Sierra Nevada's Amazing Beer Wonderland Near Asheville, NC
The final leg of my Great Brewery Tour's 2019 Summer Tour kicked off at the impressive and massive Sierra Nevada Brewing campus in Mills River, NC. It was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, the weather was unbelievably gorgeous, and you couldn't ask for a better setting.
Anyone who is into craft beer is probably already well aware of Sierra Nevada's output, and the fact that pretty much everything they put out is awesome, so I'm not going to do my normal beer-by-beer summary of what I drank. Instead, as I travel around the country talking to beer lovers I'm often surprised by how many people haven't yet visited, or aren't even aware of, the giant beer wonderland that Sierra Nevada has built right outside Asheville, North Carolina, so today let's talk about that instead.
Sierra Nevada Brewing - Mills River, NC (Asheville area)
The beers are available virtually everywhere. Some smaller batch and special editions are only available in the taproom and gift shop.
Sierra Nevada is widely considered to be one of the forefathers of the current craft beer boom, along with one or two others, perhaps most notably Pete's Wicked Ale (which was purchased and destroyed by Miller some years ago). Started in 1980 in Chico, California, Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale flagship was perhaps the first good pale ale to get a national audience, and then their seasonal releases (Summerfest, the annual Beer Camp collaboration, the fantastic holiday Celebration Ale, etc.) gave us something great to look forward to every few months. As their popularity grew, the family-owned brewery began searching for several years for the ideal location to put their eastern U.S location. Their lofty standards required a location that would not only provide a superior water source, but also an environment and culture that was conducive to the company's culture... and eventually Asheville, NC fit the suit.
Being a private family-owned business and a wildly popular brand put them awash in cash, and you can tell just by looking at the amazing campus they built in Mills River, which is just a few miles south of Asheville's famous Biltmore Estate. They essentially bought a mountain where their water source runs right through, erected a huge brewery, as well as a massive entertainment facility that houses a gift shop, huge restaurant and taproom, all inside what looks like a giant ski resort made of wood, stone, and copper roofing and trim. The compound also includes THREE venues for live music... a huge club with their second floor bar, a sizable amphitheatre as the crown to their beer gardens, and a new Lower Park venue that is a short walk through the woods down at the river's edge.
The outdoor aspects of the compound are truly amazing. 185 beautiful and scenic hilly acres, the entrance to the facility at first seems like you are entering a cross between a state park and a very high-end resort. The landscaping is gorgeous, and every detail along the way, from the paved drives to the gates to the directional signs are beautifully constructed of stone and copper. The back of the massive building is wrapped by several sun decks, which overlook the beautifully designed and maintained beer gardens. Kid and dog friendly, the decks, patios, and beer gardens are always well populated, and the gardens themselves offer no shortage of entertainment options, from numerous boccie ball, cornhole, etc. games, to the amphitheatre stage at the tree-lined back edge of the garden, where live music by local and touring artists plays several days a week throughout the afternoons and evenings. Bars on the patio and deck, as well as what look like antique ice cream trucks refitted with taps keep the beer flowing.
For an even more park-like setting a short walk down the paths behind the amphiteatre stage takes you through the woods, down the hill, and to the banks of the river, where an expansive lawn shaded by the trees called Lower Park provide scores of picnic tables, hammocks, more outdoor games, a food truck serving smoked ribs, turkey legs, chicken, as well as pork belly sandwiches and burgers and such, and of course another bar serving at least a dozen Sierra Nevada brews.... and yet another stage with live musical performances on weekends. The Lower Park area just opened this Spring, and is where I played Saturday afternoon. A wonderful setting where some people just sipped beer and lazed around, others threw Frisbee, and many brought their dogs to mingle with the others. As a musician, I found the area very relaxing to play in... there was a nice breeze, and good combo of sunshine and shade, the crowd was great, and the entire atmosphere festive yet kinda chill. The stage's sound system was great for an acoustic act like myself... nice and clear, but with the subs adding just a little thump to fill things out, and a soundman on hand made it a hassle free afternoon for me.
The indoor restaurant and taproom are both top shelf. The taproom serves all your favorite Sierra Nevada beers (23 on tap), as well as a good handful of brews that are served exclusively at the taproom (short runs, experimentals, anniversary runs, etc.). The food is fantastic, and the restaurant usually has a waiting list, often from locals who come for the food regardless of the beer. Fabulous small plates, mostly organic and locally sourced, and wonderfully prepared. Scroll down this page to see the menu. https://sierranevada.com/visit/north-carolina/taproom/
The gift shop is a treat of it's own, stocked not only with all sorts of Sierra Nevada clothing, blankets, dog collars, etc... but also some food items made with their beers (the various mustards are excellent), and cold bottled and canned beer that you often can't find elsewhere (or at least not near home). I've picked up sampler 12 packs that were not retailed in my state, as well as limited edition large bottles of anniversary brews, collaborations, and “estate” and “heritage” brews. Well worth the stop, and the prices aren't bad.
Finally, the brewery tours: I first did a guided tour several years ago when the brewery had just opened, and the rest of the campus was still under construction. The guided tour was free, included a brief video about the history and Chico facility (you got a pint of Pale Ale to drink while watching the video), and then over the course of an hour or so you saw every aspect of the brewing process, got to see the differences in the brewing of the various types of beer currently in production, actually went into the room where the different hops and hop mixes were separated out for each beer variety (and could handle and play with the hops), toured the bottling facility, and then finally end up in the upstairs taproom (now also the indoor music venue), where you got a flight of decent sized samples of each of the beers you saw in production, and discussed the differences and nuances as you made your way through the flight. I was told there is now a waiting list for the guided tour, so you may need to call ahead, but I think there is also a self-guided option, where you don't get the benefit of the guide's knowledge, and you get a more limited access to the facilities.
I have been to Mills River several times now, and every time makes for a wonderful fun day. One of my sons and I stopped here before a Wilco show in Asheville a few years ago. The plan was to eat and have a couple of beers and then head into Asheville to visit another brewery closer to the show, and then the show... but they had so many beers on tap in the taproom that we'd never had before that we ended up spending 7 hours here and then straight to the concert. I have long said that between the beautiful surroundings and the beer and food and live music they should allow camping onsite and you could easily enjoy a whole weekend... it's Sierra Nevada's Beer Wonderland... and this past weekend I heard someone call it “Malt” Disney World, which was great.... it really is an amazing, joyful place for people who love great beer and mixing it with a beautiful outdoors and tons of happy like-minded enthusiasts (and their dogs!). Whenever I plan to be here my sister, who lives several hours away in Chapel Hill, manages to meet me here... where else do you hear of people driving several hours just to meet at a particular restaurant/beer hall? THAT is how special Sierra Nevada is... it's well worth a long drive.
After enjoying so many visits here it was a real joy to be able to include it as a stop on the Great Brewery Tour, and I hope to do it again! If you see it on my tour schedule again, plan to join us for a time you'll never forget!
Next stop... Grumpy Old Men Brewing in Blue Ridge, Georgia....