On one side of the bar, primitive tools and shield-like menu boards evoke a medieval times vibe opposite framed pictures of Tom Selleck and Sloth from The Goonies — who are also painted in a mural on a full side of the building exterior. The sun has just set and though it’s our third brewery stop, Burial Beer Co. is the first to become crowded and chaotic.
The bartender sets my tasting flight of four in front of me, details the brews, then adds a fifth glass — “and that is the saison you forgot,” he asserts before getting back to the demanding crowd.
I light up and look back at my newfound friends, Brewgrass festivalgoers whom I’ve just told that everyone offers up extra tastes when I’m indecisive here, and I didn’t even know he’d taken my flight card.
A cook at Rhubarb offered a sample of the gnudi last night when I opted for duck confit after an extended ordering dilemma; a woman next to me at Chai Pani let me try her fried okra after I didn’t believe my server’s recommendation (they were right); and the veteran beer travelers and I have been sharing tastes from Hi-Wire Brewing to Twin Leaf to here at Burial.
It’s no secret that Asheville is the place for beer lovers in the southeast, but those who have visited will tell you the scene is travel-worthy for anyone in America with 20 breweries and counting – the second most per capita behind Bend, Ore.
“It’s like the Napa Valley of beer,” says Adam Charnack, owner and operator of Hi-Wire Brewing. “People look to Asheville as this cultural bright spot in the area, and there’s a lot of really talented people doing cool things. We’re a really artistic community, and I think food and beer fit that, and culturally beer’s a big part of that.”
What sets this beer town apart is that it’s as much, if not more, of a dining destination. Asheville is as innovative and diverse as it is warm and welcoming – it feels like home yet tastes like traveling. In one day I have pizza with local shrimp at All Souls, Brussel sprouts battered in local beer at Village Social, raw local trout at Curate and a sour ale aged with local coffee at the Funkatorium. On another I try Indian chaat (street food) at Chai Pani, Korean dumplings at Gan Shan Station, American sake at Ben’s Tune-Up (a beer garden made entirely of recycled materials), and coconut brown ale in a medieval brewery after a brewery with ping pong tables and foosball inside.
“If you go to the Northeast, the biggest cultural centers are the biggest cities like New York and Boston, if you go to the Pacific Northwest it’s the same kind of thing,” says Charnack. “In the Southeast, cities like Asheville and Charleston can really shine. We have really unique offerings for the region we’re in.”
Here, as much thought goes into the barbecue, doughnuts and tacos as the farm-to-table fare, Spanish tapas and steakhouses. It’s still a capital of the south with its own biscuit chain, perfectly good vegetables deep fried as menu sides, and an old-school soda fountain preserved inside a former Woolworth’s department store (now home to an art gallery), but international specialties have taken ground.
“They have Himalayan and Mediterranean and French and Indian and southern — it’s so eclectic for a town this size,” says Tommy Davis, a frequent visitor from Ringgold, Ga. “Normally you have to go somewhere like New York, Atlanta or Chicago to get the variety of restaurants here.”
Of course, Americana abounds, even in modern manifestations. The city channels Portland, Ore. at Trade and Lore, a coffee shop where hipsters can pay extra for the effort of a manual brew and stay for spoken word on a stage above the dining area; Brooklyn with kombucha on tap all around town; and Austin, Texas with its trademark barbecue spot gracing national headlines and drawing lines.
“It’s really wonderful to be in a place where nobody’s resting on their laurels,” says Katie Button, chef of Curate and The Nightbell, and a cookbook author as of this month. “There are so many people doing so many interesting things here in a community that supports really unique, independent businesses.”
Only here, Poppy Handcrafted Popcorn offers tasting flights of six of its rotating flavors (like vanilla berry); One World Brewing includes home brewer recipes on the rotating taps in its nano-brewery beneath Farm Burger downtown; the city’s first hard cider company, Noble, is on almost every beverage menu I perused.
The destination remains distinct with Appalachian beauty and bites alike, down to earth locals supporting more than 17 farmers markets, and artwork everywhere you turn. It doesn’t hurt that patios are aplenty for hungry leaf peepers either.
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