Cellarest Beer Project is one of Asheville, North Carolina’s newest breweries. Photos by Ben Lisle

Imagine a small and liveable city, perched in a uniquely gorgeous natural environment. It’s a place with “character,” thanks to an older city center that (largely) survived the demolition of the urban renewal era of the 1960s. Repurposed industrial buildings now pop with galleries, locally sourced restaurants, coffee shops, and breweries — the markers of the good life for some folks.

People move here from larger cities because it offers a lot culturally, but is also less frantic. That beauty and culture also draws plenty of tourists, tedious for residents during the summer months, but also essential to creating the conditions for all those great cultural features of the city. Features like beer. There are so many breweries, from old legacy icons of craft brewing to tiny start-ups. It’s a mature beer culture with discerning drinkers to support a wide range of styles and experimentation – a regular on any list of “best beer cities” (as dodgy as those lists are sometimes). And it’s also a city with a fascinating historical relationship with alcohol prohibition.

Welcome to Asheville, North Carolina — Portland’s Southern doppelgänger.

Cellarest specializes in lagers and farmhouse styles.

Sometimes a good way to understand what’s going on in your own backyard is to look into someone else’s. I’ve been doing a lot of looking over the last week, walking Asheville’s hilly streets, eating its biscuits, grits, and fried green tomatoes, and – of course – drinking its beer. Inevitably, I’ve also been thinking a lot about Portland and the broader landscape of Maine beer while I’ve been here.

Asheville is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western part of the state – the land of bootleggers. Layers of hazy mountains, various shades of blue and green, frame a hilly city bisected by the French Broad River – a playground for kayakers and tubers (some undoubtedly accompanied by coolers of beer, as one does in warmer climates).

At the center of Asheville’s beerscape is the South Slope, a former industrial area adjacent to downtown that has been largely turned over to breweries, cideries and artists. Analogous to Portland’s East Bayside, it is a magnet for out-of-towners, with the boisterousness that comes with those on vacation or in from the suburbs for a night out.

The most boisterous of them all is Burial Beer Co. (whose beers make an appearance at Portland’s Novare Res). Burial’s Southern gothic iconography and over-the-top beer names and descriptions suit its aggressive beers: The tap list here is dominated by high-octane IPAs and stouts (though Burial cans a wide range of styles). A number of other tasting rooms dot the area, including older breweries like Green Man and Asheville Brewing Co., as well as Wicked Weed – once a darling of the craft beer world, before being sold to AB InBev in 2017.

Zillicoah Beer Co. is located in a gritty industrial setting.

Those in the mood for something more relaxed have options – and for me, this is where Asheville really expresses itself. Drive 10 minutes north from the South Slope, and you’ll find the gloriously unpretentious Zillicoah Beer Co., snug between railroad tracks and the French Broad River (Zillicoah is the Indigenous name for the stretch of river north of Asheville), housed in a corrugated metal barn. The unapologetically gritty industrial setting – this is not the quaint and polished brick of Biddeford’s Pepperell Mill – belies the sense of ease here. I feel like a child who has escaped to a secret hideout as I linger over Dortmunder Export and a snappy brett pale ale. I’m not sure Portland, or Maine, has a setting quite like it.

Just a couple minutes west of the South Slope (by car) gets you to the River Arts District and the Wedge Brewery, in a towering railroad warehouse of art studios, encircled by a courtyard outfitted of rusty metallic sculptures fashioned from repurposed industrial equipment. Take Hayward Road for just a couple minutes more – across the river, past a cat clinic, a taqueria, a muffler shop and a bakery – and you’ve arrived in West Asheville.

You’ll find a brewery every few blocks along this old strip, amidst vintage shops, convenience stores, comfort food, schools, tattoo parlors, churches and murals aplenty. It’s a scale and spatiality that doesn’t really exist in Portland, resulting in what seems a more Southern sense of slow and casual temporality. Breweries there feel more like local coffee shops or community centers; it reminds me a little bit of South Portland’s Fore River Brewing Co.

One of the city’s newest breweries, the three-month-old Cellarest Beer Project, is there, in an old auto repair garage. It exhibits the sort of niche beers you’ll find in a great beer city. Cellarest specializes in lagers and farmhouse styles, fermenting, lagering and aging their beers on wood. Some, like their puncheon-aged dark lager, really feature the oakiness of the wood. Others, like their pale lager (fermented and lagered in Acacia wood) or their English mild (fermented in cherrywood), exhibit the softly rounded bodies that wood can provide.

California brewery Sierra Nevada has a Southern outpost a hafl hour south of Asheville.

If there is a stylistic trend distinguishing Asheville from Portland, it is the abundance of low-alcohol, English bitters and milds. Nearly every brewery I went to had one (or more) on offer – from Dssolvr’s cask ales to a beer that truly brought tears to my eyes, a single-malt (Golden Promise) and single-hop (East Kent Golding) Extra Special Bitter from, surprise, Sierra Nevada. The California brewery has an opulent campus 30 minutes south of the city that is truly remarkable – a beerified Biltmore Estate. Why all these traditional English ales? A tasting room server from West Asheville’s Archetype Brewing chalked it up to hop fatigue. I wonder if there might also be something generational at play, as a certain cohort of craft beer drinkers ages, perhaps developing more discerning palates, while also being proving less resilient to higher alcohol beers.

I hope it’s something we see more of in Portland as a flavor-forward, low-alcohol option – to go along with our lagers and excellent session IPAs – joining the likes of Bunker’s Barncat Mild and Chickadee Bitter and Oi! from Bissell Brothers. It would be a sort of return to the roots of craft brewing in Maine, when English styles were dominant in the 1990s. It would also recall the early days of commercial beer brewing in our state, when the “father of prohibition,” Neal Dow, raged against Portland’s working-class drinkers.

Like Portland, Asheville also has its own peculiar relationship with prohibition – though one with a distinctly Southern twist. The city voted to ban booze in 1907. But as in post-Civil War Portland, prohibition didn’t stop the drinking. Surrounded by dry counties, hooch flowed into the city nonetheless from mountain stills, in the trunks of cars with supercharged engines, designed to outrun the authorities. Folk hero Junior Johnson, the first NASCAR superstar, cut his teeth running moonshine out of Ingle Hollow.

I end my trip with a boozy, bourbon-barrel-aged stout from Burial; it isn’t “white lightning,” to be sure, but I’ll certainly feel it in the morning.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.

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