I didn’t start out planning to do a Southeastern United States craft beer tour.
It just happened to turn out that way.
I’ve become a bit disillusioned by craft beer in the two and a half years since I moved to Chicago.
From hoarding to overnight lines for new releases to subpar beer pushed out as aging liquid and everything in between, the craft beer world doesn’t represent the community spirit that I have come to know in places like Oregon, Montana and Alaska. Small breweries bent on craft and who cater to their immediate audience are what represent the trueness of the profession or art form to me.
So as we headed out the door toward a week-long vacation in Orlando, Florida, I quickly looked at the map and discovered that some vaunted craft beer joints seemed to line our route.
We started with an afternoon drive to Cincinnati to have dinner with an old friend from Montana and fellow craft beer aficionado Jon Lewis.
As we approached the city, Jon asked if we’d like to check out an interesting scene at Rhinegeist Brewing Co.
What I saw restored a bit of the luster craft beer has lost.
The brewery is in a huge space on the edge of downtown. The layout is open and includes artwork, ping pong, corn hole, picnic tables and ample room for milling about or throwing a holiday party.
The beers were exquisitely crafted and unique, their quality shining through names like Truth, Cougar, Zen, Dad, Franz and Panther. Their Truth IPA is a perfect form, leaning away from the heavily malted Midwestern IPAs to a more refined and cleanly lined beer that walks the line between the Midwest and the Southeast.
There was a vibe of hanging out after work, talking about life, love, politics and the pursuit of happiness with a pint of happiness in everyone’s hands.
I haven’t felt that kind of vibe in a long, long time.
We had intended to hit Asheville, the Eastern Mecca of craft beer, that evening, but we decided to stay in Cincinnati and hit a few more places with Jon and crash at a downtown hotel.
We managed to find a bar and bottle shop in one of the new trendy districts in Cincinnati, which is really growing into itself, and put down a few other craft beers from around the region, including beers from Madtree Brewing Co. in Cincinnati as well as other Ohio beers from Fat Heads Brewing Co. Ohio has some stuff going on, and its stuff is good and tasty and not seemingly as pretentious as some of the stuff happening in other parts of the region.
We couldn’t drink all the beer in the Ohio River Valley, of course, so we packed it in and headed for Asheville the next day, moving slowly through the mountains into what I can only describe as something out of Lord of the Rings.
Most of the day I felt like we were headed into the Misty Mountains, and when we finally pulled level onto the Asheville plateau, I was good and ready for a beverage and a little more soul-fullfilling craft beer communal bliss.
We found The Wedge Brewing Co. almost immediately and proceeded to while away the afternoon playing corn hole, sipping mountainous fermented beverages and eating bolgogi tacos from the Korean taco truck parked out in front of the brewery.
Art work hung everywhere, as if a Picasso with a blowtorch and unlimited metal had a freakishly creative streak all at once.
Due to time constraints and the weakening resolve of the children in our company, we had to blast off from Asheville without truly exploring its crafted heart, but that only strengthens my resolve to return soon.
It was raining so hard as we crossed into George from South Carolina, that we opted to pull off the highway at Savannah to avoid the headache-inducing downpour and the flashbang of brake lights.
What we found was a pleasant surprise.
Moon River Brewing Co. sits in on a main street in downtown Savannah, just across from Spanish moss bearded trees and the gold-domed city hall.
From the outside, it look like a little British pub, and the inside didn’t do anything to change that image. Dark wood brass fixtures lined the place with a few televisions thrown in for Sunday NFL viewing pleasure.
The beers were excellent and discoverable, and I think I’m going to try and coin the phrase Southeastern IPA, unless someone has already done it.
The Swampfox IPA was perfectly hoppy and sat not on a massive malt backbone like the Midwestern beers I’ve been drinking lately but on a light and complex malt profile that allowed the hops to shine beautifully but not completely on their own as in West Coast IPAs.
The single hop and single malt Ghost Day IPA was amazing as well, sitting nearly squarely on the same malt profile without as much of the complexity, but the Pacific Gem hops worked their magic like southern charm and hospitality.
Speaking of hospitality, the hosts were wonderful and knew their beers well, the food was excellent, including really tasty Georgian shrimp with sausage ravioli.
Because Moon River Brewing Co. is both a restaurant and brewery, it was difficult to tell exactly what the craft beer community in Savannah was like, but the beer was fun and inventive, which leads me to believe Georgians are on a voyage of discovery together, which tends to build beautiful communities. Especially in the adversity of a government system that keeps craft beer growth at a minimum.
After a few days in Orlando, a place where I avoided craft breweries like the plague, mostly because of the traffic, I felt like I should make the 70-mile trek to Cigar City Brewing Co.
It only made sense to visit Florida’s most well-known brewery and see for myself what the community there looks like and whether it differs from my imagination or not.
We arrived in the late afternoon and crowded into the industrial-looking space with locals and tourists alike.
I noticed a few locals who looked as if they belonged to the place, but I noticed far more tourists bent on getting fast service rather than creating an interesting and eclectic atmosphere.
As a result, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. It lacked any sense of community, and the bar noise was so loud it was difficult to hold a conversation about the wonderful beers.
I did enjoy a cask-conditioned apple cinnamon IPA, which was perhaps one of the most unique versions of IPA I’ve ever had. It was very ripe and the cinnamon played very well with the hops, to my surprise.
I had hoped for a little more out of Cigar City, but the bar tenders were tired and therefore rude, which makes it difficult to discuss the craft beers I had traveled thousands of miles to try.
I’m guessing they could redesign their system to create a better craft beer environment, but I suspect the conveyor belt idea is more suitable to selling more beer faster.
I can’t leave Florida without mentioning another perfect Southeast IPA that I found.
It’s called Category 3 from Due South Brewing Co., and though I didn’t make it down to southern Florida, where they are located, I did find their IPA, another in the excellent Southeast-style IPAs, to be my go-to beer during my week in Orlando.
It’s a more straight-forward IPA, but again, it has a more refined malt structure than the beers I have greater access too, which I can assume comes from the preference for lighter beers in warmer climates.
Of course if we keep going the way we are, Southeastern-style IPAs may become the world’s beer before long.
The last craft beer stop on this Southeastern USA tour was back in Georgia.
A friend hit me up on Facebook asking if I’d like to stop in to see him as we passed through Atlanta on our way home.
A quick look at the map confirmed that it was indeed on the way, and a few Facebook messages later, we agreed to meet at a small craft beer pub near downtown, since the craft breweries in Georgia cannot keep very friendly hours due to the outdated beer laws there.
I had hoped to try some of the beers from Orpheus Brewing Co., which is very near to The Porter Beer Bar where we supped.
I was pleasantly surprised to find several Orpheus beers on the menu. But I only made it through one, called Life. Death. Life. Truth, before I discovered a beer out of Athens brewery Creature Comforts, called Tropicália, which was like walking through a magnolia-lined street on a warm southern night if you transported mangos and papayas and other tropical fruits into the night mix. What an amazing beer. I cannot wait for my next trip to Athens to visit this creative little powerhouse.
It was at The Porter Beer Bar where I had the thought that Georgia, and definitely Atlanta, has a craft beer scene that is growing just under the surface and ready to explode. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing Georgian beers around the United States soon enough. For now, it’s worth a visit to check out what is undoubtably a world-class craft beer scene.
I think the community is well-suited for what lies ahead too. It’s something to know where you came from and where you’re going when you’re building a craft beer community.
With so many starting out as investment opportunities just waiting to get bought up by some beer giant, it’s great to see little craft beer communities popping up in places where you least expect them.
It’s amazing to find craft beer that is evolving to fit the demographics and the weather patterns of the places where they are created.
I’m heartened to find these little discoveries on our road trip, and I return to Chicago knowing that craft beer is doing well in the hearts and minds of Americans, even if it has become the ring of power in places like Chicago, Denver, Portland and San Francisco.
I look forward to the next beer trip, to the next discovery in a small place where locals crowd around tables trying to new offerings and treating beer as the elixer of excellent conversations and ideas.