If you’ve made your way through our Southern beer starter kit or taken a beer-fueled road trip lately, you’ll already know that the brew scene below the Mason Dixon is catching fire in a major way. As it continues to grow, we’ve been on the hunt not only for the best breweries, but also the cities that are establishing themselves as beer-drinking meccas.

In North Carolina, Asheville has hogged the national spotlight with its splashy ground-breaking ceremonies for major breweries (Sierra Nevada, New Belgium) that have set up their East Coast operations in the already suds-heavy town (thanks, tax breaks!). But about 125 miles east, Charlotte is making a name for itself as the state’s next breakout beer destination.

The NoDa Hop Drop - Ale Sharpton

The beginnings of this this transformation date back to North Carolina’s historic “Pop the Cap” law 2005, which allowed brewers to make their beer, shall we say, gangster; the severely handicapping 6% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) limit got boosted to 15%, resulting in more variety, experimentation, and a communal willingness to set up shop and push the envelope. But it’s also due to Charlotte’s shifting culture. Long stereotyped as a somewhat soulless corporate town (it’s home to Nascar’s main offices), the Queen City has attracted younger energy with its favorable cost of living and quality of life.

The best place to explore Charlotte’s new, funkier side is in the historic North Davidson arts district (popularly known as NoDa), which has become ground zero for the city’s burgeoning brew scene. Here, we focus on a quartet of microbreweries in the bustling ‘hood that are rapidly climbing the ladder of craft-beer prestige.

Bird Song Brewing Company

Founded in 2011, Bird Song is the best place to soak up the energy of the new NoDa community. From bikers clad in leather vests to wide-eyed college students offsetting mid-terms with a few pints, brewmaster Conor Robinson’s mastery of hops draws in drinkers of all stripes. Led by the workhorse Free Will Pale Ale, American-style pales ales and double IPAs (check the Honey Pie, laced with local honey) dominate the menu. But there’s no single-mindedness here; you’ll also want to explore creative seasonals (Mexicali Stout), the limited-release Take Flight Series, and well-crafted Belgian-style ales. Speakers bumping Bob Marley and live guitar players often make the taproom the place to be—especially on “THURSty THURSdays,” when a new small-batch brew is poured and tours are offered. birdsongbrewing.com

Unknown Brewing Company

Unknown Over The Edge

In any beer city in America, there’s always that one brewer that other liquid craftsmen say you have to track down while you’re in town. Unknown’s Brad Shell is that guy in Charlotte, thanks to his outgoing personality (okay, he’s crazy) and his invaluable work experience with heavyweights like SweetWater, Rogue and Terrapin. Shell’s eccentricity translates to his often-unorthodox brews, including the coveted Over The Edge IPA; Southern Hopitali-Tea, incorporating flavors from the South’s most beloved beverage; and the seven-hop Vehopciraptor Double IPA, flexing 9.9%-ABV of beer muscle. Setting up shop a stone’s throw away from the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America stadium (the Pre Game Session Ale is a tailgate favorite), Unknown is an ideal place to wile away an afternoon, with a ping-pong table, comfortable couches, and large windows for visitors to gawk at Shell’s expansive brewing playground. unknownbrewing.com

NoDa Brewing Company

The NoDa Draft Board - Ale Sharpton

If you only had one beer to try while in Charlotte, it would have to be the 2014 World Beer Cup Gold Award-winning NoDa Hop Drop ‘N Roll India Pale Ale. Named after C-Town’s hipster paradise, NoDa brewery has a major expansion in the works to help supply the demand for one of the South’s best IPAs. But to stop there would be a shame, as the other five year-rounds and numerous seasonals prove that it’s no one-trick pony. What Gose Round and Ramble On Red are both favorites, and the Hop, Drop is liquid crack for for hop heads. The brewery is an great spot to chill out after work and especially on the weekends, when food trucks pull up out front and sports fans flood the tap room to watch games. The always smiling NoDa owners—husband-and-wife team Suzie and Todd Ford—can often be found milling about the bar, so feel free to chat them up about what’s next for the up-and-coming brewery. nodabrewing.com

Heist Brewery

The Heist Brewery Outside - Ale Sharpton

The beer names alone announce that Heist likes to do things with its own point of view—just check out the Cross-Pollen Nation Stout (an American stout brewed with Belgian yeast), Mussels From Brussels Belgian Pale Ale, and the ever-popular San Fran Disco American Pale Ale. The same spirit of experimentation fills the rest of the 6,700-square-foot brewpub, which proudly exhibits striking local art adorning the walls (there are even occasional “Paint Nights” hosted by Wine And Design Charlotte, where patrons can come, paint and sip). And Heist may be the best place to bring a group who might not share your beer obsession, thanks to seasonal cocktails (fall brings the Fig Martini and Pecan Smoked Manhattan) and live music from local acts like the Brother’s Berg. Beer-friendly food comes in the form of house-baked ESB Pretzel sticks, and sriracha-fried chicken with ramen salad and lobster mac. Speaking of vittles, Charlotte’s most demanding gourmands recommend Heist’s Sunday brunch without hesitation. heistbrewery.com

The Heist Brewery Pretzels- Ale Sharpton RELATED: The Next Great Craft-Beer Town: Athens, GA