The not-so-small town of Asheville, North Carolina has the most microbreweries per capita of any U.S. city. With 26 breweries to choose from, the competition is fierce. It's not enough just to make great beer. That’s why food has become been an integral part of the craft beer world, and Asheville breweries are leading the way.
“The concentration of food and beverage ‘nerds’ in Asheville creates an ideal environment for innovation and experimentation,” executive chef at Wicked Weed Brewing John Rice says. “There's a healthy level of competition between brewers and chefs in town, and we are all working to create something new and awesome, both in the glass and on the plate.”
White Labs Kitchen & Tap
Already one of the best-known yeast banks in the country, White Labs launched a fermentation-centric pizza kitchen inside their tasting room last October. Their wood-fired pizzas are made with proprietary liquid yeast, fermented for 72 hours and topped with ingredients such as housemade mozzarella, local mushrooms and house-cured Coppa ham. Dig in at one of the communal tables or long bar, which is illuminated by Erlenmeyer flask light fixtures.
“We're pushing the boundaries of fermentation and combining the culinary art with our science background to really showcase the connections between both the ingredients and processes that go into making the beer and food we serve,” founder and CEO Chris White says. “The cultures used in our bread fermentations are the same cultures that we are using to brew beers that might be featured on our tap list.”
Of course, there is beer here, most of which is made with White Labs endless arsenal of yeast. Like White Labs' other tasting rooms, which are scattered around the globe, White Labs Kitchen & Tap lets guest sample base beers fermented with different yeast strains side-by-side, such as two Czech pilsners made with different lager strains or a duo of grisettes brewed with varying saison strains. I kept it simple with the popular pairing of Taberer IPA with margherita pizza—the hoppy bitterness makes the San Marzano tomatoes taste sweeter.
Wicked Weed Brewing
“We believe beer, specifically our sour beer portfolio, pairs as well or better with food than any wine or spirit out there,” Wicked Weed Brewing’s co-founder Walt Dickinson says. Bold words, but I have to concur after alternating sips of lime-basil gazpacho and Uncle Rico’s Mexican Lager, made with the same lime-basil from Rayburn Farms. With the next course, citrusy hops in the Astronomical IPA cuts through the fat of pesto grilled salmon with Israeli couscous while contrasting the richness of the almond-based romesco.
It’s all happening in Wicked Weed’s decidedly rustic taproom, which is conveniently located within walking distance of White Labs. Outside, reclaimed barrels have been transformed to table bases, while inside it’s a story of exposed brick and wooden rafters, with the restaurant upstairs and a beer bar downstairs. The latter displays 25 of Wicked Weed’s beers—from Pineapple Sage-On to a nitro porter—on a chalkboard menu.
“The food we serve at Wicked Weed Brewing lends itself to the adventurous, unique, flavor-forward, and unbashful nature of our brand,” Rice says. The aforementioned patio is always busy, which makes sense when you consider that their tart ales are best enjoyed al fresco on a sunny summer day. The newer South Slope Funkatorium is the East Coast’s first sour- and funky-beer-dedicated taproom, with a full-service restaurant known for Sunday brunches.
Hi-Wire Brewing’s Big Top
There’s no kitchen at Hi-Wire Brewing’s 27,000-square-foot production facility and taproom, but the custom-designed silver food truck parked permanently outside, courtesy of Foothills Local Meats is just as good. The partnership offered Foothills a chance to expand its food-service branch, while honoring their butcher shop traditions and, since debuting in 2015, it's become as big of a draw as Hi-Wire's approachable lagers and ales.
Foothills uses ethical and sustainable pasture-raised meat to make burgers, hot dogs and deli meats. They incorporate Hi-Wire's beer in several dishes too, from poaching bratwurst in beer to making beer cheese for mac and cheese. It’s simple, craveable food but done at a level that food geeks can get excited about. Beer geeks have a home at Hi-Wire, too. The industrial brewery, which is covered in posters for side show acts and vintage carnival signs, also has a soft spot for sours. Similar to Wicked Weed, Hi-Wire recently dedicated its original South Slope location to experimental brews, such as barrel-aged sours and wild ales.
Nobody embodies the synergy between food and beer better than Bhramari Brewing. Head brewer Gary Sernack has 15 years of experience as a chef, and his partner and executive chef Josh Dillard was a homebrewer. Originally dubbed, “Hive Mind,” the ethos of Bhramari is rooted in collaboration and community. That’s why the menu at Bhramari changes daily, so don’t get too attached to any particular dish. Dillard works closely with local farmers, many of whom use their spent grains to feed animals and as compost, to develop the ever-changing menu.
“We approach it like a high-end restaurant,” Sernack says “We use the best ingredients and a lot of the beer is inspired by food and vice versa.” For example, burgers are made with spent grain fed beef and smothered with smoked black truffle cheese and stout wort glaze while a light arugula salad is topped with beer poached apples and hopped poppy crackers for crunch. Beer also relies on local ingredients whenever possible. The flagship Painted Fortune is a Carolina Common brewed with North Carolina-grown and malted grains as well as heirloom corn. This beer is barrel-aged with foraged honeysuckle to create Twining Bine, which pairs well with the six-layer cake baked by Dillard's fiancée and Bhramari's front of house manager Asha Kali Hertel, also of Kali Cakes.
One of Asheville's best new restaurants, Vivian, started as a culinary busker pop-up at Burial Brewing. These days, the brewery is continuing its stewardship of the local food community by turning to James Beard Award-nominated Chef Brian Canipelli of Cucina 24 to design the menu. The small menu at this rustic taproom changes weekly, and although the stools aren’t the most comfortable, it’s worth grabbing a seat to try the duck confit with house pickled vegetables and grilled peach and shishito pepper kebabs, paired with one of Bruial’s creative brews. They are known for regularly releasing IPAs alongside the accasion donut stout and baklava brown ale.
Canipelli will also lead the new in-house food program at Forestry Camp, a new tasting room opening this fall in the Asheville headquarters of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corp. While Asheville's beer scene may be crowded, the tight-knit, beer-loving community knows there’s always room for more.