Vehicle: A comfortable 12-seat van that whisks cruisers from brewery to brewery.
Price: $32 per person for locals, discounts for large groups. $37 for tourists, or $70/couple.
What’s Included: Three hours of tours, beer samples, souvenirs, snacks and bottled water – not to mention a designated driver!
Contact: For more details, call 545-5181 or visit www.brewscruise.com.
Of Note: The Lyons hope to expand the tour to encompass other breweries, so stay tuned …
“I’m Mark Lyons, and this is Trish Lyons, and we are Asheville Brews Cruise.” So begins our captain, speaking from the helm of his mercifully air-conditioned vessel. On a sweltering July evening, we have just embarked on a three-hour tour that will take us on a lazy circle around Asheville to visit three local breweries.
We begin our journey at the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company on Merrimon Avenue, where we prime ourselves for some serious beer research with a slice or two before loading into the Brews Cruise van, which seats 12 people comfortably.
The Lyons, beer connoisseurs with backgrounds in spa management, hail most recently from Arizona. In 2000, they sought to relocate to a new place that boasted the important things in life – namely “good beer and a quality lifestyle,” Mark says – and decided on Asheville. This summer, they started the Brews Cruise, a fun – and safe – way not only to sample local brews, but to go behind the scenes, ask questions and learn about the art of brewing.
“You’re basically getting a back-seat tour,” says Trish from her position at the captain’s side. She briefs us on the difference between micro and macro brews and gives an overview of the ones we’ll sample at our first stop.
Highland Brewing Company
Within minutes we arrive at Highland, which is tucked away beneath Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria like some secret laboratory. The owner is standing in front of the brewery to greet us.
“This,” says Mark, “is Oscar Wong, the Chinese man who grew up in Jamaica and is brewing Scottish beer in Asheville.” One of his employees, Mike Elliot, shows us around the fairly large and rather sophisticated operation, which encompasses the lower parts of both ED Boudreaux’s and Barley’s.
“We’ll start with the best part of the tour, which is tasting,” Elliot says, and he pours each of us a small sample of St. Therese’s Pale Ale. He then leads us through the operations, offering us barley to taste, hops to sniff. We explore machinery that cools, brews, filters and packages. We learn that hops are a vine that’s related to cannabis, and that lupilin, the gland in the middle of the hop flower, is really what brewers are after. Lupilin contains the “bittering oils and resins that preserve and flavor the beer,” Elliot explains. “Not only do they taste good, but hops are really good at preserving – their alpha acids are really good at inhibiting growth and keeping your beer fresh.”
The rest of the Highland tour is as fascinating as it is delicious. Elliot manages to be appropriately techy for those of us who are interested in the nuts and bolts of what we imbibe, without going too far. After all, by the time we return to the van, I, for one, am already slightly tipsy, having sampled several of Highland’s award-winning brews.
French Broad Brewing Company
Back in the van, everyone is having a good time, including the Lyons. “It’s a fun job,” Trish says. “People in this area are passionate about their beer. We’ve got five microbreweries in such a small area. That says a lot.”
We whiz our way through Biltmore Village. “On the tourist tip,” says Mark, “we kind of run the route that we do so that people can get a visual of some Asheville icons. When we come back up, we’ll go straight up Biltmore, all the way to Merrimon, so you can get a look at the heart of downtown.”
We arrive at the French Broad Brewing Company, where the live “acoustic girlgrass” sounds of Blue Roan spill out the door. We are seated before a folding table arranged with laminated pages displaying the various beers – the works of master brewer Jonas Rembert and company. If the Highland tour explored the brain of the brewing industry, this one explores the heart.
“Asheville’s got a really rich beer culture, as you well know,” begins our new tour guide Jason Smith as he pulls growler after growler of such French Broad goodies as the Goldenrod Pilsner and Wee Heavy-er Scotch Style Ale from a cooler by his feet. The area’s independent brewers “really complement each other well, because there are a lot of differences between the breweries,” he notes. “Whenever someone comes out with great beer or wins a medal, it really elevates the playing field for all of us.”
Smith pours us a few more samples, discusses the difficulty of brewing lagers (“It’s really a labor of love”), then focuses on the musicians for a moment.
“At first the music was just a way to get people in and get them to know us and our beers,” he says. “And then we kept expanding our hours – we started out with one night of music, then two nights, and it’s grown to five nights.” At that moment, strains of “Happy Birthday” fill the air, and the audience cheers for some lucky celebrant.
Smith says that French Broad doesn’t charge a cover, so the business can’t pay musicians a whole lot – but some of them say it’s their favorite place to play anyway. “We pay them primarily in beer,” he explains.
“Brewing beer is an art and a passion, like music. The actual business side is the hard part – that’s not fun, and we’re like the musicians in that way, so it’s a good synergy.”
Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company
Soon we’re back in the van, riding quite literally into the sunset. Our next and final stop is the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company, where we hunker down over some appetizers and near-full pitchers of beer that an assistant brewer trots out for us to taste. He’s full of good information and he offers a tour of the operations – but at that point we’re all more than happy to just sit around the table talking, eating and drinking.
Their piloting finished for the evening, the Lyons have joined us for a drink or two, and I ask Mark whether every Brews Cruise feels this personal. “Absolutely,” he answers. “That’s part of the niche we want to fill, too. … We want to keep it close knit, and actually connect with people.” Shortly thereafter, they raise a toast to us, and we raise a toast to them, thanking each other for a fun and unique evening out and about in Asheville.