Oh Charleston, you do have a charm that keeps a girl around. But, there is something about fall that creates a need to hit the open road and explore. To this, I say, "Road trip!" The North Star for our Southern journey: beer. Forget the Bourbon Trail, this is the Brewski Highway.
Unless you've been lost in the world of Westeros watching all four seasons of Game of Thrones on repeat, you may have noticed that the craft beer movement in the South has been multiplying faster than the White Walker army north of The Wall (Jon Snow better survive is all I have to say). Lucky for us, these Southern breweries are crafting some really creative and lip-smacking beers.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am a strong supporter of drinking local, but as this is a road trip story, we are focusing elsewhere. (Charleston breweries — love you, mean it). With Charleston in the rearview, we head up I-95 to Durham, N.C.
- Tip back a Cack-a-lacky at Fullsteam's laid-back HQ
Fullsteam Brewery in Durham focuses on "the art of Distinctly Southern Beer" and has solid year-round brews, but I really fan-girl out on their Cack-a-lacky. I love this beer. Described as a "zippy, hoppy ginger pale ale," the ginger notes are prominent, so while it's not a beer for everyone, I like that it's medium-bodied, refreshing to sip on, good to pair with spicy food, and has a lower ABV (5 percent). On the flip side, Fullsteam's First Frost Winter Persimmon Ale comes in at a 10 percent ABV. Available seasonally, First Frost has a nice earthy/fruity combination going on. This holiday season, skip the fruitcake and drink First Frost by the fireplace — it will keep you toasty. Fullsteam Brewery has a welcoming tavern, open seven days a week, where you can sit and drink a pint and have some snacks. Or if you're really hungry you can hit up a local food truck or bring in your own food to enjoy with a beer on tap.
Next stop on the Brewski Highway: Asheville, N.C. I have to say this city is my favorite beer destination on this trip. Asheville makes me want to put on flannel, pierce my nose, catch my own dinner, and drink all the local beer.
First stop on the way into town is Highland Brewing Company. I've been a fan of Highland Oatmeal Porter for a while, as it has a nice balance of malty dark flavors, with notes of chocolate, oatmeal, and hops. In the dark beer area, most people think of stouts, but I like porters (I like stouts too, but let's focus here). Basically a porter is a well-hopped beer made from brown malt. For Southern porters, Highland's is the one I reach for. Asheville's first brewery, Highland offers free tours seven days a week. The tasting room is also open seven days a week and is adjacent to the brewery.
- The crowds come out at Fullsteam
Staying in Asheville, it's great to see how the beer scene has gained momentum and the amount of breweries that are popping up left and right. Burial Beer Co., Hi-Wire Brewing, and Green Man Brewery are the ones to look out for, but for an afternoon lunch and a couple of beers, head to central Asheville and check out Wicked Weed Brewing. Getting historical, King Henry VIII declared hops "a wicked and pernicious weed" destined to ruin beer. Inspired, the folks behind Wicked Weed defy old King H. without the risk of losing their heads and brew big-flavored, hop-forward beers proving that hops are wickedly good. Plan some time to just sit and enjoy the tasting room — not only is the beer good here, but the food is right up there as well. A fried chicken sammy with kimchi and miso mayo makes for an outstanding Southern-meets-Korean lunch, along with one of the many American or Belgian ales on tap. What's fun about Wicked Weed is the "Funkatorium" section of their beer menu. Sours, farmhouse ales, and white ales fall into this area. Try the Bretticent Wild Ale, a traditional saison finished with Brettanomyces. What the what? Brettanomyces (a.k.a. Brett) is a slow-growing wild yeast that when added to beer can give it a funky barnyard taste. Pretty cool, in a wild sort of way.
- Wicked Weed's head brewer, Luke Dickinson, seems to like what he brewed
Crossing the border back into South Carolina, head for Spartanburg. RJ Rockers Brewing Company is known for Son of a Peach, an unfiltered wheat ale made with peaches. But seeing as summer is over, we put the peaches aside for a Witty Twister (say that one three times fast). Witty Twister is RJ Rockers' take on a Belgian Wit beer, and it's brewed with orange peel and coriander, giving it a bready taste infused with citrus and spice. Brewery tours and tastings are every Thursday and Friday from 5-7 p.m. and Saturday from 12-4 p.m.
A quick 30-minute trip and you'll be in Greenville. Named for the "passionate and adventurous spirit of the Greenville community," Quest Brewing Co. is a micro-brewery with sustainable, low-impact, and environmentally friendly values at its core. Try an Ellida IPA, a coppery colored beer that smells very hoppy but is easily drinkable. Quest Brewing offers free tours every Saturday afternoon starting at 1 p.m., with the last tour at 4 p.m. The taproom is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 4-8 p.m., Thursday and Friday from 4-9 p.m., and Saturday from 12-9 p.m. Have a little more time to spend in Greenville? Check out Thomas Creek Brewery and Greenville's brewpub Blue Ridge Brewing Co. as well.
Lucky for us, the weather in South Carolina can stay pretty warm throughout the fall and winter. Which means we can enjoy beers on the deck at River Rat Brewery in Columbia for most of the year. River Rat also recently finished construction on their kitchen, so look for a food menu to be up and running soon. Grab a Lost Port Porter with its smoky vanilla notes, sit at a picnic table, and enjoy, Wednesday-Sunday. Not ready to leave Columbia just yet? Swamp Cabbage Brewing Company is also open for tours and tastings Wednesday-Sunday. Try their hoppy ESB Inaugural Ale.
On the road again ... to Athens, Ga. Terrapin Beer Company quickly made a name for itself when their first beer, the Rye Pale Ale, won a gold medal back in 2002. The spiciness of the rye in this pale ale is quite nice. Also fun is their So Fresh & So Green, Green — a hop beer. The fresh hops used are different each year, keeping this beer "so fresh" year after year. The 2014 hops are Simcoe hops from Yakima, Wash. Terrapin Beer Co. is open for tours and tastings every Wednesday-Saturday from 5:30–7:30 p.m.
Go west-ish (yeah, that's a GPS direction) like the pioneers of yore and stop in Atlanta. Most bars in the Southeast seem to have SweetWater Brewing Company's 420 Extra Pale Ale on-tap, but as this is a road trip, let's try something a little more adventurous. SweetWater's Festive Ale is a winter seasonal, available October–December. This is a full-bodied beer with hints of cinnamon, perfect for the cooler weather. Brewed only one day a year, Festive Ale is available in limited quantity. Tours and tastings are held Wednesday-Friday from 5:30–7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 2:30–4:30 p.m.
Now on the homestretch of the Brewski Highway — whew. Destination: Savannah. And do we need some coffee at this point. Lucky for us, Southbound Brewing Co. has Moonlight Drive, a coffee stout. With notes of caramel and coffee, this beer will perk you up, along with the almost 9 percent ABV. Sip this one slowly and take a tour around Savannah's first micro-brewery. Tours and tastings are Wednesday–Friday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. and Saturday from 2-4 p.m.
It's always nice to come home again, and while Charleston has been voted "the best city in the world with the friendliest and best looking people," or something like that, I think our beer game is aces. So, while it's nice to know there are many fantastic craft beer options throughout the South, it's to you — COAST, Palmetto, Westbrook, Holy City, Frothy Beard, Revelry, Tradesman, and Freehouse — that I raise a glass to. Now, let's get a beer.