An hour west of Asheville, nestled between the Tuckasegee River and the Great Smoky Mountains, Nantahala Brewing pours magic from its taps.
It starts three times a year when the brewery debuts its special Trail Magic Ale releases, drawing hordes of craft beer fans who travel hours to Bryson City to visit this hidden gem on the North Carolina beer map
The hype surrounding the release – particularly the imperial stout each March – spreads by word of mouth even though the beer is hard to find outside the mountains.
I made the trip – a five hour drive from Raleigh – earlier this month for the debut of Trail Magic No. 8, an oak aged imperial wit with blackberries. Before the release party June 7, I sat down with Greg Geiger, the head brewer, to talk about the series and its mystique.
He said he sets a high bar for series and tries to incorporate a local ingredient. “Each one of them needs to be completely unique – just a beer like nobody has ever had before,” he said
The beer takes its name from those magical moments on the Appalachian Trail, a mere eight miles from the brewery, when someone offers a random gift, whether a cooked meal or a cold beer, to thru-hikers trekking the 2,180-mile path from Georgia to Maine.
Geiger, 38, says his style runs counter to the industry’s thirst for big, crazy flavors and concoctions. “In general I try to be subtle with flavors,” he said. “I try not to go overboard.”
Nantahala’s hoppy beers may be the exception. For the four-year anniversary in May, the brewery put an insane 45 pounds into a new brew called 4 the Love of Hops, which I would rank among the best India pale ales in the state.
The 4-Foot Drop Pale Ale, with its floral IPA aroma and little bitterness, helped put the brewery on the map. It now ranks among the most decorated North Carolina breweries with 38 medals from the annual Carolinas Championship of Beers.
Owner Joe Rowland, 36, is a journeyman brewer from small town Georgia, carved the expansive taproom from an old warehouse along the rail line.
He says the secret to the beer is the water. It comes soft and straight from Deep Creek, the minerals stripped by time from the aged-old mountains, making a clean palate that he can meld to amplify various beer styles.
The other asset, he says, is a bit of a surprise: the location. Despite the remoteness, Rowland said the brewery embraces its proximity to Asheville and considers itself part of the same scene. (Rowland even is the new president of the Asheville Brewers Alliance.)
“In some ways we are separate from them, but easy enough to be a part of Asheville, too,” said Jenn Huston, Rowland’s wife. “What we say is go to Asheville and do the beer tour there, continue on the way and come up here.”
What I’m tasting
If a trek into the mountains is too far, check your local craft beer bottle shop for two Nantahala flagship beers in 22-ounce bottles.
Noon Day IPA is a big-hopped beer with all the grapefruit and piney flavor and little of the tongue-lashing bitterness that gives this style a love-or-hate reputation. And Dirty Girl Blonde is a great summer beer, light in color, with simple flavors and refreshingly crisp, that everyone will enjoy.
Try them both and then visit the brewery in October for the next Trail Magic release: an American barleywine aged in 40-year-old Spanish cognac barrels with apples.