Beer festivals are an excellent way to sample a wide range of craft breweries and styles. But if the festival scene doesn’t sound appealing, beer fans can create their own diverse festival at their own pace on almost any day of the week – while also getting the most out their drinking budget. The answer: flights.
“You can’t really taste a beer until you have a full pint, but a flight gives you at least a window into what that beer might be like,” says John Garcia, owner and master brewer of Lookout Brewing Co. in Black Mountain.
All 15 craft breweries in Buncombe County offer flights of their current lineup throughout the year, and bars like the Thirsty Monk and growler stores Appalachian Vintner, Asheville Growler and Craft Room Growlers provide a variety of local and North Carolina breweries along with those from outside of the region.
Flights are composed of pours ranging from Lookout’s 3.5 ounce to Green Man Brewery’s 6 ounce and vary in the number of samples, going as high as Wedge Brewing Co.’s 10-beer serving. Altamont Brewing Co. and Lexington Avenue Brewery are two of several who have a set flight while others, such as Asheville Brewing Co., offer customization.
Served in 3- to 4-inch tasting glasses, the styles are identified by various means, from pre-printed laminated sheets (French Broad Brewing Co.; Catawba Brewing Co.) to handwritten names on the paper lining an oyster tray (Oyster House Brewing Co.) to a poker chip that sits below its corresponding brew (Lookout).
To get the flights from tap to table, glasses often rest on a notched wooden paddle, as they do at Hi-Wire Brewing, or an elevated board with legs. Wicked Weed Brewing’s flights of six are served on a carrier made out of bourbon barrel staves (with a handle for easy lifting), while Twin Leaf Brewery’s Tim Weber is building two-tiered rectangular boards in his and wife/co-brewer Steph’s garage. (Twin Leaf bartenders currently carry the 5-ounce pours of the brewery’s five house beers out to customers one by one.)
Throughout the county, the small tastes have proved popular among beer tourists and locals alike, and breweries are delighted to offer them to their customers.
“It’s honestly one of the best ways to showcase the variety that we have on tap. You want people to try everything and get a feeling for who you are,” says Jessica Reiser, co-owner of Burial Beer Co.
Due to the representative nature of flights, brewers are also apt to repay that across-the-board patron interest with insight on getting the most out of their creations.
“It’s good to educate your customer when they get the flight on when to drink them. You want to start with pilsners and pales, then the slightly heavier stuff like ESBs and IPAs, then finish off with bigger beers that tend to get better as they warm up,” Garcia says.
In addition to sampling that range, flights offer access to a brewery’s more adventurous endeavors without the risk of blindly investing in a full pint. Among these experiments are Burial’s occasional split-batch series, in which they brew a barrel of one variety, separate it into three equal quantities and treat each keg with a special ingredient.
So far, these ventures have included a blonde inoculated with German weisse, Belgian ale and American ale yeasts, and a gastronomy porter series, in which individual infusions of fresh ginger and peaches, smoked shiitake mushrooms and a combination of raspberries and coconut created a morning, noon and night feel. Sampled side-by-side, customers may compare the series’ three beers and decide if a full pour of one is in order – or perhaps another flight trio.
With demand for flights remaining high, Burial recently invested in more tasting glasses, though other breweries have opted not to offer the popular option during their busiest hours. Twin Leaf doesn’t do flights on Fridays or Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m., Wicked Weed doesn’t do them at all on those days (or on weeknights after 7 p.m.), and both Highland Brewing Co. and Pisgah Brewing Co. restrict flight sales during music events.
“That’s when the band rolls in and we have  to 600 people and it just doesn’t work,” says Jamie DeJohn, Highland’s bar manager.
Still – considering the spectrum of breweries and beers around town – with a little planning, that specialized festival of flights is well within reach.