Asheville’s beer scene

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From the biggest to smaller breweries, the beer is always good.

Visiting Asheville to sample beer is a little like going to a grocery store to look for food. You’re going to have more choices than you can cover in a week or even a month. So you have to be selective in where you choose to go and plan ahead.

The Back Porch at Sierra Nevada is always an option for a beer, weather permitting.

Two things to know about Asheville and breweries: As of November, the city is still under an indoor mask mandate, which will come as a relief to some and an annoyance to others (put me in the relief category.) But most Asheville breweries, even pre-COVID, have lots of outdoor seating, and in good weather, even many indoor areas are open to fresh air.

Secondly, the brewery scene in Asheville isn’t like a typical bar scene, open every day until midnight or later. Someone in the industry explained that because most breweries are also production facilities, they seek to reduce liability for potential bad behavior by opening later and closing earlier. Makes sense.

And like most hospitality businesses, breweries are having trouble finding staff to stay open every day, so you’ll probably find that some will be closed a day or two each week.

That said, with a little planning, you can visit and enjoy Asheville breweries.

I had visited one of Asheville’s craft beer beer giants, Sierra Nevada, in 2015. But I had talked about it so much that my husband wanted to see the brewery for himself.

Like most breweries, Sierra Nevada in Mills River (outside of Asheville) isn’t open for tours yet, but the Taproom remains open for dining reservations, and if you show up without one, you can still enjoy a beer on the Back Porch area. Sunday afternoons, they offer live music.

The taproom is vast, and every other table is closed to ensure distancing. The food menu is diverse (even vegetarian selections) and a little different from your typical pub fare. So in addition to sandwiches and wings, you can choose from seasonal salads and soup. Pork belly and steak are also on the menu for those looking for a bigger meal.

Of course, you’ll want to start with a beer. Sierra Nevada is known for its vast selection of IPAs, but I chose a sour — Wild Little Thing, which was deep pink in color. My husband opted for the Celebration Fresh Hop IPA, which he described as a smoother IPA. I finished with a half pint of the Blonde Ale made with hops produced at NC State University’s nearby Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center. Unfortunately, we were a little late for the Oktoberfest.

After lunch of the Audition Greens (with roasted winter squash, dried figs, goat cheese and pistachios, with a vinaigrette) and the turkey reuben, with a side of roasted cauliflower and broccoli, we went to the Back Porch to enjoy the sunshine and beer.

It was a little warm outside for the firepits, but that didn’t stop guests from pulling up chairs while they drank their beer. And near the Back Porch, they have an impressive garden complete with herbs, seasonal vegetables (collards!) and flowers.

Because of staffing challenges, they didn’t have access to the French Broad River open, but overall, Sierra Nevada is trying to get back to normal operations, with the Taproom, gift shop and Back Porch areas open to guests, along with some live music. Maybe next time we visit, the tours will have resumed.

On the smaller brewery end of the spectrum, we met Kyle’s cousin Brent and his family at Hillman Beer in south Asheville, near Biltmore Village. Brent, who works in the brewing industry, recommended Hillman because of our preference for malted beers.

the bar, taps and beer list at Hillman Beer, with two staff in the background
Hillman Beer, near Biltmore Village, offers a nice selection of beers, especially on the dark side.

Hillman serves food and has a lot of outdoor seating in the form of wooden picnic tables. Some are covered, more for shade than for rain protection. Though the brewery is really close to the main road, there’s a fence for added protection for dogs and small children. Parking is a little bit tight, but there’s a pay lot across the street if you can’t find a space at Hillman.

The evening we visited, it was warm, and the door to the taproom was open as well, providing lots of breathing room to enjoy a beer. Food and beer can be ordered at the bar, and your food will be brought out to your table. 

I had a Mommabeer Brown and Kyle had something darker. The dark beers were really pretty and the food was also good — a reuben and a Cuban sandwich. 

We had our eye on visiting a few more breweries, but our schedules didn’t match up. Too bad Highland Brewing wasn’t releasing their Cold Mountain Spiced Winter Ale last week — we could have enjoyed a winter wonderland in the taproom. Maybe next year…

A Sanctuary by the sea

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Sanctuary Vineyards, just minutes from the Outer Banks, grows wine grapes that can’t be grown at the coast

John Wright, owner of Sanctuary Vineyards and Winery, is used to hearing the question, “How do you grow wine grapes out here?” 

“Out here” is Currituck County, just a few miles from where NC 12 crosses the sound and makes its way south past Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head and beyond. Typically, this hotter, humid environment is home to North Carolina’s native grapes: muscadines and scuppernongs. And while Sanctuary does make muscadine wine, those are not the grapes they grow.

  • Wright standing between two rows of grapes.
  • two feet in boots dig through the grass to reveal sand
  • hand holds a small bunch of green grapes out in the field

Wright and Sanctuary’s winemaker George Butler believe that the sandy soil of the 30 acres where Sanctuary estate grapes grow, along with the constant sea breezes blowing through the vines, help keep the grapes healthy. But Butler offers an additional explanation — Wright’s attention to detail in his vineyards.

As an economics major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wright learned the ins and outs of monetary policy and economic trends. But when he graduated to a bleak job market in 2001, he decided to return home to the family farm as a seventh generation farmer. Then he turned his attention to wine grapes.

Today, Sanctuary Vineyards grows European varietals like Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng, Tannat, Syrah, Tempranillo, Albarino, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Rousanne. Some grapes, including muscadines, are purchased from other North Carolina vineyards.

When we visited the winery in early September, Wright had harvested about two thirds of the grapes from his vines. And he noted that the heat and other climate factors have compressed his annual harvest: What once took six weeks to harvest is now completed in just three weeks today, as grapes ripen earlier. By the first of September, winery workers had already harvested 40,000 pounds of grapes.

Though the sandy soil of Currituck County may drain well, it isn’t great for yields. Wright says he harvests about a third of the grapes typically produced in the Yadkin Valley, about 5-6 hours west of Sanctuary. And the climate is hard on the vines, which may only last 10 years and are expensive to replace, Wright says.

When COVID shut down North Carolina businesses in March 2020, Sanctuary shipped wine to faithful customers and even delivered it to those living near the winery. When they reopened later in the spring of 2020, they focused on keeping guests and staff safe, with plenty of protective equipment, outdoor seating and wine tasting by flights in disposable cups.

Slowly, customers have made their way back into the tasting room, though tastings are still done through flights. Sanctuary is one of the few NC wineries that still offers a free tasting of three wines. Guests can upgrade to a $5 tasting or taste seven reserve wines for $10. 

Sanctuary relies on the wine sales at the tasting room and at four local Cotton Gin stores (owned by the family) for most of their income, so it was challenging when the businesses were closed, Wright says. The winery also partners with Kitty Hawk Kites in Duck to ferry about over by boat for tasting and tours.

Sanctuary Vineyards is just a short drive from the Outer Banks and just down the road from several other local destinations: Weeping Radish Brewery, Butchery and Pub (beer and house-made sausages), and Grandy Greenhouse and Farm Market (local produce and baked goods). A nice day trip to Sanctuary from the Outer Banks can include these and other nearby destinations.

Sanctuary Vineyards road sign -- local wines, tours, tastings. Live music Thursdays, 5:30-8:30. Crabdaddy tix online

Chatham Beverage District

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Spend a day in this unique setting tasting mead, beer, cider, coffee and spirits

guests stroll down the street between buildings in the Chatham Beverage District
Guests enjoy beverages at outdoor tables in the Beverage District.

When I was in graduate school in 2009, one of my classes took a field trip to Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro, where used cooking oil was converted to biodiesel. When I visited the Chatham Beverage District recently and saw the signs for Piedmont Biofuels, the memory came right back to me.

The once industrial complex that became the Beverage District is now home to mead, beer, cider, coffee and spirits, as well as a small farm that provides produce for a vegetarian restaurant. Lyle Estill, owner of Fair Game Beverage and Distillery, describes the transformation of the area as, “a happy accident.”

The complex and surrounding acreage started as a chrysanthemum farm in the 1950s. From 1986-96, it became the “Cold War relic” of an aluminum smelting plant, but that operation never quite took off. So the plant was abandoned until Estill and partners bought it in 2005 to produce biodiesel. 

In 2013, Fair Game moved into the space as the 13th distillery in North Carolina and the first to do barrel aging. Clientele footwear changed from “steel-toed boots to stilettos,” he said.

Estill became an owner of Fair Game Distillery in the 1990s and began to see a new purpose for the district. At the time, Becky and Ben Starr of Starrlight Mead were looking for a bigger home and began making plans to build in the district.

Today, Fair Game Beverage offers rotating taps of local beer and cider from the district’s Chatham Cider Works (which doesn’t yet have room for its own tasting area) and BMC Brewing Co., as well as other local beverage producers. Fair Game also sells its own spirits (with distillery tours on Saturdays) and a nice selection of estate wines from across North Carolina.

“The thing is booming,” Estill says. On any weekend afternoon, crowds fill the parking areas and wander to the meadery or into the beverage district. The space feels almost like a Spaghetti Western set, with buildings on two sides of an open space, where guests stroll by.

Part of the district’s charm is outdoor artwork, including a shiny pondscape with dragonflies and birds, as well as giant green frogs. Hearing loud noises at the end of the property? You’ll find people playing darts and throwing axes at a wooden wall.

Starrlight Mead opened its new tasting room and production facility in October 2018, after about four years of planning and building. The new facility doubled the size of both the production and tasting room space from their original location at Chatham Marketplace.

On Mead Day back in early August, crowds filled Starrlight Mead’s tasting room and porch to sample the honey wine that comes in a variety of flavors, from traditional off-dry mead to blackberry, as well as coffee, lavender, ginger and more. A holiday favorite is spiced apple, which can be served warm. 

“Business is increasing to levels even better than pre-pandemic,” Becky Starr says.

The Starrs started their meadery in 2010 after tasting mead at Renaissance fairs. The meadery purchases 7 tons of honey each year (roughly 400 hives’ worth) to make their mead. Three hives onsite help visitors understand that bees are the equivalent of grape vines for mead production.

At Starrlight Mead, you can experience a guided mead tasting at the tasting room bar or enjoy six meads in a flight on your own. Once you’ve decided which ones you like, buy a bottle to enjoy in the rockers on the covered porch.

Hungry? Copeland Springs Kitchen offers vegetarian bowls and small plates with seasonal faire like squash pie, zucchini and corn fritters, and sweet and spicy cucumber salad. Their food is available to take out to any of the beverage businesses in the district. 

Around the perimeter of the Beverage District are fields where Copeland Springs Farm raises produce. A walking trail around the property goes by the farming areas.

On Sept. 25, Starrlight will hold its annual Meadfest, a mini-Renaissance Faire. The free, family-friendly event will be mostly outdoors.

  • shining art piece with images of frogs, butterflies and cattails (outside)
  • two large green metal frogs, playing a guitar and drums

Fair Game Beverage Co.
220 Lorax Lane
Pittsboro, NC
919.548.6884

Starrlight Mead
130 Lorax Lane
Pittsboro, NC
919.533.6314

Spotlight on North Carolina Grapes: Chambourcin

I had never heard of Chambourcin until I began visiting North Carolina wineries, and I was hooked pretty quickly. No matter what other dry reds the winery was serving, as soon as I tasted the Chambourcin, I knew what I was taking home.

Chambourcin is a French-American hybrid, bred for resistance to diseases and pests that plague the European Vitas vinifera grapes. It is grown primarily in the United States, from the midwest to the east coast and as far south as North Carolina. Growers seem to love it for its heartiness, robust fruit yields and its compatibility as a blend.

In honor of NC Grape Month, wine influencers in the Triangle area chose our favorite grapes to showcase. Watch for posts on social media, and links to all the grape posts here.

I talked with owners at two North Carolina wineries — one in the Piedmont and one in the Yadkin Valley — about their experiences with and impressions of Chambourcin, and here’s what they said.

Hidden Vineyard

Located in the Yadkin Valley and Surry County Wine Trail, Hidden Vineyard was purchased in 2017 by owners Tim and Lisa Sherman, their son Josh and his wife, Claudia Longenette. The vineyard had 0.3 acres of Chambourcin grapes that were 3 years old at the time.

And thank goIodness there wasn’t a full acre of Chambourcin, Tim says. The vineyard’s small plot of Chambourcin produces 2 tons of grapes each year that go into Claus, one of Hidden Vineyard’s signature wines.

The Chambourcin produces big clusters of grapes, weighing as much as a half a pound per cluster. At Hidden Vineyard, the Chambourcin grapes are ready for harvest from mid-September to early October.

As a hybrid, it’s the only grape variety at Hidden Vineyard that is not grafted onto resistant rootstocks and brings its own disease resistance. Here, the Chambourcin vines are the first to be pruned at the vineyard each winter, to create space during growing season for the larger grape clusters. 

While many red wine grapes actually produce a clear juice, Chambourcin juice is red. Hidden Vineyard partners with Windsor Run Cellars to produce their red wines through custom crush and work closely with the winemaker to produce the wines they want. Claus, the signature Chambourcin, is aged 16 months in French oak.

Tim, who was a one-time home winemaker, said he was familiar with Chambourcin before becoming a vineyard and winery owner, although he had never made wine with it. Longenette said she fell in love with Chambourcin when she first tried it in the Yadkin Valley. Visitors to the HV tasting room love it too.

“When we found our little spot in heaven — our vineyard — I was so glad we had Chambourcin vines,” she said. When the family went through the process of naming their wines, Longenette chose the name Claus for the Chambourcin because, in Spanish, it’s short for “Claudia.” 

Iron Gate Vineyards and Winery

Debbie Stikeleather, owner and winemaker at Iron Gate Vineyards and Winery near Mebane in the Haw River AVA, says that Chambourcin is her favorite grape to grow. “Where I’m located is a tough area. The Chambourcin was always a wonderful producer — it takes two hands to hold one cluster of grapes.”

Growing any type of grape in the Piedmont is challenging compared with growing grapes in the cooler elevations, with greater disease and pest problems. Stikeleather said the Chambourcin tolerates the heat and humidity of the Piedmont summer. “It didn’t fall apart like the vinifera grapes did,” she said.

While her Merlot or Cabernet vines produced about 3 tons to the acre, the Chambourcin could produce 4, 5, 6 tons to the acre. The grapes in the Piedmont are usually ripe in late August or early September, she said.

Different climates seem to produce different versions of Chambourcin wine, she said. “I’ve had some folks come down from the north who say the Chambourcin tastes different in our warmer climate.”

Stikeleather now buys grapes from other growers to produce Iron Gate wines. But she remembers rubbing the skin of the Chambourcin grapes to uncover the red juice that signaled they were ripe for wine making. She also liked to bring in a cluster of the grapes to let guests see and taste them while sampling wine.

In addition to bottling Chambourcin wine, Stikeleather blends the grapes to create her Rustic Blooming (half Chambourcin and half Niagara) and Sweet ‘n Sassy Cherry. The blends are among the wines that are sold in grocery stores in the Alamance/Orange county area.

More NC Grape Month stories:

Spotlight on North Carolina Grapes: Petit Manseng (from Triangle Around Town, Dathan Kazsuk and Jennifer Primrose)

Spotlight on North Carolina Grapes: Crimson Cabernet (from Merlot2Muscadine, Arthur Barham)

Instagram posts from Vintage Hill Wine Events, Kimberly Williams. Kimberly’s Spotlight on North Carolina Grapes focuses on Vermentino, Gruner Veltliner and Viognier.

Pick your own berries

  • four white baskets on the ground about half-full of blueberries
  • Caroline reaching up to pick blueberries
  • on a picnic table outside, two glasses of orange liquid, a can of lemonade and another glass of light red liquid, with Caroline in the background

Blueberries, grapes or muscadines, NC vineyards offer opportunities to pick your own fruit

Botanist and Barrel in Cedar Grove has a large field of blueberry bushes, and in the summer, you can pick your own. Last weekend, the winery/cidery hosted their 6th annual Pick a Ton event, where they donate blueberries to hunger relief.

For every 25 lbs. of berries picked by guests, B&B donates a pound of fresh berries to feed food-insecure kids in Chapel Hill this summer.

Four of us stopped by early on Saturday with our berry buckets and picked about a gallon and a half of fresh berries. We learned that the berries were hit hard by a late frost, but we were still able to find what we wanted to pick. The trick was to wade farther into the berry patch and reach up to pull down top branches that were berry heavy.

In addition, there were cidermosas for sale at the taproom and a pig-pickin’ at noon for all who could stay. The cidermosas were refreshing and tasty, after a hot morning of berry picking.

There’s more to do at most wineries/cideries/meaderies in the state that just taste wine, and this is just an example. As we approach NC Grape Month in August, look for opportunities to pick your own fresh market grapes or muscadines at vineyards near you!

Botanist and Barrel
105 Persimmon Hill Lane
Cedar Grove, NC 27231
919.644.7777

NC Grape Month

Sampling Virginia’s best

Enjoying a glass of white wine while overlooking the hills of West Wind Farm

Southwest Virginia has good selections for beer and wine, as well as bicycling and bluegrass.

We like to visit southwest Virginia for the traditional music and biking on the New River Trail. And we have found that there is some pretty good wine and beer to be found in the area.

Last summer, we looked for a winery where we could enjoy some outdoor space and where the staff were mindful about COVID precautions. We were very impressed with West Wind Farm Vineyard and Winery, a family-owned winery in Max Meadows, not far from Austinville or Foster Falls State Park

Just outside the tasting room is a patio with a porch swing and several tables where you can enjoy beautiful views of the vineyards and the mountains of Virginia. On the grounds of the winery there are a few more tables, and you could always bring your own blanket or chairs to find your spot. Last summer, we found a table under an umbrella where we sat from most of the afternoon until the sun caught up with us.

When we returned to the area in June, we decided to go back to West Wind. Though last year, the winery wasn’t offering wine tastings due to the complications of COVID, this year they had just begun offering tastings again. They still ask guests to come inside with a mask, and all staff were masked as well. It’s one of the few places you’ll see masks in that part of Virginia.

We each tasted four wines and each chose a glass of wine to take out on the patio — mine was Galena Creek White, made from Vidal Blanc grapes, and Kyle chose the Gerwurtrazminer. Only a few other guests came by on this weekday afternoon, so we had the patio almost to ourselves.

The winery makes small batch wines that are very high quality. In addition to the two whites tried, the winery makes a Pinot Gris, Riesling, Galena Creek Red (a blend of Chambourcin, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon), as well as a Chambourcin and Cab Sauv. There are a few sweeter wines as well. 

The gift shop also has some nice snacks, including Ashe County Cheese from North Carolina. They also carry a number of fun wine-related gifts and some locally made crafts. 

We picked up bottles of the Gerwurtrazminer and Chambourcin to take home. We highly recommend this quiet hillside winery for its hospitality, fine wines and beautiful rural setting.

In a more “urban” setting, we also had dinner at a favorite brewery in Galax — Creek Bottom Brewing Company. The brewery started out as a bottle shop with a few of their own beers on tap. They’ve always been known for their smoked buffalo wings and wood-fired pizza. 

During COVID, a few changes happened here. The brewery had expanded to a second location at a golf course on the edge of town, but that closed. However, they expanded their patio space at the original brewery to provide more quasi-indoor space (with garage doors for when the weather is nice.)

The brewery has a good vibe, with a small stage for live music (most evenings at 7), televisions for game night, a good draft selection, including their own beers and some guest taps. Their brewing skills have gotten better as well.

We ordered a Cucumber Saison and RB3 Flathead Pilsner, both refreshing summer beers, that go great with food. We like to order the smoked wings with a salad, and sometimes the homemade pimento cheese as well. You can’t go wrong with these choices when you’re near Galax.

West Wind Farm Vineyard and Winery
180 West Wind Drive
Max Meadows, Virginia

Creek Bottom Brewing Company
307 Meadow Street
Galax, Virginia