1 of 6
Starr Hill Brewery
Mark Thompson, of Starr Hill Brewery in Charlottesville, Va.
2 of 6
Grains at a Brewery
3 of 6
Devils Backbone Brewery
In Nelson County, Va., Devils Backbone Brewery is close to the Appalachian Trail, Wintergreen Resort and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
4 of 6
An old world-reminiscent draught of beer at N.C.'s Heinzelmannchen.
5 of 6
The operations at Highland Brewery in N.C., founded in 1994.
6 of 6
Starr Hill Brewery
Mark Thompson, of Starr Hill Brewery in Charlottesville, Va.
After months of grueling research, newspaper columnist and book author Joe Tennis reports on the growing community of microbrews in the mountains.
Ben Clingner goes to work each day and drinks a little beer.
He has to. It's all part of his job as the brewmaster at Smoky Mountain Brewery in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
"The dark is heavier on your palate," Clingner says, serving sudsy samples of Appalachian Pale Ale, Thunder Road and Tuckaleechee Porter. "Sometimes you drink a heavy beer and you go to a light beer, you have the residue from the heavy beer."
Clingner knows. He makes both light and dark beers at Smoky Mountain. He also has ales for what ails you.
Smoky Mountain Brewery – with sister locations in Gatlinburg and Knoxville – is one of an increasing number of brewing operations across the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. Big cities like Roanoke, Va., boast hometown breweries, and so do small mountain villages, with new operations coming to places like Abingdon, Va., and Maggie Valley, N.C.
Each year, as well, new microbreweries seem to pop up as rapidly as college-town keg parties. Asheville, N.C., alone, boasts nearly a dozen breweries.
Why the success?
"It's a beer-drinking town," says Aaron Wilson, brewer for Asheville's French Broad Brewing Co. "And we have a good community. We all work together."
ONE OF THE LARGEST of Asheville's breweries, Highland Brewing Co. calls itself "just a wee bit different" and pays homage to the mountain region's Scots-Irish settlers with a logo featuring a bagpipe player holding a frosty mug of ale. Founded in 1994, Highland makes about 15,000 barrels of beer each year – including Cattail Peak, an organic wheat beer.
"The craft beer drinker is an experimental drinker," says Highland's marketing director, Steve Schwartz.
Typically, too, what's made at microbreweries has more than twice the amount of alcohol as a domestic light beer. Wee Heavy-er Scotch Ale – the flagship brand of the French Broad Brewing Co. – boasts a seven percent concentration of alcohol. Shooting Creek Farm Brewery in Floyd County, Va., likewise, produces Buffalo Brown Ale with a whopping 7.6-percent alcohol content.
"Once you get used to real beer," says John Kevlin of Cullowhee, N.C., a microbrew fan in Sylva, "it's hard to drink the other."
FOR BEN WEBB, it's hard to stop experimenting. Primarily a winemaker, Webb operates Old North State Winery and Brewery in Mount Airy, N.C., and makes just 400 gallons a year of two brands: Old North State Pale Ale and Old North State Amber. Consistency is not an issue, Webb says. "We've been tweaking our recipe for about three years now. It still varies from brew to brew."
Braumeister Dieter Kuhn of Sylva, N.C., meanwhile, operates with a simple mission of being a "hometown brewer" – just like you would find in his native German village of Heidelsheim.
"Beer is a very common thing in Germany," says Kuhn. "It was another source of nutrition and hydration. Every town has its own brewery."
Kuhn produces specialty flavors like Black Forest Stout, a dark ale with a balance of coffee and caramel colors. "But we're not an extreme brewery," insists Kuhn's wife, Sheryl Rudd. "The typical brewery scares them away because [its beer] is so heavy and so bitter. We are middle of the road."
Kuhn and Rudd have named their operation Heinzelmannchen.
Kuhn smiles and says, "The final two syllables rhyme with 'attention' and sound like 'mention.' People pay attention when you ask for a Heinzelmannchen."
NAMES ARE IMPORTANT. The names of Virginia brewer Taylor Smack's beers have ranged from Evil 8, which boasts nearly eight percent alcohol, to Lights Out Holiday Ale. Smack's also makes the "pleasantly bitter" Full Nelson Pale Ale –the name inspired by Blue Mountain's location in mountainous Nelson County.
Blue Mountain Brewing
In North Carolina, Boone Brewing Co. businessmen Todd Rice and Jeff Walker invented a popular brand – Blowing Rock High Country Ale – with a rich and malty flavor. It's on tap at Char, a chic eatery near Boone's Appalachian State University.
Near Virginia Tech, John Strickland brews Sun Lit Wit – an unfiltered German-style beer – at the Bull & Bones Brewhaus & Grill of Blacksburg. Strickland also makes the crisp All Night Light.
"In a brewpub," Strickland says, "I think you get variety – and more flavor – in a typical beer."
Michael Foster's tiny Depot Street Brewing in Jonesborough, Tenn., produces about 15 different beers, including Eurail Gold, Ride-the-Rail and Whistlestop Wit.
"I don't think I have a typical customer," Foster says. "It's people who are seeking out a sophisticated taste – and more variety. Beer should [offer] a variety of flavors and styles."
STARR HILL BREWERY'S Mark Thompson got hooked on making craft beer while living in Oregon and Colorado in the early 1990s. Coming home to Virginia, he formed Starr Hill in 1999, initially opening in downtown Charlottesville. He moved a dozen miles west to Crozet in 2004 and reopened the brewery in a former frozen food factory with a cavernous 30,000 square feet.
Inside, Thompson offers tours on Saturday afternoons. Going up on the roof, the master brewer talks of someday opening an observation deck.
This industrial building does not mirror the cozy dining rooms of Blue Ridge brewpubs like the recently opened , near the New River at Radford, Va. Still, Starr Hill's space serves Thompson well, allowing almost unlimited room for expanding one of the largest small-brewing operations on the East Coast.
River Company Restaurant and Brewery
"It's perfect," Thompson says. "We use the water off the Beaver Creek Reservoir, in the Blue Ridge."
CONSIDER THE CONTENTS OF BEER: hops, barley, malt and water. Lots of water.
"Water is the largest ingredient in beer," Schwartz says. "It's more water than anything else."
Foster filters Jonesborough's town water at Depot Street Brewing. "Then I add back minerals."
At Heinzelmannchen, Kuhn uses water from the Tuckaseigee River.
Smack, at Blue Mountain, selected his picturesque property just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Afton, Va., simply for the water's mineral content. "Historically," Smack says, "breweries grow up because of the water."
Like other brewers, Smack grows his own hops, though that crop provides just 25 percent of what he needs to make 2,000 barrels of beer each year (the rest he buys from elsewhere).
"We're a farm brewery," Smack says. "We do the same model as a winery. We're like the love child of a Bavarian beer hall and a Virginia vineyard."
BLUE MOUNTAIN IS PART of a marketing cooperative called the Brew Ridge Trail, along with Starr Hill Brewery, Charlottesville's South Street Brewery and the nearby Devils Backbone Brewery of Roseland, Va.
Strategically located near Wintergreen Resort, the Appalachian Trail and the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, Devils Backbone stands inside a handsome stone-and-wood building and boasts what owner Steve Crandall calls "a classic belly-up-to-the-bar kind of bar."
Customers come as far as Washington, D.C., for the house specialty, Gold Leaf Lager, brewed with a German-engineered brewing system acquired by Crandall in Japan and shipped to Devils Backbone at a bargain rate. "It's an incredibly technical system," brewmaster Jason Oliver says, showing off instructions on the brewing tanks, printed in Japanese.
A brewer for nearly 15 years, Oliver likes to use traditional ingredients in his brews. To him, as well, making beer is very much an art. "And here," he says, "it's nice to have this canvas on which to paint."