Restaurant News & Reviews

How the Bible Belt got down with craft beer

Bartender Morgan Persky pours a pint from one of the 23 beers on tap at Sierra Nevada's taproom in Mills River, North Carolina, on the outskirts of Asheville.
Bartender Morgan Persky pours a pint from one of the 23 beers on tap at Sierra Nevada's taproom in Mills River, North Carolina, on the outskirts of Asheville. For The Washington Post

In the beginning, Walt Dickinson was just a rock-climbing-guide turned rainwater-collection-system salesman who couldn’t find a decent beer in his home state and decided to start making his own at home.

“It was a wasteland,” he says of North Carolina and surrounding states. “There was no good IPA in the Southeast.”

The reason the region wasn’t producing hoppy, piney, West Coast-style India pale ales, the type that dominate craft sales around the country? Stifling government regulation. Century-old laws made it nearly impossible to start a craft brewery across the South and Mid-Atlantic. And when lawmakers began to repeal those laws, starting with North Carolina in 2005, Dickinson and other enterprising brewers took advantage.

Dickinson and his brother, Luke, partnered with three family friends: Ryan, Rick and Denise Guthy. Together, they invested $3 million within six months, and in late 2012 they started Wicked Weed, a purveyor of IPAs, sour ales and other malted varieties that is now the fastest-growing homegrown brewery in Asheville. The Asheville area has at least 23 craft breweries and 90,000 residents, the densest concentration in the United States. North Carolina’s microbrew production has increased 600 percent, to 675,000 barrels in 2015, just in four years.

Similar stories are playing out in Virginia and South Carolina — opening a market for local entrepreneurs and, at a much larger scale, big craft players from the Western states where government hurdles were never a problem.

Florida’s craft beer scene, too, continues to grow, bolstered by national trends and industry-friendly legislation. Never in the Florida Brewers Guild’s 20-year existence has the trade and lobbying group had more members: more than 100 breweries and brewpubs that are currently open or coming soon. About a quarter of those operate out of South Florida, from Palm Beach County through the Keys.

In Miami, the owners of Wynwood Brewing Co. navigated through permits and red tape for two years before opening their family-run brewpub in 2013. Since then, a handful of other breweries have cropped up around Miami-Dade, including two in Wynwood and two in Doral.

Last year, small brewers claimed a big victory in the Florida Legislature with the passage of the so-called Growler Bill. It allowed for licensed retail locations to fill 64-ounce portable containers known as growlers. Florida was one of only three states that still outlawed that size growler, a staple at most U.S. brewpubs. The brewers guild says it now has its sights set on changing state law to allow some form of self-distribution by breweries to retailers, which is the norm in 36 states.

The arrival of California brewery Sierra Nevada, which opened outside Asheville in 2014, and Colorado’s New Belgium, which has just started offering tours, opens a final geographic frontier for one of the rare American industries where small business is booming. Their mammoth production facilities cement Asheville’s status as a power-player in the craft world — but also give their homegrown brewers some big new neighbors to worry about.

The proliferation of craft brewing on the East Coast is a case study in how government regulation can block entrepreneurship for decades — and leave entire regions playing catch-up when it is finally relaxed.

New business creation is slowing across the country and in most industries, but not in the world of beer. The industry is dominated by a few big players, led by the soon-to-be-merged SAB Miller and Anheuser-Busch InBev. But smaller competitors, peddling wide varieties of stronger and more flavorful beer, are popping up everywhere to steal market share.

There were 2,347 craft breweries in the United States in 2012, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group, and they combined for 12 percent of the country’s beer sales in dollar terms. The sales share grew to 21 percent in 2015. By year’s end, if trends hold, there will be 5,000 craft breweries nationwide.

Four Western states house more than a quarter of those breweries: California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado, which have long been havens for the hoppy India pale ales that form the liquid foundation of the craft industry. The Midwest and Northeast also boast strong craft scenes.

The Mid-Atlantic is finally on its way. From 2005 to 2012, North Carolina lawmakers steadily repealed laws — Bible Belt leftovers from the end of Prohibition nearly a century earlier — that had stifled brewers from making and selling craft beer.

They lifted restrictions on how much alcohol a beer could include by volume, which had effectively banned many of the most popular craft styles. They began allowing larger craft breweries to sell their products on site, opening the way for small-volume brew houses. And they made it easier for some smaller breweries to distribute beer to stores and bars.

Until the restrictions were lifted, it took enormous quantities of money and patience to start a brewery in the state. Oscar Wong had both, which was why he had no competition when he began selling beer from an Asheville basement two decades ago. He had plenty of critics, though. They wrote the local newspaper regularly, complaining that he was doing the devil’s work with his pale ale.

Wong had sold an engineering business in his 40s and was bored in retirement. He hired a brewmaster and was content to build Highland Brewing slowly, from a few converted dairy tanks in 1994 to a leafy campus with its own bottling plant today. He brewed Scottish ale that was low enough in alcohol content to avoid violating state law, and he waited eight years to finally turn a profit.

Sierra Nevada and New Belgium had no such problems in California and Colorado. They grew into two of the largest craft brewers in the nation, expanded their reach to the East Coast and looked for ways to ease their path to customers there.

This summer, New Belgium ramped up production in its new 500,000-barrel facility that looms like a massive motorcycle (which the building is meant to evoke) parked along the French Broad River at the south end of downtown Asheville.

Its brew tanks are cooking up batches of Fat Tire, New Belgium’s signature amber ale, and Ranger, its IPA. In July, its tasting room was packing in visitors to watch the Tour de France on a projector screen and sip varietals at reclaimed-wood tables fashioned from the remnants of the livestock yard that once occupied part of the 18-acre site. On a recent weekday, landscapers were tilling the grounds and blue masking tape held temporary paper signs on conference rooms.

Sierra Nevada’s facility is turning out hundreds of thousands of barrels of ale in a resort-style setting outside of town. It is a working theme park of beer, complete with a full restaurant, outdoor concert amphitheater and a gift shop, in what appears from the outside to be part overstuffed hunting lodge, part steel mill.

Brewing on the East Coast saves money for the Californians and the Coloradans, and it adds freshness to brews they would otherwise be shipping across the country.

“Beer is heavy,” said Brendan Beers, New Belgium’s business support manager in Asheville. “The closer you can get your production facility to the end customer, the better.”

Before construction began, New Belgium officials met with wary local brewers. They assured them that they weren’t trying to invade the Asheville craft scene — they were selling to the whole East Coast. Sierra Nevada officials say they told the locals that they would choose a different North Carolina location if there were objections to them moving to the outskirts of Asheville. Then they invited every brewer in town to an all-expenses-paid week of “beer camp” at their Northern California headquarters.

Many local brewers say the arrival of the Western craft giants has attracted more customers to their taprooms. They also say they can’t imagine trying to grow large enough, fast enough, to challenge them for East Coast craft supremacy.

“Why would I fight a battle with companies that are so well established with such a good product?” said Walt Dickinson, the Wicked Weed founder. “That’s not what we’re trying to be.”

A week after the Dickinsons announced plans for Wicked Weed, Sierra Nevada said it was coming to town. “I knew it was going to be great for us,” Walt Dickinson said, “bringing in more beer tourists.”

He was right. Wicked Weed has doubled its production every year and now is up to 22,000 barrels annually. Its main brewery and restaurant is packed in the afternoons and evenings.

None of that would have been possible under North Carolina’s old blue laws, Dickinson said. As similar laws fall around the South, in states such as Georgia and Tennessee, breweries like Wicked Weed could see growth opportunities — although the West Coast brewers will probably see more.

Policy changes in Virginia have unleashed a wave of homegrown breweries, but they have also attracted big new facilities from San Diego’s Stone Brewing (in Richmond) and Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery (in Roanoke).

“It’s a first-mover advantage” for the Western brewers, said Bart Watson, the chief economist for the Brewers Association. (Yes, that’s a real job.) “The window on being a truly national craft brewery has essentially closed already.”

For North Carolina pioneer Wong, who distributes to several states but has no national ambitions, the arrival of the Western giants in his back yard means more traffic to his brewery but also more competition for tap handles and more pressure to drop his six-pack prices.

“I would have preferred that they weren’t here,” Wong said on a recent morning, lounging in an upstairs bar at his brewery. “But what it has forced us to do is up our game.”

His is perhaps the only local brewery now large enough, at 40,000 barrels a year, to worry about going toe-to-toe with the larger Western players.

“We don’t have the efficiencies they do,” said Leah Wong Ashburn, the founder’s daughter, who is now Highland’s president. “We’ve seen 12-pack prices that I’ve never seen for craft beer.”

(Highland Brewing charges $16 for a 12-pack of its Early’s Hoppy Wheat beer. A 12-pack of Sierra Nevada sells for as little as $14.99 in grocery stores. And the mass market giant Budweiser might go for $11.50 for a 12-pack.)

Highland, though, is adapting. It recently put in a rooftop bar and is selling, with wide distribution, its first West Coast-style IPA. You can buy it at a gas station/brew emporium near the Asheville Airport.

It is displayed prominently, right next to stacked cases of Sierra Nevada.

Evan S. Benn, editor-in-chief of INDULGE, contributed to this report.

Brewery tours

Here’s some contact info for some of the venues included in this story. Reservations are highly recommended for tours, which are often booked well in advance:

North Carolina

1. Wicked Weed Brewing Funkatorium Tour: 147 Coxe Ave., Asheville. $12 for an adult. 828-552-3203;

2. Sierra Nevada: 100 Sierra Nevada Way, Mills River. Several types of tours are offered. 828-708-6176;;

3. New Belgium Brewing Asheville: Free tours incorporate beer sampling. 21 Craven Street, Asheville. 828-333-6900;

4. Highland Brewing Company: The 30-minute tours consist of an overview of the company’s story, brewing and packaging processes. 12 Old Charlotte Hwy. Asheville. 828-299-3370;


Stone Company Store Richmond: Free 45-minute tours are followed by a guided tasting. 4300 Williamsburg Ave., Richmond. 804-489-5902; or


See interactive map at North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild:

Create and map your brew trail at the North Carolina Breweries & Brewpubs map:

A Keys beer trail

Why not map out a beer crawl on your next trip down the Florida Keys? Sample a flight or a pint at each stop along the way — just make sure you have a designated driver. You’ll even find a couple of distilleries once you’re in Key West, where you can tipple locally produced rum, whiskey and vodka — all with a Key lime twist. Here’s some suggested stops:

1: Islamorada Beer Company: Open since October 2014, this is the quintessential brewery and tasting room of the Keys and features a number of refreshing brews with quirky names like Channel Marker, No Tan Lines and their most popular brew: Sandbar Sunday. 82229 Overseas Highway at MM 82.9, Islamorada; 305-440-2162;

2: Florida Keys Brewing Company: Your second stop is just a hop, skip, and jump away. You’ll find exactly what you’re looking for here, whether it be in the form of a Honey Bottomed Blonde ale, a Smugglers Moon Oatmeal Stout or their refreshing FlaKeys Belgian-style, with hints of key lime. 200 Morada Way at MM 81.6, Islamorada; 305-916-5206;

3: The Waterfront Brewery: Once you’ve arrived in Key West, you’ll probably be craving something substantial. Start with the pretzel sticks and beer cheese with a flight to figure out the best brew for you. Enjoy the slightly caramelly Pallina, an English dark mild that’ll give you time to slow down at just 3.8 percent ABV while you scarf down a fresh mahi sandwich. If you’re feeling much more adventurous, order an extra-hoppy Truman Double IPA that, at 9.5 percent ABV, will definitely leave you floored. 201 William St., Key West; 305-440-2270;

4: Key West First Legal Rum Distillery: This was once the site of both the pre-Prohibition-era Jack’s Saloon and a Coca-Cola bottling factory. These days, it’s home to a distillery that produces more than a dozen varieties of rum. You can tour the distillery, sample the spirits and then walk a few blocks down to the festivities at Mallory Square for the sunset. 105 Simonton St., Key West; 305-294-1441;

5: Key West Distilling: Open since 2013, this distillery produces a variety of rums, as well as a rum barrel-aged whiskey and a sugar-distilled vodka. Mondays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 524 Southard St., Key West; 305-295-3400;

6: Bone Island Brewing: Here you’ll find handcrafted brews that are malty and sweet, and anything but bitter. This nanobrewery in Tallmadge’s Restaurant Store is a bit hard to find but well worth the visit. Among their selections are the light and refreshing Hefe El Jefe, the chocolaty Black Hole Oatmeal Stout, and the Benediction — a Belgian triple that packs a punch. 1111 Eaton St., Key West; 305-294-7994;


Miami-Dade’s best breweries

Craft beer is bigger and better than ever in Miami. Regardless of what part of town you’re in, you can find a brewery creating incredible beer that’s lovingly Made in Dade. Here are some selections from

Abbey Brewing: The guys at this Miami Beach establishment have been brewing since 1995, although their beer is now brewed off-site. It’s casual and filled with locals, and their Belgian beers are top-notch. You can have your choice of the locals’ favorite, the amber-colored Immaculate IPA, a special Abbey recipe, or the complex Father Theodore’s Stout, a blend of coffee, roasted toffee, anise and chocolate flavor. The Brother Dan’s Double, a light brown chocolate/chestnut, candied fruit/raisin hint-filled brew, and the Brother Aaron’s Quadruple, comparable to a Belgian winter ale, round out the list. 1115 16th St., Miami Beach; 305-538-8110;

Concrete Beach Brewery: Sample one of several year-round brews on tap like the Wheat Indian Pale Ale Rica, the very Miami-Dade aptly-named Stiltsville Pilsner or the Concrete Common Amber Lager. Seasonal choices include passion fruit Wheat Ale and South American Red Ale. They also recreated Cuba’s oldest beer, La Tropical, in conjunction with the founding family. $1 off beers on weekdays and half off a second growler fill up on Fridays. They also offer tours of the brewery. 325 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-796-2727;

J.Wakefield Brewing: A Star Wars theme and tart, so-called sour beers are the reason to visit this gourmet of Miami’s craft beer breweries. Their Hop for Teacher IPA (must be a Van Halen fan) is among their flagship beers. The one that put them on the map, though, was their Stush, a pale golden Berliner Weisse with a zesty lemon flavor. And if you’re lucky enough to walk in on their annual release, Dragon Fruit Passion Fruit berliner, you will be grateful for the refreshing lip pucker. 120 NW 24th St., Miami; 786-254-7779;

Lincoln’s Beard Brewing: Six partners, most ex-military and Department of Defense contractors who met at Doral’s U.S. Southern Command, helped bring brewer John Falco’s beers to the masses in western Miami-Dade. Lincoln’s Beard experiments with brewing many varieties and styles of beer, from fruity Belgians to dark, rich stouts and even whiskey-barrel-aged beers. This local watering hole brings a bit of artsy funk, live music and a laid-back casual atmosphere. 7360 SW 41st St., Miami;

M.I.A. Beer Company: Also a brewery and restaurant, this Doral spot has quickly left its mark on brew lovers. Signature brews include Miami Weiss, a German style Hefeweizen brewed with wheat, barley and sweet orange peel; the 305 Ale, a crisp Golden Ale with a hint of West Coast hops; and M.I.A. IPA, a hoppy India Pale Ale with a piney flavor and citrus and tropical notes. 10400 NW 33rd St., Ste. 150, Doral; 786-801-1721;

Miami Brewing Company: Make a day of it in Homestead at this brewery that’s at Schnebly’s Winery & Brewery. Considered the “Southernmost Winery & Brewery in the U.S.,” there are several craft brews on tap year-round like the Big Rod Coconut Ale, the Gator Tail Brown Ale, Shark Bait, a deep gold wheat beer, and the Vice IPA with hops and caramel. Seasonal selections include the Little Havana Café con Leche Milk Stout and Miami Winter Ale a spiced ale. 30205 SW 217th Ave., Homestead; 305-242-1224;

Titanic Restaurant & Brewery: This one’s a longtime favorite of the University of Miami Hurricanes crowd, given that it’s right near the Coral Gables campus. There’s plenty going on with a list of 12 locally made brews on tap as well as a full menu. Check it out if you haven’t already. 5813 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 305-668-1742;

Wynwood Brewery: Features a tap room, a small bar area, and a relaxed, intimate setting. Kick back and sample their most popular La Rubia, a blond ale; the robust Pop’s Porter; Wynwood IPA (an India Pale Ale); the Magic City Pale Ale; and the Rickenbacker Pilsner. Happy hour is from 4-7 pm with $4 off 16-ounce pints with a daily Growler Hour is noon to 1 p.m. with half off growlers. 565 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-982-8732 or 305-640-5043;


Brewing in Broward

Bangin’ Banjo Brewing Company: “It brings a little bit of Gainesville culture to South Florida,” co-founder Adam Feingold says. “Anywhere north of Orlando and it starts to look rural, and has that Southern-hospitality charm... I like to think the South begins when you can walk into any restaurant and order a sweet tea.” Signature brew: Gose (pronounced “Goh zuh”) Getter, a German-style sour wheat beer with Florida orange zest and coriander; cypress Creek Cream Ale, a light, creamy ale; Judy’s Amber Ale, a malty, hopper amber ale; Odin’s Reven. 3200 NW 23rd Ave., No. 500, Pompano Beach; 954-978-3113;

LauderAle Brewery & Tap Room: Kyle Jones and Joey Farrell’s rustic, 3,200-square-foot blue warehouse opened in August 2014, tucked between Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The brewery’s logo is a boat propeller, a nod to Farrell’s background as a naval architect for a marine salvage company. Wood-paneled walls and steel tanks cover the interior, with beer specials (try the Mr. White’s Wit and Heisenberg) scrawled on a chalkboard above the bar top. Signature brews: Lake Silvia Saison, Port Everglades Porter and George English Ale. 3305 SE 14th Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-653-9711,

26 Degree Brewing Co.: Named after a geographical meridian that passes through South Florida, 26 Degree is the creation of self-taught home brewers Greg Lieberman, Yonathan Ghersi, Oscar Oliwkowicz and Billy Silas. The 21,000-square-foot brewery takes over a former Winn-Dixie supermarket on Atlantic Boulevard, and will sell “traditional”-style beers from an 4,600-square-foot “industrial chic” tap room. Signature brews: Ziko’s Rage, a Russian-style imperial stout punched with notes of coffee, caramel and raisin; and Baseline, a pale ale. 2600 E. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach; 954-532-6964;

The Mack House: Head brewer and Fort Lauderdale native Bobby Gordash opened his nanobrewery in 2013 to house his Holy Mackerel brand. The brewery has since added several more beers, including the Big Easy (a brown ale with notes of andouille sausage) and Schweddy Balls (peanut butter and sea salt beer). The strip-mall brew house lacks a full menu but does sell homemade pretzels with beer-cheese soup and ale-glazed meatballs. Signature brews: Special Golden Ale; the Mack Attack, a Belgian-style trippel-saison fusion; and Mack in Black, an imperial black ale. 9118 W. State Road 84, Davie; 954-474-5040,

Khoffner Brewery USA: This brewery, which opened at its Fort Lauderdale location in December, is led by Rauf Khoffner, a third-generation brewer. He follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, who left Germany in 1933 to brew German-style beers in Turkey. Khoffner uses recipes dating back more than 100 years. Among the specialties is a range of dark beers: Black Jack, a British dark porter; Brown Cow, a milk stout; Russian Romance, an imperial stout; and Herculese, an oatmeal stout. Also offered: Pan American, a traditional IPA; Pumpkin Patch, seasonal; Staff of Life, American wheat beer; Brown Dog, an English brown ale; 3XXX, a Belgian-style tripel; and a variety of lagers. 1110 NE Eighth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 754-701-8860;

Funky Buddha Brewery: The largest and best-recognized on South Florida’s craft-beer scene, the Buddha launched in 2013 by brothers KC and Ryan Sentz. They moved brewing operations from their flagship location in Boca Raton, which opened in 2007, to a 40,000-square-foot warehouse hugging the Oakland Park railroad tracks. Signature brews: Hop Gun IPA, a hoppy payload of grapefruit and pineapple; the Floridian, a citrusy hefeweizen; and the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter. 1201 NE 38th St., Oakland Park; 954-440-0046;

Notable in Palm Beach

Barrel of Monks Brewing: Longtime Boca Raton friends and co-founders Keith DeLoach, Bill McFee and Matthew Saady share so much passion for Belgian-style ales that it’s all they brew. Inspired by a trip to a Belgian monastery, the trio opened their 9,136-square-foot brewery in late March to offer four fruity, light-body beers punched with Belgian candy sugar. Signature brews: Single en Brugge, a singel ale; Abbey Terno, a dubbel, Three Fates, a tripel; and Quadrophonic, a quad. Tours of the brewery offered on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. and between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.1141 S. Rogers Circle No. 5, Boca Raton; 561-510-1253;

Saltwater Brewery: The five-man team of Dustin Jeffers, Bo Eaton, Chris Gove, Bill Taylor and Peter Agardy all began their craft-beer careers as home brewers before launching their 8,000-square-foot, full-scale operation in late 2013. Their themed tap room, called the “Reef Room,” features porthole windows, wooden catwalks and nautical-sounding beers. Signature brews: Bone-A-Fied Blonde, a Belgian-style spicy blonde ale; Sea Cow, a smoky, roasty milk stout; and South End, a hoppy pale ale. 1701 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach; 561-865-5373,