Mark Twain once described a classic as a book “which people praise and don’t read.”
The same might be said for beer, though often we don’t even take the time to praise those that came before. With more than 5,000 breweries in the United States, it’s all we can do to keep up with the newest offerings and latest trends.
Fortunately I went to school in Asheville, which would later come to be known as Beer City USA, and there were no prerequisites when it came to beer. Of course, there were fewer options then, but a handful of breweries were producing beers that would become celebrated in the state.
Whether you’re new to craft beer or compulsively chasing the next big thing, it’s always good to revisit the classics. I’m as guilty as anyone for overlooking some of these beers because they’re everywhere, but they’re everywhere for a reason.
I’m as guilty as anyone for overlooking some of these beers because they’re everywhere, but they’re everywhere for a reason.
Asheville Brewing Co.’s Shiva: I first tried Asheville Brewing Co.’s flagship IPA in 2005, during my first weekend as an Asheville resident. Having no clue what to order at the brewpub, I opted for what the waitress told me was one of the more most-loved selections — but I hated it. It was bracingly bitter and unlike anything I’d tried. Now, though? I find it a well-balanced IPA with a citrus pop, and I wish I still lived a mile down the road from the brewpub. It may seem more restrained than some of today’s hop-heavy offerings, but it didn’t seem so 11 years ago.
Highland Brewing Co.’s Gaelic Ale: Not long after my Shiva experience, I tried my first pint of Gaelic Ale. It took me some time to fully appreciate how good this amber ale was (I was a craft beer neophyte, and even found this too bitter initially). It’s a smooth amber with just enough of a piney hop punch to keep things interesting. Gaelic Ale is a workhorse of a beer that pairs well with any number of dishes.
Red Oak Brewery’s Bavarian Amber Lager: Red Oak has come a long way since opening a brewpub in Greensboro in 1991. Its production now comes from a gleaming brewery just off Interstate 40/85 in Whitsett, where the brewery is poised to expand with a new beer hall and gift shop. The brewery still brews in accordance with the Bavarian Purity Law, which states beer must be brewed with only water, malt, hops and yeast. The flagship Red Oak Bavarian Amber Lager is the best example of this approach, displaying the crisp and easy-drinking nature you’ll find across the brewery’s portfolio of beers.
Olde Hickory Brewery’s Imperial Stout: Before taking their place among the state’s best when it comes to barrel-aging, Olde Hickory was winning awards for its hefty Imperial Stout. Brewed with honey and coming in at 10.6 percent ABV, it’s easy to see this as a predecessor to the brewery’s barrel-aged beers like Event Horizon or Lindley Park. But really, this beer easily stands on its own (and it boasts several awards as proof).
Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery’s Milk Stout: Way back in 2004, Duck-Rabbit started brewing a small portfolio of dark beers out of Farmville (long before your friends were sending you annoying requests to play the game of the same name). Right off the bat, the brewery’s Milk Stout displayed that beautiful contrast of roast and richness that is the hallmark of the style. And it still does, a dozen years later.
Green Man Brewery’s ESB: Before producing some of the nation’s best sours and wild ales in its three-story “Green Mansion” facility, Green Man Brewery focused exclusively on English styles brewed and served in Asheville’s Jack of the Wood pub. The ESB proved popular and is still one of the brewery’s best-selling options.
Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.