There’s an unmistakable bohemian vibe tucked away among North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s called Asheville, a.k.a. “Foodtopia” to many, due to its progressive culinary sensibility that includes such flaunts as seven James Beard-nominated chefs, over 250 independent restaurants, a vegan “butcher,” underground supper club and the first wild foods market in the nation.
Asheville’s beer scene has wandered affably into MICE events over the past year, as new breweries opened with dedicated event spaces, and existing breweries expanded their operations to include rooms for private events.
“Highland Brewing Company, Asheville’s oldest brewery, can now host up to 400 people in its newly expanded facility, which also includes a rooftop venue with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” says Dianna Pierce, VP of sales at the Asheville CVB. “We also see planners taking advantage of the unique Asheville culture by offering farm tours, glass blowing demonstrations that offer a hands-on component, wild food foraging or guided hikes along the Appalachian Trail.”
Asheville is a city at the forefront of the foraging culinary trend and the forest-to-table dining it inspires. Local wild food expert Alan Muskat of No Taste Like Home has been known to take groups of up to 75 deep into the forest for a three-hour woodland shopping spree. The day’s find—a frolicsome journey with chats on ecology, cooking, medicine and folklore—can be sampled by the group or transformed into extreme cuisine (think wisteria ice cream, daylily tamales and wild mushroom pizza) by one of Muskat’s partner restaurants such as Rhubarb, Local Provisions and Vue 1913, located at the Omni Grove Park Inn.
Welcome to Foodtopia
With over 1,000 family farms nearby and a rather diverse group of Foodtopians ready to dazzle, groups will find no shortage of immersive culinary experiences. Old barns dot the landscape surrounding Hickory Nut Gap Farm, which not only supplies meat and dairy to many local restaurants but offers workshops on such topics as sausage and ice cream making, outdoor cooking techniques and crafting probiotic drinks. Groups can also click their heels at a summer barn dance or enjoy an afternoon of blueberry, blackberry and raspberry picking straight from the vine. And if beer and wine aren’t your group’s forte, there are also numerous hard craft cideries to awaken the palate. The Urban Orchard Cider Company, whose creative libations range from traditional Dry Ridge and Sweet English to meldings with hops, berries, vanilla and jalapeno peppers—all sourced locally—may be just what the doctor ordered.
Handcrafted artisan chocolates and pastries—made with local and organic ingredients—await groups at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge & Factory. The certified green lounge is open until midnight on the weekends, making it a sweet after dinner or nightcap spot while your group pulls together over a cup o’ Indian kulfi, masala chai or cayenne and cinnamon hot chocolate and other masterful chocolate varieties. Just a short drive to the South Slope District is the lounge’s factory and tasting facility; groups can discover the bean-to-bar process here while touring and tasting creators Dan and Jael Rattigan’s fair trade cacao concoctions.
Food tours provide their own brand of culinary adventure. Eating Asheville has customized plenty of teambuilding programs in the past for national companies like Wells Fargo and Pfizer—groups explore the fare of six to seven authentically Asheville restaurants. Asheville Food Tours does the same thing for groups in historic downtown Asheville—artisan gourmet food is on the agenda. For a truly hyperlocal experience, groups can combine these with art tours through Downtown Asheville Arts and River Arts districts, where more than 180 artists do their thing amid a vibrant urban backdrop of old factories and historical buildings. Talks with local artists, workshops and demonstrations, among other things, can be arranged for groups.