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Take a Brews Cruise

a group of people standing together smiling for the camera
Check out the suds side of Asheville, N.C., where interesting beers abound.

When Mark Lyons started the Asheville Brews Cruise in 2005, he said it was an epiphany. He woke up one morning with not only the idea but the name of the venture.

It’s not clear how his wife, Julie, received that sudsy greeting about their future livelihood, but she has since bought into the notion, often helping with the tours.

The Cruise is a three-hour excursion in a chauffeured van to visit microbreweries and brewpubs in the Asheville, N.C., area. Also currently included on some tours is a stop at Bruisin’ Ales, a beer exclusive package store with hundreds of selections.

Participants are not riding around all evening knocking back brewskies like frat boys at a kegger. The key word to the cruise is tasting. Samples are served up in glasses holding usually two-to-four ounces of beer.

Transportation is in a chauffeured van or trolley for really large groups. Due to a last-minute cancellation, ours turned out to be a small group, something that played to our advantage.

We signed up for a Friday night tour that started at 5:30 p.m. at Asheville Pizza and Brewing and wound up about three hours later right where it started.

Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company features great science fiction murals and a flying saucer crashing into a tower on top of the building.

Transplanted Alabamian:

Asheville Pizza and Brewing is both a brewpub and eatery, offering about a dozen beers on tap, including Rolands E.S.B., crafted by brewer and co-owner Doug Riley, a transplanted Alabamian, one of three we encountered on the tour.

“I’m from Muscle Shoals, the Florence area. My mom and brother still live in the Shoals area and my sister, Kim Estell, does research at UAB,” he said.

Riley discovered the world of microbrewing in Colorado, then learned the trade in Portland, Ore. He has been in Asheville the past 10 years.

“I prefer IPAs (India Pale Ales). I like hops,” he said of his beers.

The second stop was Highland Brewing Co., described as “the oldest legal brewery in the area.” It was established in 1994 by Oscar Wong, a Chinese businessman who came from Jamaica and started brewing Scottish beer in North Carolina. The original location was downtown beneath a bar called Barley’s Taproom. Brewer Andy Gibbon said the ceilings were so low regular fermenters wouldn’t fit. They used a couple of horizontal dairy tanks for fermenters.

“Gaelic Ale is our flagship. About 65 percent of the restaurants in Asheville have our beer,” he said. “We also do a special beer for the Biltmore Estate and Ultimate Ice Cream Co. in Asheville makes a dry-hopped ice cream from our Mocha Stout,”

Highland makes six year-round beers and some seasonals in a renovated warehouse on the outskirts of the city. The building houses a large bottling line as well as a keg operation for local restaurants and bars. On tap for the tour were Kashmir IPA, St. Therese Pale Ale and Oatmeal Stout, with samples served in small glasses.

Gibbon kicked back with the small group, offering much more detail about the beers and the brewing scene. The subject of the ice cream sent him back to a cooler for a container of Ultimate Ice Cream Company’s dry-hopped ice cream. Gibbon complemented the ice cream with samples of Chocolate Mocha Stout, quickly dispelling any notions that beer is not a dessert beverage. The taste pairing was extraordinary.

French Broad:

From Highland we were driven to The French Broad Brewing Co., named for Asheville’s most important river not a bawdy woman from Paris. We were greeted by Operations Manager Matt Barnao who had samples of five different French Broad beers, starting with Kolsch, a style that originated in Cologne, Germany.

Although French Broad, which opened in December 2000, does not have a bottling line, Barnao said the brewery is doing very well, definitely growing. It added two new fermenting tanks last year and the beers are now distributed in north Georgia and east Tennessee as well as throughout North Carolina.

“Kolsch is now our main beer, replacing the Goldenrod Pilsner,” said Barnao. “It started out as an experiment, an early summer season. It proved so popular we just kept brewing it.”

In the adjacent tasting room, live music is offered five nights a week. As we arrived, playing was Quick Six (since renamed the Stereodelics), an energetic husband and wife guitarist and fiddler with an obvious local following. We talked with a young couple, one of them from Florence, there for the music. Seeing that we were with the Brews Cruise, they wanted to know what we thought of it. Bolstered by our positive comments they were soon engaged in conversation and business cards exchanges with Lyons.

Other styles served up by Barnao were Alt, Extra Special Bitter, Harvest Porter and a seasonal called Rosebud. Yes, it draws its name from the Orson Wells classic film “Citizen Kane.”

More Bama connections:

The Bruisin’ Ales package store turned out to be the third Alabama connection of tour. Owners Jason and Julie Attalah were living in Tuscaloosa not long ago.

“We lived in Tuscaloosa for four years,” said Julie Attalah. “When we knew we were moving to Asheville, we rented space for the store in June. We were driving back and forth for months. We opened two days before Christmas last year.”

Why a package store? They met as students at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. Coincidentally, a classmate, although not really a buddy, was Sam Calgione, founder of Dogfish Head, a Delaware brewery with a national reputation for top quality, often funky, brews.

In nearby Allentown, at a huge package store called Shangy’s, they were introduced to Chimay Reserve, a Belgium beer and everything just snowballed from there. They were craft beer aficionados after that.

For the tour, the Attalahs had set up for tasting Southhampton Pumpkin Ale from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Ayinger Oktobertfest-Marzen from Germany.

From the huge selections, we picked to take home a milk stout and a growler of Equinox Ale, a product of Pisgah Brewing Co. at nearby Black Mountain, N.C.

The Brews Cruise is timed to end early enough in the evening to plan dinner. You’ve got time to check out one of the many other restaurants in Asheville, or you can sample the wares at Asheville Pizza and Brewing as we did, while enjoying a visit with co-owner Leigh Rangel.

The building itself is a worth a stop. The exterior features great science fiction murals and a flying saucer crashing into a tower on top of the building. Inside is a mural replicating the bar scene from the original “Star Wars” movie. Other decor includes a wall and ceiling where hundreds of remotes and cell phones have been glued in place. Lyons said many of them will try to come to life if you punch the right button.

The building was at one time a two-screen movie theater. It still has one screen where you can watch a second-run movie with pizza and beer.

While a variety of Italian foods and sandwiches are available, the pizza is the main course. We picked one with the unappetizing name of Moon Pie. However, unlike the marshmallow concoction, this was the usual pizza ingredients with toppings of spinach, portabella mushrooms, feta and artichoke hearts. It was every bit as good as the toppings sounded on paper.