Craggie Brewing Company would easily be on my Top 5 Breweries in America list. I know that sounds excessive for a small brewery tucked away in Asheville on Hilliard Avenue with just three people running it, but the beers, the people, and the feel of the place all blend together to make it one of my favorites.
Tucker and I made the hour-long trek (well worth it) up to Asheville on a late afternoon to meet owner Bill Drew and head brewer DJ McCready at the old warehouse that they converted into the brewery. Their love for craft beer and for their community was evident early on in our conversation, as Bill talked about how the company started, and DJ filled us in on the things that make Craggie unique.
Bill’s passion for craft beer developed while he was studying abroad in Europe, tasting English and Scottish beers during his time there. When he returned to the U.S. in 1997, he decided that he wanted to learn more about making beer and began interning at Highland Brewing. “It started as a curiosity in college and developed into a full-blown addiction. You’re making art,” Bill told us.
By 2000, Bill was an assistant brewer at Highland. He left Highland to pursue his MBA, but continued his interest in beer, working at All About Beer Magazine and serving as Beer Coordinator for the World Beer Festival. In 2003 he moved to Atlanta to brew for Dogwood Brewing Company, but then returned to Highland after Dogwood went out of business.
For the next five years, Bill brewed for Highland, mastering his craft, before he started thinking about opening his own microbrewery. Bill felt at home in Asheville and loved the sense of community he had with the people there, so he decided to make it home for his new brewery, which he and his business partner, Jonathan Cort, called Craggie as a tribute to western North Carolina’s historic culture.
DJ got into the industry through his passion for craft beer and home brewing, and he collaborates with Bill on recipes. Craggie is highly creative in their recipes, including brewing with chipotle peppers in their Burning Barrel Bourbon Chipotle Porter and using spruce tips and ginger in their Antebellum Ale. “We like to add extra things into our beers to give them uniqueness,” DJ said. Bill and DJ do a lot of experimenting, creating new recipes. “We have a pilot system that brews 10-gallon batches, so we can try something that we’ve had an idea for and put it in our tasting room to see how it’s accepted,” DJ said.
When the company started, Craggie distributed its beer only locally. Today, you can find the beer in bars and restaurants throughout North Carolina and Tennessee (for a complete list of locations click here.
After learning about Craggie’s history and process, Bill and DJ took us to the Public House, Craggie’s tasting room. It’s a cozy space with warm wooden tables and bench seating in addition to the bar. The walls are covered with local posters, artwork, and historical photos. It’s quirky and comfortable.
The first beer we tried was the Toubab Brew, a light Bavarian style Zwickel Bier named after the band Toubab Krewe. It’s a light-bodied session beer with a good balance of malt and hops, and would be the perfect accompaniment to pizza.
We then tasted the seasonal Summer Wheat Beer, brewed with black peppercorn, orange zest and lemon zest, and aged on French oak. The flavor is unexpected for a wheat beer, reminiscent of Chardonnay with a slightly spicy citrus flavor that is unlike the hoppy citrus that you normally find in beer. (I am a huge fan of this beer and am craving it as a write this.)
The Yo LA Mango IPA is dryhopped with fresh mangos. The mango flavor is subtle, blending with the citrus of the hops. The flavors meld and flow together beautifully. Another favorite of mine.
Next we tried the Burning Barrel Bourbon Chipotle Porter, which is brewed with chipotle peppers and aged on bourbon oak. It’s a delicious combination of chocolate, coffee, and vanilla with the smoky spiciness of the pepper showing up at the end of each sip.
The Antebellum Ale is definitely a must-try. It’s based off an American beer recipe from the 1840s and it’s brewed molasses, ginger, and spruce. It’s completely unlike any beer I’ve ever tasted. It’s flavorful but balanced, like all of Craggie’s beers, and no one flavor is in-your-face. I’d drink this beer for dessert.
Craggie is also known for its music. The brewery regularly host bands on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. The Public House is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 4-9 p.m. (and until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays).
From caring about the environment to caring about people, Craggie is a place you can feel good about. They source everything they can locally, supporting local businesses and farms. Most everything in the brewery is repurposed or recycled. “All of our equipment on the brewing side has come from converted dairy tanks,” DJ said. And the brewery is actively involved in a myriad of charities and hosts food drives for Children First/Communities in Schools and Manna FoodBank (they give discounts off growlers when you bring in food items for the donation bin).
Tucker and I continued chatting with Bill and DJ after the interview was over, sitting at the bar, and by the end of the afternoon, we felt like friends. That’s what the Craggie experience is really about – enjoying some truly amazing beer with friends, both friends you’ve known for a while and friends you’ve just met. You feel the sense of community that Bill is so passionate about, and you leave looking forward to the next time you’ll be able to return.