The Beer Run road trip

the flight at lexington avenue brewing

The hub and I had been hearing about Asheville, N.C.’s microbreweries. There are around 10 in downtown and the immediate area, including Pisgah Brewing Company in Black Mountain, N.C., which produces all certified organic beers. The mountain city and its environs is considered by some to be the second-best spot for craft brews after Seattle. Beers from the oldest and largest brewery, Highland Brewing, can be found in the Triangle, but others are limited to the western part of the state.

We signed up for a Brews Cruise group tour, but it was a slow week and not enough people signed up to make it go. So we struck out on our own. There were five within walking distance downtown, and we started with Asheville Brewing Company. The flight was Rocket Girl Lager, Stuntman Ale, Escape Artist ESP, Roland ESB and Ninja Porter. Rocket Girl had a lot of flavor for a lager, but my favorites were the ESB and porter, especially since I have a low tolerance for hops. The ESB was fragrant and complex, but the porter really gave me something to contemplate with chocolate, coffee and tobacco flavors. It wasn’t as heavy as some porters, which was good, since we had other brews to quaff.

We walked into Jack of the Wood two minutes after it opened. In my prime, I closed down many an establishment, but it was the first time I’d opened one. We sampled three Green Man brews there: porter, ESB and a cask-conditioned IPA that required hand pumping. One advantage of arriving in mid-afternoon: The very knowledgeable bartender had plenty of time to talk to us. I didn’t think I’d like the IPA (the hops thing), and I didn’t, but it was certainly interesting. The ESB had a floral flavor, and the rich porter would be fun to cook with, which they do at Jack of the Wood.

We pressed on to one of the newer breweries, Lexington Avenue Brewery, where they set a flight of seven beers before us. The hub and I thought all seven were sweeter than others we’d had, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it meant the IPA wasn’t as bitter as most. The white ale had no bitterness at all and was really different in its light flavor. I thought the hefeweizen was a bit too sweet and perfumy; I had trouble detecting the wheat flavor. Others in the flight, American pale ale and Octoberfest, were good. But I guess we must be fans of the dark side, because the dunkelweiss and chocolate stout were most intriguing to me. The stout includes chocolate extract, and had a roasty-toasty flavor. The dunkelweizen had hints of cherry and roasted spice. I could imagine both of those flavoring a devil’s food cake.

We hit the wall right about then, so we didn’t make it to Craggie Brewing or OysterHouse Brewing, which offers a beer brewed using oysters. Shell and all.

Keep up with the mountain beer scene with the Beer Guy in the Asheville Citizen-Times. We will need some time to recover before making another run. We can’t research like we used to.

Beer Run: Boylan Bridge Brewpub

beer tasting flight at Boylan Bridge Brewpub

beer tasting flight at Boylan Bridge Brewpub

On a windy, warm Saturday afternoon, you could feel like you’re at the beach on the outdoor deck of Boylan Bridge Brewpub in downtown Raleigh, N.C. Except that the roar you hear is a passing train, not waves. Before long, there may be a view of Kudzu Jesus to admire. I felt a little guilty having to drive to this spot, since it’s such a great walking destination for residents of nearby Boylan Heights and other downtown denizens.

Owner Andrew Leager, a cabinetmaker who has a business in the basement of the brewpub, offers a list of beers and rotating seasonal brews. Boylan Bridge is also a restaurant, so you can order salads and sandwiches.

My husband and I ordered the tasting flight of all six beers currently offered: Public Transportation Pale Ale, Gantlet Golden Ale,  Trainspotter Scottish Ale, Southbound Stout, Pullman Porter and Sidetrack Summer Ale. The flights came on a conveniently labeled placemat that made it easy to keep the beers straight. I’ve learned in our “beerventure” so far that I do not like the bitterness of heavy hops flavor. The Pale Ale had a lot of hops and the Gantlet Golden Ale, even more. I felt like all I could taste was hops. The Pullman Porter had a more complex flavor, a fascinating blend of roasty-toasty tastes and coffee that seemed to change with each sip. This would be an interesting beer to cook with. (Barbecue sauce or chocolate cake? And why doesn’t the brewpub kitchen cook with the beers?) The weather was a little warm for me to appreciate the Southbound Stout, but it had a thick, creamy head.

The Scottish Ale, with its sweet, slightly roasted flavor, was my husband’s favorite. Maybe it was the day and longing for the beach, but I liked the Sidetrack Summer Ale. It was light in flavor, not too bitter, and just a nice beverage for the day.

Beer Run: A flight to Aviator

beer tasting at Aviator Brewing Co.

beer tasting at Aviator Brewing Co.

For our second “beerventure” on Saturday, my husband and I attended the first of a two-part beer class/tasting at Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. Mark Doble started the brewery in 2008 in the hangar next to his plane, hence the name. Last fall, he opened a tap room in downtown Fuquay because so many people were visiting the brewery during the limited hours it was open for tastings. Only one beer is bottled – a stout – and the rest are sold by keg to bars and restaurants or via growler to thirsty visitors.

The beers offered change with the season and the fluctuations of Doble’s creative mind, but 18 are part of the repertoire (not all offered at the same time). The six of us in the class sampled a flight of four beers, progressing from lightest to darkest: Gremlin’s Golden, Devil’s Tramping Ground Tripel, Old Bulldog ESB and BoneHead IPA. When we started, he placed a pint of the Gremlin’s outside in the sun – more on that later.

As in wine tastings, we were encouraged to note the aroma and color of the beers as well as the flavor and compared our perceptions. The Gremlin’s, classified as a blonde ale on the beer family tree handout I received, had a light grain flavor, an overall clean taste and light mouthfeel. It had the lowest alcohol content of the four at 5.5 percent. The beers we tasted ranged in alcohol up to 9.2 percent (the tripel).

Doble offered a geeky explanation of alcohol, carbohydrates and sugar that, frankly, went a little over my head (they guy’s an electrical engineer in his day job, after all). I’ve never been clear on why different beers vary in alcohol percentages, so I called Daniel Bradford at All About Beer magazine in Durham, N.C. Bradford offered two explanations. One is that certain alcohol percentages are traditional for certain classic styles of beer. Before refrigeration was available, alcohol (and hops) served as preservatives. So, Russian imperial stouts, which were shipped across the large country in the days of the czars, are traditionally higher in alcohol. Or, as beer experts term it, “higher gravity.” Alcohol also adds calories, so dopplebock, originally brewed for monks’ nourishment during Lent, are higher gravity. The second explanation is the experimental nature of modern craft brewers, “just seeing what you can do, how far you can stretch it,” Bradford said. As with hot sauces, there are some people who care about the flavor and others who just want to make something so fiery it blows off the top of your head. But the best craft brewers, Bradford said, are interested in the flavor, not just potency.

Glad I cleared that up. Now, at the Aviator tasting, the Devil’s Tramping Ground was smooth and sweet, with little bitterness and a rich amber color. Doble named the beer after the legendary spot in North Carolina where the devil is said to pace about – he said it’s traditional to name tripels after the devil. The Old Bulldog ESB (Extra Special Bitter) was a surprise to me. It smelled like toffee but had a roasty-toasty flavor in the aftertaste. Despite the name, not a lot of bitterness. Fascinating. Doble said that his goal for the BoneHead IPA (India Pale Ale) was to create a beer that screamed “hops,” and it did. It was my least favorite because of that heavy hops bitterness.

After about 30 minutes, he retrieved the pint left on the deck and passed it around. “This is what a light-struck beer tastes like, and it’s going to smell and taste like a beer that’s very familiar to you,” he said, smirking. The group agreed that it smelled like Corona and tasted like Heineken. Yuk. That’s what happens when you have to ship a mass-produced beer many, many miles. Better to stick close to home.

High-flying suds over Fuquay

I’ve lived in Raleigh, N.C. for more than 20 years (plus college time in Chapel Hill, N.C.), and for most of that time, Fuquay-Varina was an object of hilarity. An FM radio jock’s riffs on “Two Flags Over Fuquay” comes to mind.

But the suburban creep that covered the Raleigh area has spread to Fuquay-Varina as well, and not without positive effects. I visited one recently with my friend, Buddy. At the end of a gravel road, at a tiny airstrip, is a pilot who makes beer. In the hangar. Next to his plane.

A discreet sign on the road directs thirsty travelers to Aviator Brewing Company where, on a warm spring day, groups of adults sipping brews, and their kids, heave horseshoes into two recently installed pits. The “tap house” is a corner of the hangar carved out for a handful of stools, a popcorn machine and a wooden bar. Shiny metal brewing vats sit beside the trim blue-and-white airplane. Unless owner Mark Doble is out flying (or working his real job at Hewlett-Packard), he’s there to meet, greet and talk beer while two helpers fill pints using tap handles shaped like wooden propellers.

Lucky for me, one of Buddy’s friends was leaving as I walked in, so I could claim a coveted seat. The place was jammed – maybe 25 or so in the little space. The Eagles were on the stereo, but Buddy says there’s often live entertainment set up between the plane and the vats (Russians playing balalaikas on one occasion, I’ve heard). The beer selections change, but I had the Old Bulldog ESB and Big Bolt Pale Ale – both great, neither too hoppy for me (I’m not into extremely bitter beer). Buddy sampled the Grade 5 Bolt, a mix of the pale ale and a Kraken Stout. Some of the beers are aged in old bourbon barrels.

The tap house is open only Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Doble is not bottling the beer, which means I learned what a growler is – a sort of take-out container for beer. Unfortunately, he was out of them when I was there. But if you don’t want to make the drive, Aviator, open only since last November, is getting local attention. It’s served at the Raleigh Times Bar, Flying Saucer and other spots.

Aviator Brewing is also having a beer dinner at Tir Na Nog in downtown Raleigh on Thursday night, May 7.