SOUTHERN CRAFT: Emerging from the Shadow of Prohibition

As this summer’s Great American Eclipse carved a 70-mile wide shadow along the southern edge of the mid-Atlantic states, it illuminated an arc of brewing innovation and creativity that stretches from Nashville, Tenn. to Charleston, S.C. The beer now pouring along this northern tier of the Deep South is so full of character and flavor that, for beer geeks like me, it nearly eclipsed the main event in the sky above.

The last time I visited Tennessee, just two years ago, local brewers were still handicapped by a Repeal-era law that capped alcohol content for most beer sold in the state at 5% alcohol by weight (6.25% abv)—effectively banning the sale of most IPAs. A “Fix the Beer Cap” campaign organized by the Tennessee Brewers Guild brought about legislation that raised the alcohol ceiling to 8% abw (10.1% abv). In the 7½ months since the new alcohol cap went into effect, Volunteer State brewers have been producing IPAs, DIPAs, and other high-gravity beers—as well as more sessionable brews—that compare favorably to those brewed anywhere in the nation.

Ground zero for Tennessee’s brewing revival lies across the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville in the working-class neighborhood of East Nashville. That’s where you’ll find superb kettle sours at Southern Grist, experimental pilsners at lager specialist Little Harpeth, a range of well-made IPAs at Smith & Lentz, and a coconut cream pie ale at East Nashville Beer Works that’s as good a dessert beer as I’ve tasted all year. The jewel in this crown of recent upstarts, though, glistens just across the river in the old Germantown neighborhood, where Bearded Iris brewers Kavon Togrye and Paul Vaughn have dedicated themselves to perfecting the intensely juicy but softly bitter, hazy beers first brewed in New England a few years ago. When I visited the brewery, they were pouring one pale ale, three IPAs, three DIPAs, and one hoppy kölsch—none of which would have seemed out of place in Burlington or Boston. Visit Music City and you’ll understand why the Brewers Association selected Nashville to host its annual Craft Brewers Conference next spring.

Main bar at Bearded Iris

While Tennessee was the last southern state to raise abv limits for beer, neighboring North Carolina was the first. Its “Pop the Cap” campaign in 2005 was largely responsible for enticing craft heavyweights Sierra Nevada and New Belgium to open second breweries in Mills River (2014) and Asheville’s River Arts District (2016), respectively. As the solar eclipse raced across the western tip of the Tar Heel State, it passed just south of Asheville, four-time winner of the annual Beer City USA poll.

After Wicked Weed Brewing opened south of downtown in 2012, it triggered a second explosion of new breweries—including Burial, Hi-Wire, Bhramari, Twin Leaf, One World, and Catawba—that transformed the city’s South Slope neighborhood into one of the densest brewery districts in the nation with a dozen breweries clustered within a zone barely half a mile square. Meanwhile, Wicked Weed’s award-winning hop-forward ales, Belgian specialties, barrel-aged sours, and Brett farmhouse beers have earned it such plaudits as “Best Craft Brewery in North Carolina” from the website Thrillist and the “South’s Best Brewery 2017” from Southern Living magazine. Wicked Weed’s acclaim also earned its founders and investors a huge financial windfall this spring when the enterprise was acquired by AB InBev’s High End division. It was the world’s largest brewer’s tenth craft brewery purchase, but it ignited a firestorm of rage among beer enthusiasts like none of the previous nine. At least 44 of the nation’s leading sour beer producers withdrew from Wicked Weed’s annual Funkatorium Invitational this summer, forcing the cancellation of the event.

Inside the Funkatorium

Threats of boycott continue to fill social media. And yet I could not find an empty seat when I visited the brewery’s spacious main pub during the slackwater period between lunch and happy hour on a Tuesday afternoon.

Approximately four minutes after the moon’s shadow nicked the southwestern outskirts of Asheville, it crossed just south of Charlotte, North Carolina’s second-most beer-friendly city. Sixteen breweries operate within the city limits, and five populate the city’s burgeoning NoDa (North Davidson) neighborhood. NoDa Brewing Co. was the first, in 2011; its Hop, Drop & Roll IPA is the city’s best-selling craft beer. Heist, Birdsong, Free Range, and Bold Missy soon followed. Locals consider Heist’s Citraquench’l IPA the best New England-style hazy beer in the state.

Charleston, S.C., the eclipse’s last stop in the U.S., boasts 14 breweries, including the wildly inventive Westbrook Brewing Co., whose innovations range from its signature White Thai, a witbier seasoned with ginger and lemongrass, to barrel-aged releases of its iconic Mexican Cake imperial stout, which can sell for up to $200 a bottle—further proof that you no longer need travel to Vermont or San Diego County to find great American craft beer.