BOONE — For far too long, this small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains seemed like a barren desert for craft beer, a mirage compared to the oasis two hours south in Asheville.
Earlier this year, the area’s image slowly began to change. The first craft brewery in Boone opened in February, another began pouring next door in Blowing Rock earlier this month and soon a third will start in nearby Banner Elk.
Three more breweries are located a short drive down backcountry roads.
The scene is nowhere near as evolved as rival Asheville, where roughly two dozen breweries make it the state’s craft beer haven. And the question for Boone area: what took so long? “That’s a good question,” said Nathan Paris, at Flat Top Brewing in Banner Elk. “We’ve pretty much got it all, and (craft beer) is finally catching on.”
Boone, elevation 3,333 and population 18,000, is often ranked as a top mountain town by national publications. Anchored by quirky Appalachian State University, the town sports a mellow vibe and serves as a launch pad for adventure seekers.
Good beer was always easy to find at Peabody’s Wine and Beer Merchants, the best local bottle shop, which is located at the town’s crossroads. But until recently, a local brewery was missing. Appalachian Mountain Brewery filled the gap when it opened earlier this year.
Owner Sean Spiegelman says it wasn’t easy. He fought for months to get approval from recalcitrant town officials before opening in an unadorned building across from Boone Mall. Despite the cold shoulder, Spiegelman’s brewery emphasizes local pride, donating portions of many beers to area nonprofits. And the town’s craft beer fans are embracing Appalachian Mountain, leading Spiegelman to consider expansion plans and a bottling or canning operation.
Most weekends the small tasting room is full, and the outdoor porch and a backyard area are popular. The brewery’s blond ale Honey Badger and steam lager California Common won gold medals at the recent U.S. Beer Open. Other recipes are still being tweaked, and the dark seasonal beers are quickly becoming favorites.
A 15-minute drive up the hill, Blowing Rock Ale House and Inn just opened a five-barrel brewery. Located in a two-bedroom cottage behind the inn, formerly known as the Maple Lodge, the ale house is getting special beers from brewer Ray Hodge in addition to the nine the brewery now offers.
Hodge also brews for parent company Blowing Rock Brewing, which is opening a new 30-barrel brewhouse in nearby Hickory in December. It will serve as a production facility for the brand’s Blowing Rock ales.
But Hodge, who has 12 years’ experience, said he is particularly excited about the smaller brewery, where he can experiment with new recipes. A taste of his first batch of an American wheat beer straight from the tank revealed a subtle spice profile and clean flavor that will ensure it’s a crowd pleaser. The dark Belgian with figs and more prominent spice character is also popular.
A few mountain ridges away, Paris’ Flat Top Brewing is starting with a large 20-barrel brewhouse with a canning line. In addition to its stock offerings, the brewery has experimented with some creative concoctions, including an apple butter porter and a pale ale with Fraser Fir tips from a local Christmas tree farm.
The brewery received a good reception at a recent beer festival and Paris said he’s anxious to open later this month.
The High Country, he said, will soon become a craft beer destination.
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