers have a nice range from the malty German Alt, to the balanced Woodruff IPA using entirely floral British hops. Things veer to the dark side starting with Downtown Brown, then dive deeper with the roasty New World Porter and lush, chocolaty State Street Stout made with creamy oats.
Visitors should not miss popping into The Crown & Goose (23 S. Central St.), a British gastropub also in the Old City. To eat, stick with the British classics like fish ’n’ chips, bangers and mash, or the excellent shepherd’s pie, topped with a pair of delectable lamb chops. Park it inside and enjoy live jazz (Wednesdays) while quaffing a proper pint. Two house cask ales are available: a stout and an IPA, both of which are pitch-perfect, brewed by Smoky Mountain Brewery. Or imbibe alfresco out in the beer garden with 18 taps for a great London-meets-Knoxville experience.
The newest brewery in town, Saw Works (708 E. Depot Ave.) is located in the Warehouse District in an actual defunct saw works building. Knoxville’s newest and only production brewery doesn’t go wildly experimental, as it’s core beers are a solid pale ale, a brown ale and an IPA. Then again, I tried brewmaster Dave Ohmer’s new Double Chocolate Porter and found it entirely satisfying without being too sweet or gooey. Also fun, Saw Works partners with Century Harvest Farms by providing its cattle with spent grain, and members can not only come into the brewery’s tap room, dubbed The Mill, for a $5 growler refill, but also pick up meat ordered directly from the ranchers. There’s even a “Beers and Steers” where members get a growler and burger for just 10 bucks.
There are a few craft-centric beer bars as well including Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern (409 S. Gay St.) specializing in, yes, high-gravity beers. You’re sure to find beers from the region including North Carolina and Georgia on draft. This chill spot provides enough seating at tables or the long bar to choose your drinking experience, and there’s also a small stage for some live tunes.
Head around the corner and you’re in the Market Square District, where you’ll find The Casual Pint (downtown at 421 Union Ave. and in Bearden, 234 Brookview Centre Way, Suite 107) with nearly two dozen taps proffering selections from around the South and beyond. The word casual is a fitting moniker: no stuffiness here. And if you somehow don’t see something on draft you’re craving, there’s a chiller for self-serve bottles tucked behind the shelves of bombers and six-packs for to-go purchases.
If out at the Bearden location on the west side of town, a stop at the Bearden Beer Market (4524 Old Kingston Pike) is compulsory. Part convenience store-style bottle shop, part beer garden replete with drinking-friendly games like cornhole, the Bearden Beer Market isn’t craft beer-centric, it’s pan-beer centric.
To recharge your battery, depleted either from a hard day’s paddling or a long day’s quaffing, hit the new Tupelo Honey Café (1 Market Square), a recent import from Asheville. It’s directly on Market Square, which is good for people-watching. Start with the fried green tomatoes on a bed of goat cheesy grits and/or the Appalachian egg rolls (filled with pulled pork and greens, naturally). Then, good luck deciding between the meatloaf, which includes bacon and comes topped with rosemary tomato shallot gravy (and a side of mac ’n’ cheese), Southern Fried Chicken Saltimbocca with Country Ham, or Brian’s Shrimp and Grits. Not only are there a couple of local beers on draft, but fun soft drinks like Cheerwine, a regional favorite from North Carolina.
New on the scene is The Plaid Apron Café (1210 Kenesaw Ave.) in the middle of the tony residential neighborhood Sequoyah Hills, popular with area joggers for its scenery. Jog in so you can order gluttonously from owner-chef Drew McDonald’s ever-changing menu—if it’s fresh he’ll cook it, bake it or throw it on the griddle. You know the McDonalds are onto something when, in a town rife with amazing biscuits (and gravy and/or Tupelo honey), these ones, proudly proclaiming Ritter Farms lard, are probably the finest.
As for where to stay for comfort and easy access to Knoxville’s hot spots, try the Oliver Hotel (407 Union Ave.) with the excellent Tupelo Honey Café tucked into the corner of the ground level. This boutique hotel, renovated from its 1876 glory, even comes with its own speakeasy, the Peter Kern Library, where, once inside the library walls, you can enjoy a local craft beer by the fireplace or have fun ordering cocktails named for American and British literary figures at the small bar. Don’t feel weird ordering the Lolita: She’s delicious.
Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey.
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