To find the most beer-soaked town in North Carolina, look past the much-acclaimed Asheville.
Thirty miles to the west sits Waynesville, a small town of 10,000 nestled between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. It’s here where you’ll find four craft breweries – one of the highest brewery-per-capita ratios in the state.
A possible rival is nearby Sylva, a smaller outpost in Western North Carolina where 2,700 people share two breweries.
Though often obscured by the shadow of Asheville, both towns make for a great road trip for craft beer fans who want to go off the beaten path.
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On a recent summer afternoon, I visited the town’s two main breweries, starting at Frog Level Brewing, where Clark Williams, the colorful owner with a long gray goatee and walking cane, specializes in traditional English ales.
The brewery opened in 2012 as the town’s first, located in a low-lying part of town. Now, Richland Creek is the highlight of the beer garden on the back porch behind the redbrick former warehouse building.
Williams, a former Marine, is planning to expand his operation and can his beers for distribution across the state. The label for Frog Level’s Salamander Slam IPA has a camouflage background.
The town, he said, is embracing its breweries and growing local food scene. “Waynesville was craving a new idea for tourism,” he said.
A mile away, BearWaters Brewing embraces its surroundings with an outdoor adventure-themed taproom that adds life to an aging industrial warehouse near the main highway.
When I arrived, Head Brewer Greg Kidd was making a new batch that filled the taproom with the sweet smell of malt.
The brewery operates on a small homebrew-like system giving it room to try plenty of creative beers. The “Now Flowing” chalkboard listed a dozen beers on tap.
Kevin Sandefur, the co-owner at BearWaters Brewing, said he is looking to expand and distribute more widely, with his eyes set on tripling the brewery’s capacity in coming months.
More beer is coming to town soon at BooJum, a new brewery scheduled to open not far from BearWaters later this year. Tipping Point Tavern, a local restaurant downtown, also added a small brewing operation a year ago.
“I can see Waynesville becoming to Asheville like Boulder is to Denver,” Sandefur said.
Even tiny Sylva, about 20 miles southwest of Waynesville, is on the beer map. Heinzelmannchen, roughly pronounced “Hine-zell-mention,” opened in a small shop on the back side of the town’s main street 10 years ago, the only brewery west of Asheville at the time.
The latest brewery on the scene is Innovation Brewing, just down the road in an old service station. As the name suggests, brewer Nicole Dexter is on the edge of the popular beer styles, with four India pale ales, a sour and a bourbon barrel-aged beer on draft when I visited.
Dexter pointed to a honeysuckle plum saison as she described her style as a mix of unique and traditional styles.
Despite Asheville getting most of the attention, Dexter said the separation helps them stand out. “We knew we wanted to be in small town,” she said. “We didn’t want to be in the city.”