Following a solid local breakfast suggestion for HomeGrown, we departed east from Asheville to our first NC brewery outside of the famed city, though it is still in Buncombe County. We passed by the Pisgah National Forest and stopped in the City of Black Mountain. Pisgah Brewing Company was opened in 2005 by Dave Quinn and Jason Caughman who actually met while Dave was sharing some of his homebrew at a party. Dave had been receiving positive feedback for his brews while living in the Charleston, SC area when he decided to enter the AHA’s National Homebrew Competition in 2003. His personal pale ale recipe won a Gold medal amongst over 3,000 entrants and from that confidence, the two got to work on a business plan and the Pisgah brewery was born in an old storage facility for a furniture factory. That award winning pale ale featuring Nugget and Chinook hops still serves as the brewery’s most popular beer and, employing the Land of the Sky mobile canning line, was made available as their sole can offering this past January – though keep an eye out for another, possibly gluten free beer, in the near future.
We were fortunate this day to meet with Benton Wharton, who handles public relations and events at the brewery, of which there are many (to be discussed later). Benton related that Pisgah Brewing began as draft only and their first account was at Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria in downtown Asheville. You can still find their beer pouring there today along with approximately 200 accounts in the Buncombe and Boone Counties. Select accounts from Eastern NC come to the brewery to pick up beers but Pisgah recently partnered with Next Generation to get their cans spread out further around the state. The brewery opened with a large focus on organic sourcing and was USDA certified organic until this past year, when the USDA changed the certification requirements and would have forced the brewery to seek new hop sources. They haven’t changed anything about their ingredients and still utilize organic malts but are just moving forward without the costly certification. Another very unique approach at Pisgah is the use of 100% whole leaf hops, while nearly all other breweries (Sierra Nevada being a large exception) are employing the compacted hop pellets that can be found in any homebrew shop around the country.
Currently, the work of only two brewers leads to roughly 3,500 bbl of beer crafted on their 10 bbl system. Of that volume, around 75% is their flagship Pale Ale. Accompanying it are the other year round beers: Pisgah’s IPA featuring 6 hop additions, the smooth, Guinness inspired Nitro Stout, and the popular spice forward Solstice Tripel. The Porter and Summer ale are available nearly the full year, excepting a short period in the summer and winter, respectively. The timing of our visit was after the StoutHog Day party which was held on February 2nd. The brewery fills up all of the taps with stouts, including 3-5 guest taps, and featured 8 of their own this year. Some of those beers remained so we were able to sample the chocolate stout with oats where the staff chose from about 6-7 different chocolate options as well as the Valdez coffee stout featuring USDA certified organic coffee from nearby Dynamite Roasting Company which was fresh ground the day of the brew. A plethora of other seasonal beers are available throughout the year.
The Vortex series encompasses all of Pisgah’s high gravity or imperial beers. The name vortex comes from a celebrated gravitational anomaly in the nearby national forest. The brewery only does a select few lagers, however, the Polar Vortex is an imperial lager offering – other lagers include the Schwartz beer, Mexican Lager, and the brand new Amber Lager. Other imperial beers are the Vortex I triple pale ale (which could qualify for IPA status but is essentially an amped up pale ale recipe) and the Vortex II is an imperial stout which was done in a 10 bbl batch that was split in half and one portion was ‘chocolatized’ with 25 lb of Costa Rican cocoa nibs from local French Broad Chocolate Lounge. Pisgah released their very first barrel aged beer this past May as the Vortex II aged in Four Roses bourbon barrels. Following that was Cosmos, a Baltic porter featuring champagne yeast that was aged for quite some time in Caribbean rum barrels. They have even begun a souring program with the first release being a light ale featuring an Antwerp yeast and Brettanomyces. We eyed some wine barrels which will be featured with the next release.
Many of their creations are labeled and bottled with care in 22oz bombers. Benton explained that when they say they are handcrafted, it is no joke. Bottles are still done by hand, the mash is paddled by hand, and milled grains were added by hand for 8 years before the augur system was installed this past November. The flowing waterfall featured in the brewery’s bottle label was crafted by Richard Biffle, who some may recognize as the artist for the Grateful Dead. Each of the tap handles are hand crafted in their signature paddle shape by a brewery neighbor, Paul, who also built the brewery’s outdoor stage. Speaking of the stage, Pisgah Brewing is well known for their outdoor concerts which can draw upwards of 1,000 people. They also have an indoor stage in the spacious taproom that features a long L-shaped bar and a nice art display for rotating featured artists – Kent Paulette upon our stop.
Aside from the previously mentioned StoutHog Day, the brewery also hosts a yearly cycle cross race, plan to participate in a Gran Fondo which is being put on by a local Olympic racer, and will host the Black Mountain Greenway Challenge 5K/10K run on April 5th. The Bartender Olympics, which sound like amazing fun, are sponsored by a local radio station during Winter and Summer Olympics and held at the brewery. They will be hosting their 9th anniversary party with a big concert and party, open to the public for the first time. In regards to partnership with charity, with each bottle of Hellbender Barleywine sold, $1 is donated to benefit Wild South land conservancy, protecting local watersheds so important to the brewing industry in the process. The LEAF Amber is brewed each year and 10% of sales at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) benefit the LEAF in Schools and Streets program, a large supporter of music and arts education for children. Food trucks can often be found parked outside the brewery during concerts and other large events. During the winter, the taproom is open Wed – Sun (until Midnight or later on nights with live music) and free tours are held on Saturdays at 2:30pm. We definitely encourage you to stop by Pisgah Brewing Co to indulge in a variety of small batch brews that are rare to find at other accounts, enjoy some good music and great camaraderie with friends. Thank you very much to Benton for giving us such a detailed and informative look into this unique craft brewery.
Author: Brandon Wurtz