Magic in a bottle
If you build it, they will come. If you brew it, they will come and party.
“If you make a great product, people will come and find it,” said Joe Rowland, co-owner of Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City. “This town is one of the last outposts where you can be this close to a giant wilderness area and still be able to go out there and explore it. You can’t get that anywhere else.”
For years, Rowland worked in marketing and operated a kayaking outfitter in Charleston. Surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson City mesmerized him and his colleagues whenever they would visit the region. The brewery was launched in 2010 in an effort to bring together two passions – craft beer and the great outdoors.
“We fell in love with Bryson City and kept trying to find ways to live here,” Rowland said. “So, a handful of us got together and started the brewery. It’s great to be involved in an industry that people appreciate and are happy when they leave, which that in itself is rewarding.”
The philosophy for Nantahala Brewing is simple – quality over quantity. Instead of mass-produced basic brews, the company aims to concoct unique, delicious flavors that tease the senses.
“Certain people are used to sitting down and drinking something that tasted the same, and was cheap. The mentality was about how many beers you could get for $20,” Rowland said. “Now, you go in, sit down and have a great tasting beer, where it’s not about how many you get, but rather it’s about what value you get for your dollar.”
Alongside their flagship Noon Day IPA, the brewery also serves their Appalachian Trail Extra Pale Ale, Bryson City Brown, Dirty Girl Blonde and Up River Amber. Throughout the year, they release seasonals, high gravity selections and host a variety of events during their “Trail Magic Ale” series.
The series and festivities are all in an effort to showcase the adventurous spirit of Southern Appalachia and the mystical ways of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) that runs through the heart of Western North Carolina.
“It’s a huge party, and we never expected it to be that way,” Rowland said.
Started as a way to incorporate the ideals of the business with the ambition and diverse character of people hiking the entire A.T., from Georgia to Maine (or vice versa), the releases (three a year – March, June and October) have garnered quite a following of beer connoisseurs and nature wanders. The events focus on the idea of “trail magic,” which is why a random act of kindness occurs on the trail, whether it be providing food to a hungry thru-hiker or inviting them into your home for a rest.
“That whole concept of doing something totally random, an act of kindness we can tie to the A.T. just fit us,” Rowland said. “So, we came up with the series, which coincides with the launch time, midway point and end of hike.”
Besides the brewery’s own fascination and enjoyment of the A.T., brewmaster Greg Geiger was actually hiking the trail when he first crossed paths with Nantahala Brewing. Geiger was living in Knoxville in 2011 and decided to do a 500-mile trek through the Southern Appalachian portion of the route. A friend of his who worked at the brewery coaxed the 17-year homebrewer and industrial engineer off the trail to help volunteer at a craft beer festival. Geiger felt a kinship with the brewery and the rest is history.
“I just hiked 500 miles of this area and fell in with it all,” he said. “It’s the mountains, the water, how lush the landscape is, how much variety there is with the flora and fauna.”
Taking his longtime love of homebrewing to the next level, Geiger enjoys the idea of the brewery as his laboratory, with him playing the mad scientist role.
“This is my playground to toy around with new things,” he said. “There’s so much you can do to experiment, to push the boundaries and make new flavors, new things you’ve never tried before, and we have that freedom here to do just that,” he said.
And yet for Rowland, all of these people, places and things are part of the rich philosophy of why he and his comrades decided to set deep roots in Western North Carolina and create fine craft beer.
“We really could be anywhere, but we wanted to be here, and we’re lucky for that,” he said. “And we’re just going to keep getting better and better.”