Beer Travel: North Carolina

June 28, 2016, by Nic Sandery
Beer Travel: North Carolina

When most beer-loving Australians embark upon what is becoming something of a rite of passage – the tour of the US – it's the West Coast that takes priority, usually with an additional stop at some point at Brooklyn's Williamsburg home. But not so for Nic Sandery.

The founder of Molly Rose Brewing has been on a global tour, soaking up as much beer culture as he can from places both on and far from the beaten track. In his first article for The Crafty Pint, he reported on his jaunt through Japan. And now, in his second missive from the Northern Hemisphere, he offers insight and highlights from time spent in North Carolina, during which he soaked up plenty of Southern hospitality and even found time to collaborate on a nbeer.

Why North Carolina?

I first looked into North Carolina when I heard that both New Belgium and Sierra Nevada were opening their East Coast breweries down there. I love what both of those breweries stand for so I thought: "Why not head south and check out what was so excellent about this part of the south?"

It also helps that the weather is great down there, the countryside is beautiful and the food is out of this world... 

Where have you been?

I based myself in Asheville, which is a fairly alternative town. I have heard it compared to Austin or Portland for having a more bohemian demographic. I also dropped by a small town city called Athens, in Georgia, and made day trips out to a few towns around Asheville. It was great having a car and cruising around the mountains. I even managed to stumble across some waterfalls and sneak in a quick little hike. 

How did you choose those destinations?

A friend of mine put me into contact with Lewis and Jordan, a couple who run a brewery in a town called Shelby. We got chatting and realised that we like to make similar styles of beer so we decided a collaboration brew would be a lot of fun. Lewis then gave me the lowdown on some great breweries and bars to check out in the area. One of them was this fantastic little brewery called Fonta Flora in a town an hour north of Asheville. 

Nic joins the shiny, happy people at Creature Comforts in Athens, Georgia.

I was given the heads up by another friend that Creature Comforts in Athens was a great brewery to check out and it was only a tiny detour so I stopped by their brewery taproom for a quick tour and tasted their beers. It was definitely worth the stop; I loved their beers, brewery, branding and all around attitude to beer. I also picked up some ribs from the local BBQ joint. Not the best food to eat on the road, but totally worth it!

Did the beer and culture surrounding it meet expectations?

Yeah, it totally did. Southern hospitality is definitely a thing. The food and drink culture in North Carolina is fantastic and they are very much tied together. People love to eat locally grown and produced food but, unlike in Portland where they use local food to reinterpret dishes from around the world, in Asheville they love to serve classic, Southern dishes: things like fried chicken, grilled fish, biscuits (basically scones), beans and lentils in all sorts of ways, rice – and everyone has their favourite gravy. 

They love their history and their local area. A lot of breweries brew like this too: making beers that suit the climate and culture and, with a local craft-maltser in Asheville, more and more of them are looking to use local ingredients to make their beer. They brew beers to go with their love of food, fun, music and great times. 

I loved Fonta Flora and the town it was in, Morganton. The brewery was a little unassuming from the outside: a corner block, it could have been a bar or cafe or insurance broker, but inside was an awesome little brewery and bar. I was there on a Thursday afternoon and the bar was busy with blokes in boots, office workers having knock offs, a group of middle aged ladies and, my favourite, an 80-year-old local man who was showing off his new local brewery to his son who was visiting from Seattle. He was so chuffed and proud of Fonta Flora. 

They were all in this little brewpub drinking their wild flower grisettes and tumeric-miso saisons and embracing the new(ish) addition to their town. When the friendly bartender was called away, one of the locals continued her story of the brewery and filled me in on their plans for expansion onto a local farm they had just bought. She didn't work there, she just loved the place and the beer and wanted to share it with everyone. I loved the passion that the brewery inspired in the local community. The beers were also complex, balanced and a brilliant representation of terroir in beer.

I could literally talk about Sierra Nevada all day. Their beer is seamless and the culture across their many hundreds of employees just incredible. They have, unsurprisingly, found their own niche and nuzzled their way into their community so that it seems like they have always been there. Having a beer at the taproom and walking through the brewery is one of the best places anywhere in the world the to see what making and enjoying great beer is all about.

What were the highlights?

Brewing an all Aussie hops IPA with the Newgrass brewery crew in North Carolina.

One of the highlights was definitely brewing the collaboration with Newgrass in Shelby. I had such a great day hanging out with those guys. I didn't do much, I just hung out, drank beers and came up the name. We were stoked that the guys at HPA were able to send us a big bag of some 2016 Ella to be the character hop in our all Aussie hopped IPA. 

I came up with the hopping schedule using Galaxy, Vic Secret and Ella and the name "Heaps Good IPA". Apparently it has sold really well and is all but gone with only a couple of kegs (saved for the Newgrass bar,). They just love our hops over there as they are a bit hard to get. Hanging in Shelby for the night was awesome too, Newgrass is a style of bluegrass so I got to see a bunch of banjos and eat some more great food. 

Sierra Nevada for me was obviously a highlight. It was really inspiring to visit both of their breweries. To see where they came from in Chico was great but the new brewery in Mills Creek was built without any compromises. It is the most beautiful brewery I have ever been to. All copper and wood above ground and shiny, snaking stainless steel below ground. While the aesthetics were obviously important in the design of this brewery, after a several hour tour it became clear that every measure was taken to ensure that the beer was produced and delivered to each customer in exactly the way it is meant to be drunk. 

I also ate some cracking fried chicken and waffles with a magnificent Wicked Weed sour at a restaurant called Tupelo Honey (they give you free honey and biscuits to start.)

How do you think this part of your trip will influence Molly Rose?

Umm... can I say anything more about Sierra Nevada? Nah, I think you get the point. I love the way that they make great beer without compromises and everyone who works for them loves their job and their company. I hope MRB can strive to be something like Sierra Nevada (huge goals, huh?).

Sierra Nevada's North Carolina brewery. Damn pretty.

I love the way that Fonta Flora show off the terroir of their local area by making delicious, innovative beers and working with local farmers, producers, restaurants and community groups. The passion that I saw in the people I met in their bar was more that of family members than customers – something any brewery would love to see reflected in their business. I also like that even though they made some interesting and crazy beers they also made some classic styles really well too. Their IPAs were delicious and their Dry Irish Stout won a whole bunch of awards, including a gold at GABF. 

I cannot wait to brew the "Heaps Good IPA" in Australia and maybe the reverse collaboration with Newgrass using all American hops... I love Newgrass' interpretation of an IPA

Any tips for people travelling to North Carolina?

Come to North Carolina with an open mind and empty belly. Boy, is the food fantastic and filling and you need room for all the great beer. 

The culture in North Carolina is something very different to Australia but they are welcoming and friendly like us so if you ask a local for some tips with a smile on your face they are sure to point you in the right direction.

Check out some music too – it is great! Listen out on the street in Asheville for some buskers and go and see a gig at Newgrass in Shelby and drink a bunch of their great beers. 

Thanks, Nic. We're pretty damn hungry and thirsty after reading that. Can't wait for further missives from the trip – and to taste Heaps Good Mk II: The Aussie Edition!

You can check out Nic's other articles here.

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