“It’s a huge party, and we never expected it to be that way,” said brewery co-owner Joe Rowland.
Started last year as a way to incorporate the ideals of the brewery with the ambition and diverse character of people hiking the entire A.T., the releases (three a year) have garnered quite a following of beer connoisseurs and nature wanderers. The first release is timed to coincide with the waves of thru-hikers — a hundred or more a day at their peak — passing through the region in late March en route from Georgia to Maine on the footpath.
The events focus on the idea of “trail magic” — a random act of kindness that occurs on the trail, whether it’s providing food to a hungry thru-hiker or inviting them into your home for a shower and real bed.
“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.”
The vision for the releases came from Rowland and others at the brewery occasionally setting up shop on the trail. They would grill out for the day and provide anyone passing by with a hamburger or drink. It became something that really inspired Rowland and opened his eyes to the vastness and wide array of humanity moving along the sacred route.
“People who go out and hike this trail, it’s just amazing to see the variety out there and why they’re doing it,” he said.
With the trek averaging around six months to complete, the brewery kicks off the first release in late March, which is typically when hikers start to trickle through the area. The other two are scheduled to take place on June 7-8 and Oct. 11-12.
Rowland said there are a handful of requirements for the beer, including that it has to be high gravity (stronger alcohol content by volume) and must contain some sort of local ingredients. The benefits of a high gravity concoction is that is ages better, meaning a year from now it will taste as fresh as it did the day it was tapped.
This first release of 2013 will be a Russian Imperial Stout. It was made with local sorghum (the ingredient used in molasses) and wildflower honey, and has been aging in used Maker’s Mark bourbon barrels.
“We don’t replicate any styles that we make [for the releases]” he said. “The possibilities are endless when you’re making a product like that.”
Of the revenue brought in, Nantahala has partnered up with the Friends of the Smokies and the A.T. Conservancy, two groups that work to protect and maintain the trail — whether it’s the trail bed itself, the landscape it passes through or the intangible trail experience.
One of the programs they support are the “ridge runners,” a vital team that spends days at a time traversing legs of the trail aiding thru-hikers. While ridge runners are found the length of the trail, they are all the more critical in the rugged and secluded section running through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the distance between trailheads or nearby towns make hopping off to get help impossible. Ridge runners not only help educate thru-hikers but also provide them with any weather reports, supplies, medical attention or miscellaneous needs they may have while in our backyard.
“This is one of the most popular sections of the trail,” Rowland said. “And these ridge runners make sure hikers are good to go. It can be extremely remote out there, and you probably won’t have contact with anybody else except other hikers.”
Trail magic: the real stuff
But, the cherry on top is the biggest surprise of the weekend. As soon as the event begins, the brewery sends a vehicle down to the Nantahala Outdoor Center where the A.T. passes through. With the help of friends who work at the NOC, a few people are randomly selected off the trail and invited to partake in the festivities up in Bryson City.
“Right now, there are people on the trail that have no idea they will be selected,” Rowland chuckled. “They’re going to be picked off the trail, have a cabin setup, the whole nine yards. It’s pretty cool.”
These folks are chosen based on their humility and intent for doing the trail. Once at the brewery, they are crowned the kings and queens of the release party. From there, they are whisked away to the nearby Watershed Cabins, where they can rest and relax in some of the finest accommodations around — free of charge.
“we aim for more of an older crowd, so that they won’t damage such a nice place,” Rowland said. “And we want to choose people that are serious about doing the trail.”
In 2012, the brewery selected three hikers with stories as unique and astounding as the quest itself. Two were a couple that had met on the trail the previous year. She was a Type-1 diabetic (one of the first with the syndrome to complete the trail). He was a veteran and Purple Heart recipient who had lost his wife and daughter in a plane crash. They fell in love on their initial trek and decided to celebrate their engagement by doing the journey again.
The third person picked up was a renowned female hiker named Yogi, who rose to wilderness fame with her cherished trail guides she wrote about the Pacific Coast Trail.
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.
“If you make a good product, people will come and find it,” he said. “Bryson City is one of the last little 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.”
Want to go?
The “Trail Magic Ale No. 4 Release” will take place at 6 p.m. on March 22 and noon on March 23 at the Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City. The festivities include music and the brewery’s newest creation, a Russian Imperial Stout. Music acts include Liz & AJ Nance and The Freight Hoppers, with other groups to be announced. Attendees are allowed to bring their own food (grills are provided outside). As well, if you have a limited or rare homebrew/beer to offer for sampling at the brewery, feel free to bring it. There is no cover charge for the event. All patrons must be 21 years or older.
828.488.2337 or www.nantahalabrewing.com.