This month, Charlotte Cook shares an American brewing pilgrimage, complete with legendary taprooms, dive bars and a healthy slug of hard seltzer
Saturday 07 May 2022
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For someone whose entire existence seems to revolve around beer, it is somewhat surprising that I very rarely go to taprooms, so on my recent trip to the USA I put that right. Let’s be honest, taprooms in the USA are quite often a very different and more opulent experience than taprooms in the UK. A walk around Asheville, North Carolina feels like a trip to Malt Disneyland, with branding, merch and beer assaulting you from every direction, whereas visiting a taproom in the UK usually involves a 20-minute traipse around an industrial estate and crossing a perilous overpass, only to squeeze onto those benches that sink in the middle. You take your life into your hands every time.
I went to the states to attend the Pink Boots Society bi-annual conference in Charlotte North Carolina, but also took the chance to visit Vermont to see my friends at Drop-In Brewing and the American Brewers Guild. Drop In acts as the commercial outlet of the brewing school, and the set-up is more familiar to UK drinkers than some of the more stylised taprooms. What it lacks in video displays and fire pits it makes up for with the beer. The beer is impeccable, classic, and made with the care and attention you’d expect from head brewer Steve Parkes, a true behemoth of modern American brewing and a Brit in exile.
In Vermont, it’s remarkably easy to avoid drinking hop soup, despite the NEIPA originating in that region. What struck me was that the quality of beer there was outstanding (and clear); I don’t think I had a beer that was poor, or even just unmemorable. This was in part due to my tour guides from Drop In, as well as my friend Erica, a Vermont native whose brewing CV is incredibly impressive. But mostly, the incredible beer is due to the sheer ability of the people brewing up in the Green Mountains.
The beer is impeccable, classic, and made with care and attention
Obviously, there’s some juicy and overly dry-hopped “beer for kids” being slung in Vermont, but if you take a trip to Lawson’s taproom in Waitsfield the hazy beers are still incredibly well balanced, bitter, and there’s no scratchy bits of plant material left floating around. Lawson’s, like many other Vermont brewers, understands how to do this style well and, vitally, doesn’t think that allowing a keg to settle is a thing. It’s not a thing. You shouldn’t have hop particulate in your kegs, bottles or anywhere in your glass – something many UK brewers have yet to address.
A thing I truly love about visiting the States is sitting in a dive bar, drinking whatever crap lager is on tap, and seeing society play out surrounded by the scuzz and authenticity you don’t get in a brewery taproom. One part of this ritual that has changed the most since my last trip to the USA is that there are now a lot more flavours of hard seltzer available than there were three years ago. Dive bars sell hard seltzers, and in the name of robust and complete research I had to try them all, in triplicate (I am A Scientist, you know). After a day of sampling craft beer and artisan cheese pairings, there’s something beautiful about slamming eight watermelon seltzers and singing all the wrong words along to Springsteen with your new pals from the most shadowy corner of the bar.
While Vermont offered classic beers that were largely well crafted, the situation in North Carolina was surprisingly different. Despite a profusion of breweries and taprooms, the selection was fairly limited, lower in quality, and most were high ABV pastry beers with very few easy-drinking styles at an accessible alcohol level.
There are some things that we can adopt in the UK
I am not, as an Australian friend described it recently, “piss fit”. I can’t day drink, lest I get into a verbal spat or fall asleep in the park at 3pm, nor can I handle beer above 7% ABV. This means that a beer drinking trip to North Carolina pushed my body to the limits, and not in the sort of Bear Grylls extreme survival way, but in a testing the resourcefulness of your pancreas kind of way. That we made a pilgrimage to “Biscuitville” for country fried steak served in a freshly baked biscuit, for breakfast, did little to lessen the damage.
The taprooms in North Carolina were impressive. Sierra Nevada in Asheville is a vast, shining and awe-inducing temple of beer. Nothing of its sort exists in the UK, and even the UK’s largest craft manufacturers couldn’t emulate it; they’d just stick daft cartoons everywhere and have some sort of quirky creche for your Nana. Sierra Nevada is a grown-up taproom, set in a truly beautiful landscape, with woodland trails to build up your thirst and the brewery’s commitment to sustainability is evident everywhere you look.
The rest of Ashville boasts some impressive locations too: Burial Beer Co. has created a fun space that showcases its imagery and style without making it kitschy, though the beer was slightly disappointing. I do think that when people, myself included, make it to a hype brewery their expectations are so high that a perfectly serviceable beer becomes somewhat flattened and disappointing when it doesn’t live up to their hopes.
Obviously, the USA is a huge place, and not every taproom is created the same, but there are some things that we can adopt in the UK. Mostly comfier seats and more food options in a dedicated space. Not a recently cleared out brewhouse with a brewer still installed, hose in hand, by the time the first pints are poured. I was very ready to head home after this trip though, 10 days of high fructose corn syrup and beer are not good for a delicate soul like myself. Though every time I sit on one of those flimsy benches, I will wish I was on a sturdy stool in Asheville.
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