Tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains where two rivers come together in western North Carolina, Asheville might well be the most beautiful beer city on this list. As vibrant as its tourism is and as desirable a place to live, Asheville could have remained a beer backwater had it not been for Pop The Cap, a non-profit lobbying group. Pop The Cap took on and helped repeal an old North Carolina law setting a limit of 6 percent on the alcohol content of beer. You can chart the rise of Asheville’s beer community with the beginning of Pop The Cap’s effort five years ago.
There are five breweries in a city of 75,000: Highland Brewing Co. was the first, opening in 1994.; French Broad Brewing Co.; Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co.; Green Man Ales/ Jack of the Wood Brewpub and Pisgah Brewing Co. in nearby Black Mountain. Before the end of the year, Wedge Brewing Co. and Lexington Avenue Brewery Co. will join them.
So vibrant is the taproom culture of Asheville—with Barley’s and its 70 taps, the Mellow Mushroom’s 45 taps and all the Belgians at the Thirsty Monk—that it has exploded into suburban West Asheville.
Among the signatures of the beer world in Asheville is the annual Brewgrass Festival in late September, put on by the Great Smokies Craft Brewers, among them the Asheville brewers.
The beer community has coalesced around Bruisin’ Ales, a store opened in December 2006 by Jason and Julie Atallah. The Atallahs call themselves “beerlanthropists,” selling 700 different kinds of beer and everything that goes with beer and only beer.
“A great beer city has everything to do with the people,” Julie says. “People here are very educated about their beer. They know exactly what they like and don’t like.”
No city in the last 10 years has benefited more from a change in beer laws than Atlanta. In the mid-1990s, the city had Georgia’s first microbrewery, Atlanta Brewing Co., and a few chains, like John Harvard’s. The beer was strictly average. Today, SweetWater, which opened just four years after Atlanta Brewing, is literally tearing the roof off of its brewery to grow to a capacity of 45,000 barrels of beer a year. Atlanta Brewing is still chugging along at under 5,000 barrels.
“When the alcohol law changed seven years ago, Atlanta just took off,” beer writer Owen Ogletree says. “Along with Decatur, Atlanta has become the most amazing place in the state—in the whole Southeast, for that matter.”
Everything you want to know about the Atlanta and Decatur nexus can be found on Ogletree’s classiccitybrew.com website, which he runs, oddly enough, from Athens, the home of the University of Georgia 45 minutes away. It can be said that Ogletree’s annual Classic City Brewfest in Athens is Atlanta and Decatur’s biggest showcase. Athens has its own growing beer culture, but Atlanta and Decatur are where it’s at, Ogletree says.
What Atlanta and Decatur are creating on the fly is a beer culture that takes risks. The beers being brewed at Twain’s in Decatur are every bit as challenging as any brewed in the country. The Brickstore Pub in Decatur, the Five Seasons, Six Feet Under and the Clairmont Inn in Atlanta have the funky kind of feel that says you are in a real beer place.
The surest way to show how Atlanta has arrived as a beer city is to visit a Taco Mac, a modest family restaurant that grew into a most unlikely chain of 20 places. The original restaurant has 24 taps and 150 different kinds of bottled beer. Most of the Taco Macs, however, have 100 taps and hundreds of different kinds of bottled beers. Good beer has taken root in one of Atlanta’s most beloved institutions.
“To compare Atlanta to a great beer city like Chicago or Portland is unfair,” says Fred Crudder, the beverage director for the Tappan Street Restaurant Group, which includes the Taco Mac chain. “We have had only a few years to attract choice American craft brewers and European specialties. But the excitement about beer here is tangible. Atlanta is like a big sponge for new beers.”