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By now, there’s no debate: Asheville, North Carolina, is an undisputed craft beer mecca. Homegrown breweries like Burial Beer Co. and Wicked Weed Brewing have national followings, and out-of-town craft behemoths like Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and New Belgium Brewing Co. have recently built new facilities in town. But after visiting the city for the first time in 20 years and drinking every fantastic beer in sight, I still couldn’t help but wonder: Why Asheville? Why is the 12th largest city in North Carolina now home to literally dozens of breweries, and a top destination for beer travelers from around the world? I decided to ask people working and living in Asheville to help me answer the question.

As it turns out, water is a good place to start. Like oxygen or lightning-fast WiFi, water is so often taken for granted. “It’s one of those four ingredients in beer that not a lot of people think about,” explains Sean Paxton, a homebrewer and chef of the boutique restaurant inside the yeast-growing grounds at White Labs. “When you look at why Asheville has become Beer Town U.S.A., I think there’s a lot to be said for the water.” While the skills and techniques of local brewmasters aren’t to be discounted, water -- beer’s main ingredient -- plays a larger role in Asheville’s success than one might think.

Cliff Mori, an Advanced Cicerone, Asheville local, and owner of the brewery tour company BREW-Ed, elaborates further: “The minerals in water can dramatically affect beer flavor,” he says. “Our water is pretty much devoid of minerals. That means brewers have a blank slate that they can adjust as needed depending on their recipe.”

Mori also notes that historically, water chemistry has always been crucial to brewing. “In the old days, where you lived helped shape what beer you could brew,” he says. “For example, porter came from London, where the water is full of calcium carbonate. The calcium carbonate acts as a buffer against the acidic dark malts in porter, and helps keep the beer from becoming astringent. IPA originated in Burton-on-Trent [in England], where the water is full of calcium sulfate, a mineral that enhances hop character.”

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Not only does Asheville offer great water to prospective brewers -- the city’s location is prime for distribution. “Asheville is pretty well situated to ship beer to many parts of the country,” Mori explains. “We’re at the intersection of I-40 and I-26, which offers easy access to a lot of the country. And we’re only two hours from Charlotte (the biggest city in NC), four hours from Atlanta, two hours from Knoxville, five and a half hours from Cincinnati, and seven from Washington DC. This gives brewers fairly easy access to market when compared to many other cities.” That means breweries can get their beer to more customers faster and at less cost. It’s no wonder that breweries like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have planted roots in the Asheville area with massive production facilities and jaw-dropping taprooms.

Those fantastic out-of-state brewers from California and Colorado didn’t just show up and create a beer scene, though -- they joined one that had already been thriving. After all, it’s much easier for brewing company to build a new facility in a place where both locals and tourists will be more likely to appreciate its products. Many breweries that formed the Asheville craft beer community around 20 years ago are still producing excellent beers, from Asheville Brewing Co.’s Carolina Mountain Monster series, to Green Man Brewery’s legendarily silky smooth Porter, and Highland Brewing Co’s Gaelic Ale.

Today, the newer Asheville outfits are as good as any top tier brewery in any top tier town. For proof, try Wicked Weed’s rare, wine-like beauty White Angel -- or just about anything Burial puts out (though their Thresher Coffee Saison especially confused and delighted me). There’s also Zebulon Brewing, a gem in the nearby small town of Weaverville run by a charming husband and wife team. I couldn’t believe how approachable and delicious co-founder and brewer Mike Karnowski managed to make a “Tokyo-style gose with pickled ginger and white miso.”
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Of course, in any city where there is good beer, tourists are never far behind. (Also not far behind? iPads as cameras.) But Dodie Stephens of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Explore Asheville says that while beer has long been an important part of Asheville’s independent culinary scene, the city’s influx of beer tourists is a relatively new development. “[Beer’s] shift as a significant driver of visitor traffic is fairly recent,” she explains. “In 2012, a study showed that our visitors were much more likely than the average U.S. traveler to engage in culinary and brewery experiences. At that time, beer did not register as a top tier motivator. That has changed in just five years.”

With 35 breweries and counting all tucked into such a small city (just 89,000 live inside of the city’s borders), it’s staggering that 14% of Asheville’s 3.8 million overnight visitors last year said beer was a primary reason for visiting. That’s over half a million people, if my fifth grade math is correct! And aside from the fantastic beer, there’s also plenty of stuff to do while you drink or in between beers: there’s hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains that’s suitable for all skill levels; a boatload of history to learn about; and a helluva local music scene.

Before I visited this Southern city, tried its beer, and met its warm people, I was a little confused as to how it could become such a power player in the nation’s craft beer scene. When I left, the reasons had become pretty clear: It’s the water; the location; the city’s brewing talent. It’s people like me making the trip to drink the beer.

Why is everyone obsessed with Asheville? Visit and discover for yourself.

credits:"C2 Photography / ExploreAsheville.com"

Note: Wicked Weed Brewing is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.