Any North Carolina beer connoisseur worth their weight in hops knows by now that “Big Beer” is finally here. In August, the state legislature amended its Prohibition-era definition of legal malt beverages to allow the sale of beer with an alcohol content of up to 15 percent (now that’s a big beer). Previously, only brews with a modest alcohol level of 6 percent and lower could be sold in our state – while liquors like the remarkably potent Everclear, comprised almost entirely of odorless, tasteless grain alcohol, could be found at state-controlled ABC stores.
A statewide advocacy group, Pop the Cap, led the campaign to bring an end to that outdated contradiction – one embedded in the law in 1935 at the urging of mill owners who were “concerned that workers would fail to report to work on Mondays” if beer was too strong, according to a historical summary on the group’s Web site. Thanks in part to a mixture of complacency and misperception, the 6 percent cap remained state law for 70 years.
And so, at long last, some of the world’s finest (and strongest) brews are flowing into our state. Though a world of options abounds, one need not drink imports alone. Right here in our fair mountain town, brewers have been hard at work bringing Big Beer to the people. Many local brewers have been perfecting the art of high-gravity brewing for years; though it’s been illegal to sell the beers, it’s been perfectly OK to brew and consume them. Go figure.
Once the cap was popped, Asheville’s first craft-brewing company, Highland Brewing, was once again the first out of the gate, becoming the first N.C. brewery to market a high-alcohol brew. In relatively short order, kegs of the delicious Tasgall Ale (an 8 percenter) were finding their way to select taprooms. I first discovered the joys of this concoction – the name of which comes from Norse mythology and means “Cauldron of the Gods” – at the Westville Pub, and was immediately smitten. The flavor is bold, malty and reminiscent of toasted coffee and a bit of cocoa. It’s best enjoyed less than fully chilled – not quite room temp, but not cold. This one’s now available in 22 ounce bottles at select locations, but I haven’t tried it bottled and therefore can’t say how that might affect the flavor.
The Green Man Brewing Company celebrated North Carolina’s new era of brewing with a decadent Russian Raspberry Imperial Stout (7.8 percent), and the award-winning Belgian-style Merlin Tripel, a slightly fruity brew that packs a wallop at 9.4 percent. These brews are currently unavailable, but there are other treasures to be found at the company’s tasting room at 23 Buxton Ave., aka Dirty Jack’s. There, you can occasionally find my newfound love, the elusive Golem, on tap. Golem is described by brewmaster Carl Melissas as a “Belgian strong, golden ale – spicy and hoppy, with a sweet, pear-like flavor that finishes dry and slightly bitter.” This one weighs in at a not insignificant 8.8 percent, so as with the other high-test concoctions, watch your step.
Black Mountain’s Pisgah Brewing Company – which is planning to move its headquarters to Asheville – is North Carolina’s first certified organic brewery. At present, their Big Beers are available only on tap at select bars and in kegs and growlers, though bottles are not far away. You can grab the goods at the brewery’s informal, on-site tasting room. Pisgah offers free samples, if you want to try before you buy, but make sure to call first (582-2175) to let them know you’re coming.
I recently sampled the Pisgah’s Imperial IPA at Barley’s Taproom in downtown Asheville. This 8 percent double IPA was brewed in anticipation of the lifting of the cap, and spent some time aging before becoming one of the first to flow from local taps. It’s golden brown in color, hoppy and lightly bitter. It’s a good, strong example of an India Pale Ale, but my current favorite from this brewery is the seasonal Pisgah Equinox, a harvest-style ale, that I recently sampled at the Bier Garden. Deeply amber in color, it’s rich and malty in flavor, and delicious.
Pisgah is also cooking up a barley wine named Hellbender, after the giant salamander that haunts cool, clear mountain streams. Co-brewer Jason Caughman says that the 9.5 percent brew will be ready for distribution in January. Pisgah is also planning to release an 8 percent Belgian Tripel Ale for the winter solstice, the aptly named “Solstice,” and is working on the incredible-sounding bottle-conditioned 13 percent Belgium Tripel, brewed with local sourwood honey. Caughman says the ale will be called Vortex, and that it will be “level one” in a series of finely crafted brews containing more than 10 percent alcohol. Vortex will only be available in 12-ounce bottles.
The French Broad Brewing Co., located near the Polar Bar in Biltmore, turns out the fine craft brews of Jonas Rembert. His beer is available only in select taprooms, as well as on-site in pints or in growlers to take home. The brewery features a tasting room complete with live music, and bread and cheese to munch. At present, the only high-gravity beer they produce is the Wee Heavy-er, a stronger version of their classic Scotch-style ale, Wee Heavy, which was a gold medal recipient at the 2003 World Beer Championships in Chicago. The Wee Heavy-er is malty, toasty and slightly sweet, and weighs in at a comfortable 7 percent.
No roundup of local brewers would be complete without mentioning Doug Riley, master brewer behind the beers at the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company and its sister spin-off, the Asheville Brewing Company tasting room on Coxe Avenue. Riley hasn’t turned out any Big Beers as of yet, and he says he’s in no hurry to jump on the bandwagon. Once he does, however, he might start with an imperial stout.
Remember to be safe while exploring the bold new world of beers – they’re stronger than you might think – and to support your local brew wizards. Cheers!