The very beginning of the Nantahala Brewing Company story began — appropriately — at a local bar.
Mike Marsden had long thought the 1,200-square-foot warehouse adjacent to Across the Trax, the bar he owns in Bryson City, would be perfect for a brewery.
While enjoying a drink at another local establishment, a bartender friend introduced him to a couple sitting at the other end of the bar. It was Chris and Christina Collier, award-winning home brewers who had long dreamt of someday opening their own brewery.
By the end of the night, the three were excitedly sketching out details on a cocktail napkin. With Joe Rowland and Ken Smith signing up as partners along the way, the Nantahala Brewery has finally opened its doors for business a year later.
At this point, the brewery is serving up five varieties of beer. The Colliers — who are nationally certified beer judges — say their aim is not so much to appeal to a mass audience as to please the “beer geeks.”
The company is offering the Nantahala Pale Ale and the Eddy Out Stout, but its two most popular brews so far have been the Bryson City Brown, a smooth brown ale, and the Noon Day IPA, which carries a heavy West Coast influence and a hoppy, grapefruit-inspired taste.
This summer, the Nantahala Brewery is also brewing batches of Depot Street Summer Wheat, a spicy German hefeweizen with hints of cloves and bananas. Nantahala Light, a crisp and easy German pilsner, is on the way.
The brewery is already selling its offerings at an increasing number of restaurants and bars in Bryson City, Sylva, Waynesville, Asheville and Murphy, along with a few grocery stores and at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Rowland says his company is hoping to churn out 600 to 1,000 barrels of beer this year, even though its equipment can produce a much higher output. Chris Collier says he’d like to see the Nantahala Brewery maintain a personal touch rather than become large-scale.
“It appeals to me keeping it small, keeping it simple,” said Chris Collier.
According to Marsden, Nantahala’s craft beers thus far have gotten a great response at Across the Trax. More visitors are looking for local brews, and Asheville’s status as a nationally recognized beer town hasn’t hurt.
“The biggest thing about it is it’s fresh,” said Marsden. Many breweries produce quality beer, but by the time it’s delivered, it’s already a few months old. Nantahala’s brews, on the other hand, arrive less than two weeks after they’re ready, Marsden said.
Those who enjoy sampling the fresh local beer at Across the Trax are often invited to see where the magic happens next door. It’s not often that people can get that close to their brewers, but Christina Collier would like to see that change.
“I think every town should have a local brewery,” said Christina Collier. “It should be like a local bakery.”
Right now, Nantahala Brewing Company gets most of its hops from the Pacific Northwest. It hopes to gradually get more from Western North Carolina to use late in the process, which helps create a stronger aroma in the beer.
The Nantahala Brewery’s tasting room is in the process of being set up, but the space is generally open to anyone who wants a tour.
Though the fledgling company has worked hard to renovate its warehouse space, most customers don’t immediately recognize the progress that’s been made when they walk in. They only see a gaping space with brewing equipment and nowhere to sit.
But even getting that huge equipment up and running was a challenge for the newcomers.
“This was just a shell before,” said Christina Collier, who spent a chilly winter helping paint the 30-foot walls inside an inviting blue.
By the time the tasting room is set up and retailers move into adjacent spaces within the warehouse, though, Nantahala Brewery hopes to become a popular destination in Bryson City.
According to Christina Collier, other breweries in the area probably won’t mind the competition. There’s more cooperation than competition among brewers, she said.
“Everybody wants everybody else to succeed,” said Christina Collier. “It looks bad for small-town microbreweries to fail.”
Want to try?
Check out http://nantahalabrewing.wordpress.com/where-to-buy to find out where you can sip some of Nantahala Brewing Company’s offerings. The brewery also offers growlers.