Editor’s note: This week’s column marks Thom O’Hearn’s final contribution as the Xpress Beer Scout correspondent. However, Thom’s departure from beer coverage is just a change of beats. This story serves as a segue to his continued work with Xpress covering Asheville’s food scene.
When diners first arrived at Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview for Catawba Brewing Co.’s inaugural Asheville Beer Week farm dinner in 2014, people gathered in the milk shed by the creek. There was a choice of two beers and a round of appetizers. After mixing, mingling and enjoying live bluegrass music, everyone was invited on a farm tour, beer in hand. Eventually, guests arrived at the table for a whole-hog dinner catered by chef Steven Goff.
The dinner lasted more than two hours. Each course was paired with beer, and many dishes incorporated beer or beer ingredients as well. And it wasn’t just simple beer braises. There were vegetables fermented in spent brewing grains served with beet crème fraîche.
“I’ve been to a lot of Outstanding in the Field dinners. … The idea we had for that first Asheville Beer Week farm dinner [in 2014] was to put our spin on that — to take the idea of a beer dinner further,” says Catawba Brewing Co.‘s Asheville operations manager Shelton Steele. “Even that first year, it was very successful. We sold out, and [a lot of people] wanted to do it again.”
So Catawba brought it back for Asheville Beer Week in 2015. This time, the chef was Rhubarb’s John Fleer.
“It was phenomenal,” says Steele. And the connections at this dinner went even deeper. Catawba creative director/event coordinator Mary Mayo’s sister is Anne Grier, co-owner of Gaining Ground Farm, one of the farms that supplies Fleer with produce. “It’s such an Asheville thing,” says Mayo.
Considering fine dining
In addition to the HNG dinners, Catawba partnered with FIG for Asheville Beer Week dinners in 2014 and 2015. “At the time [in 2014], most beer dinners were at more public places or places known for beer,” says Catawba co-owner Billy Pyatt. “FIG, on the other hand, is very intimate and very wine-focused.
“The dinner brought in a lot of people off their list — people that didn’t think of themselves as beer fans. But it worked. People would visit our taproom in the weeks after the event saying they wanted to try more of our beers, and we had people come back to our dinner [at FIG] in 2015.”
Mayo says both the HNG and FIG events launched Catawba into pairing beer with higher-end food. “We saw the potential in creating a culinary experience, but we were all thinking, ‘Why limit this to Beer Week?’”
So, starting this summer, Catawba is making the effort to host fine-dining and beer events year-round. On Aug. 19, the brewery hosted From Barrels to Brewhouse with William Dissen of The Market Place. On Tuesday, Sept. 15, it will head back out to HNG for a harvest dinner with Fleer and the Rhubarb team (tickets are available on eventbrite.com). And the first week of December, Catawba will host a holiday dinner at its Banks Avenue location with Fleer’s team and the French Broad Chocolate Lounge.
Tickets for these events aren’t cheap — generally $75 and up — but proceeds benefit nonprofit partners. “We rotate by dinner, but we choose causes important to us and often ones with some connection to the event,” says Mayo. “We’ve partnered with ASAP [Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project], SAHC [Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy], food banks, the ADA [Asheville Downtown Association] and both the Asheville and Blue Ridge Humane Societies so far.”
Providing affordable options
While the entire Catawba team enjoys those ambitious events, Mayo says she doesn’t want Catawba to be pigeonholed as a place with just expensive offerings. “We want to share the experience with as many people as possible.” To that end, Catawba has also planned a variety of food-focused events at its Banks Avenue location that are easier on the wallet. Some are larger, family-friendly and à la carte. Others are intimate, set pairings costing $20 or less:
- After hosting a summer series with chef Elliott Moss and Buxton Hall Barbecue, on Aug. 13 Catawba hosted chef Philip Bollhoefer of the Grove Park Inn for a barbecue featuring all-local ingredients. “The summer barbecues were all à la carte and very family-friendly,” says Mayo. Going forward, Catawba will have a additional catered meals with rotating chefs in the same format. Dates aren’t firm yet, but Mayo says there will definitely be one around Thanksgiving and one around Christmas — and Bollhoefer will be back in January.
- The first Tuesday of every month, Catawba hosts tastings with the French Broad Chocolate Lounge. For $17, guests get to sample a variety of beers paired expertly with chocolates. “The event is supposed to be an hour, but I don’t think we’ve done one yet where it doesn’t last two,” says Mayo. “It starts with the guided tasting, but it doesn’t take long for everyone to start sharing. … By the end, everybody knows each others’ names.”
- The second Tuesday of every month, Catawba hosts Blue Dream Curry House. At these events, Blue Dream works with Catawba to pair three beers with three curries that diners can enjoy as a set menu for $20.
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