It was once an East Coast-West Coast scrimmage, with Asheville and Portland, Oregon, vying for “Beer City USA” status from year to year. But this time around, NC’s biggest mountain city battled and bested another Portland — the coastal Maine town — to win the designation “The Country’s Best City for Beer Drinkers” in December. (Density of breweries per population and a majority of favorable reviews on the online outlet Yelp were determining factors.)
In our own area, south of the hallowed amber gates, Sierra Nevada in Mills River reigns as the poshest of Western North Carolina’s craft brewhouses. But an enthusiastic batch of upstarts is quickly gaining ground, including Mills River Brewery in Arden, Winding Creek Brewing Co. in Columbus, and Hickory Nut Gorge Brewery in Chimney Rock. All are pouring in-house signature brews while tapping the live-entertainment and foodie scenes to various extents.
Winding Creek is still Polk County’s only microbrewery, confirms Les Potter, who owns the space with his brother Ken (both are musicians). Their “shared vision” is an intersection of talents: Les’ passion for brewing is combined with Ken’s behind-the-scenes (building and carpentry) and front-of-house skills. The pub’s “unofficial head bartender” and assistant brewer is Ethan Walke, and Les’ daughters Caroline and Michaela also work shifts.
Over the past year, “we have developed some very loyal customers,” says Les. “Our [house] beers consistently get rave ratings [4.5-5 stars], and two of them were among the top ten beers at the Tryon Beer Fest.
“We are truly breaking new ground here,” he adds — though he admits “we still sometimes feel like we are the best kept secret in Polk County.” New signage and a more accessible entrance are some practical fixes lined up for the new year. He says the brewery is also “proactively seeking joint ventures with others in the Columbus and Polk County communities.” Winding Creek has already co-sponsored events with GRO [Growing Rural Opportunities], will host Columbus’ winter Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and plans to partner with the Polk County Animal Shelter for a future fundraiser.
The company is upping its online presence via Yelp and the craft-beer-specific site Untappd, and will get a boost from Mill Creek Restaurant, recently opened in the same building. Perhaps most excitingly, Winding Creek just nabbed state approval to produce more in-house beers. “We plan to move from the eight on tap to a consistent 10-12 … with limited wholesale distribution over the next few months,” says Les.
Like many who launch breweries as an act of passion, Marc and Merri Fretwell of Lake Lure have so far kept their day jobs (he’s an engineer originally from England, she’s a special-education teacher). The parents of son Tristan, the Fretwells opened their family- and pet-friendly Hickory Nut Gorge Brewery last summer, and high-star reviews on Yelp never fail to mention the space’s gorgeous span of the Broad River, viewable from the pub’s tiered-deck seating.
General Manager Keely Mitchell expresses gratitude that what she calls the brewery’s “bit-of-heaven” location was unscathed by last November’s wildfires — a historic event that destroyed many thousands of surrounding acres. “Blessings come in many forms,” she says, “and we have definitely been counting them since the fire.”
In-house games, including a popular Wednesday-night trivia event, and outreach opportunities (group hikes, etc.) emphasize the brewery’s warm community atmosphere. Mitchell reveals a Valentine’s Day special that includes a seasonal Dark Chocolate Cherry Stout, the option of pre-ordered flowers delivered to the table, and a chocolate dessert.
“We’re a small niche for people to gather in a magnificent [natural] place,” she says.
Winding Creek Brewing Co. 322 E. Mills St., Columbus; 828-894-8715; Hickory Nut Gorge Brewery 461 Main St., Chimney Rock, 828-436-7047; Mills River Brewery 330 Rockwood Road, Arden; 828-585-2396.