Beer people are good people. No matter where I travel, this always seems true. Craft beer fans as a whole are generous men and women who give to the community and love to share. The sharing takes many forms. There is often open exchange of ideas, brewing practices and special reserve bottles from private stashes. This is exactly what I encountered this weekend.
I’ve planned my trip to Bryson City for Nantahala Brewing Company’s Trail Magic Ale bottle release as soon as I first read about it online. This was shortly after the Winter Warmer Beer Festival in Asheville this past January. It was at that event where I had my first experience with Nantahala’s beer. After so many samples at a festival like that, things tend to get fuzzy for me. My distinguishing of beers pretty much degrades to “like” or “do not like”. When I tried Nantahala’s brews near the end of the event, they were definitely in the “like” catagory. In fact, I remember having the Noon Day IPA and ATX Pale Ale, and how they really caught my attention. So when I got home and wrote my Winter Warmer post, I looked up Nantahala Brewing Company online. That’s when I found out about the Trail Magic Ale bottle release. Being the beer tourist that I am, this event seemed tailor made for me. I’m always looking for an excuse to get out and visit breweries. A limited edition release of a Bourbon Barrel aged Imperial Stout by a brewery not to far away? By one that makes really good beer? For me, that’s a sure shot.
Originally my plan was to arrive early Friday afternoon, spend the night at the Motel and then go to the bottle release the next day. I would follow that with a quick visit to Heinzelmannchen 30 minutes away then head back to Knoxville and be home by mid afternoon on Saturday. I had planned to brew another batch for The Thirsty Orange Beer Festival on Sunday. As far as my traveling partners, it flipped back and forth. First my son and his mom were going to go. Then they wanted to stay at home since they just got back from the beach and long driving times a few days prior. Then one of my Knox Beer Crew buddies was going to accompany me, but couldn’t get his weekend work shift covered. It looked to be a solo trip. I’ll tell you what happened, but first another story.
Last week I poured my heart, soul, money and time to brew a batch of Rauchbier. This style is a lager, which means it has a very specific temperature range the yeast ferment at. I have a old chest freezer that I got off of craigslist about a year ago that I use as a beer fridge and lager fermentation cabinet. This thing is a beast. I did have some problems with it several months ago. A repair guy came out, told me it had a leak and charged me an arm and a leg to refill the freon. My thoughts were that the fridge had worked well for the 8 months I owned it. If I had to get the freon refilled once a year, then it was still cheaper then buying a new one. During my beer’s fermentation, I was constantly checking the inside temperature with my infrared thermometer. The 1st couple of days it was spot on. The next day the temp had gone up a couple of degrees. No big deal, I just adjusted the thermostat down. The next day it was a few more degrees higher. Ok, more tweaking of the thermostat. Thursday it was even higher. Oh crap, I thought. At this point the compressor was running non-stop. Thursday night before bed, I unplugged the thermostat interruptor and put the freezer on full blast. Than night I had nightmares of unpleasant off flavors developing in my beer. I seriously had dreams that were like a scene in a movie where the main character has every bad home brew cliche happen to him. I woke up in cold sweat at 4 am, hopped out of bed, went to my chest freezer and put my thermometer on the carboy. It was at 58 degrees, the upper temp range for that yeast. No, this can’t be happening!!!! Argh! There is no way I could sleep now. I got online and researched models, prices, locations and reviews of every chest freezer for sale in the greater Knoxville Area. Lowes and Home Depot seemed like my best bet. They are both near each other a short drive away from where I live. They both opened at 6 am. I took measurements of my freezer, my doorways, my carboys and my kegs. Then I drove down and did some comparison shopping at both locations. I ended up settling on a nice Maytag that had the capacity to fit several carboys and kegs at the same time. How could I get it home? My pickup truck died 2 months ago. Home Depot did have truck rental, but then I remembered that my son’s grandma had a van. I measured the inside of the van and realized a chest freezer could fit. That all being figured out, I still had to go to work. Originally, I arranged to get off work at 2:30 to head to Bryson City. When my boss came in to the office, I explained my appliance emergency to her. Lucky for me, I have the coolest, most supportive boss ever. She told me to go home and get it taken care of. I appreciated her offer, but being a good employee means not leaving my work unfinished. I worked quickly through my task list which included getting the billing out, and going to court to get a subpoena issued. I got home around one and borrowed the van. I went and purchased my new freezer, brought it home and quickly swapped it out. While this was going on, I somehow convinced my son and his mom to go with me on this trip. We ended up on the road around 5 pm, which was 2 hours later then originally anticipated.
Bryson City NC is nestled in the middle of the Smoky Mountains not to far way from Cherokee. The drive includes great views and scenery, combined with curvy mountains roads. We arrived around 7 pm. I checked into our motel and went over to the brewery. The Friday night pre-bottle release party was promoted as a beer geek bottle swap, so I came prepared with a cooler full of goodies. As I arrived at the brewery, the first thing I noticed was the building. It was huge space and beautifully done. I found a place to put down my cooler, went to the bar and ordered a glass of the Trail Magic Imperial Stout. As soon as I had my first sip, I knew I made the right decision to visit. After a few more minutes I went up to a group of guys wearing Nantahala shirts. I started talking with them, and they introduced me to the head brewer, Greg. We hit it off right away and he gave me a tour. Natahala Brewing Company uses a 10 barrel brewing system and several conical fermenters. As an interesting note, this system is the same one that R J Rockers started off with. When they upgraded, they sold their old equipment to Nantahala. Greg also explained to me about their system’s size limitations. They could only fit so many pounds of grain in the mash tun at a time, so they have to do smaller batches if they want to brew a high gravity beer like Trail Magic. Due to the size of the building, they easily have room to install a bigger system with taller fermenters as they grow. We talked more about beer, and I showed him my cooler full of brews. I ended up making an incredibly amazing trade with him. As the night progressed, the party moved from the front tasting room to back in the brewing area. I met some really great beer lovers from all over and several homebrewers as well. There was a great couple from Upstate NY, some guys from Atlanta, a fellow homebrewer from Walland and another from Sylva. There was even a couple who were hiking through the area who were invited by the brewery. So big shout out to Joe, Mike, Dan, KP, Kwesi, Dave, his wife and everyone who’s name I either forgot or got wrong. It was truly an honor to drink with y’all. Since it was a beer swap party, everyone brought absolutely amazing beers to taste and share. I opened a bottle of Sweetwater’s Dank Tank 420 IPA. The guys there from Atlanta told me that they couldn’t even get this there. I was astounded. They explained that word on the street was that it was so rare because something happened at the brewery and Sweetwater lost half of their batch. In addition to the Sweetwater Dank Tank, I had also brought homebrews. Some others did as well. Joe from Walland brought a great selection of Brettanomyces based brews that were really well done. I ended up trading hima couple of my homebrews for a bottle of his saison and a lambic. One of the brewery volunteers, Mike, traded me his Heinzelmannchen growler for a Sweetwater 420 IPA and a homebrew. That growler would come in handy the next day. After many hours of conversation and so many rare and amazing beers, the night ended. I walked back to the hotel and slept soundly.
Saturday at noon was the bottle release. To kill time beforehand, my son, his mom and myself walked around downtown Bryson City. We stopped for coffee at The Cork and Bean which is a really nice coffee shop in an old bank building. I really liked this place, and the employees there were super friendly. At 11:30 or so I went to the brewery to hang out until it was time to buy bottles. They were offering to sell 4 bottles per person. All the fellow beer geeks from the night before were there, and my Knox Beer Crew buddy, Cutter, Showed up for the release. Noon came and we lined up for our bottles. I got my four and my son’s mom got 4 more for me. I overheard talk of them waiting until later that afternoon and possibly letting people buy up to a case. I was kidding with my son about needing a disguise so I could get back in line. Leave it to kids to take you serious because he immediately ran to the van and came back with Groucho Marx glasses with the fake nose, mustache and eyebrows. I went to the end of the line, and people were smiling and laughing at my attempt to get more bottles. The guys must of thought it was a good attempt too, so they let me get 4 more. All in all, I did end up with a case, which is good because I plan on sharing and trading them with friends who couldn’t make it.
Well, after saying goodbye to my new friends, we headed towards Heinzelmannchen in Sylva, NC. Let me help you out with how to pronounce the brewery’s name. It’s Hein-zul-man-chen. The brewery has a saying to help you remember. It’s “People pay attention when you ask for Heinzelmannchen“. It’s pretty clever if you ask me.
I’ve met braumeister Dieter at last year’s Kingsport Oktoberfest. At that event he had a cocoa porter called “Chocolate Covered Gnome“. It is an amazing beer that blew me away the first time I tried it. I had a long conversation with Dieter who told me how to get the cocoa flavor in the brew. I’ve know many homebrewers that have tried, only to have the cocoa powder settle out in the fermentor. I have tried brewing with cocoa nibs as well but had some unexpected issues. He let me how he figured it out through trial and error and told me if I told anyone, he’d have to kill me. I know he was kidding, but when a big German guy with an accent tells you something like that, it’s best not to chance it. Seriously though, Dieter is one of the nicest guys in the brewing world that you’ll ever meet.
Well I was glad to finally get to stop in and check out his operation. Dieter brews oon a 7 barrel system that he described to me as being “Frankenstiened”. His brewery is small, offers samples for sale, but does not have an actual tasting room. His beer is sold by the keg and by the growler. They also sell jugs of soda, root beer and birch beer. My son got a jug of the root beer, and I had my new growler filled with Chocolate Covered Gnome. After giving Dieter a bottle of my home brewed Spicy Cocoa Stout and taking a few pictures, we headed out. Our next stop was Waynesville, NC where I visited Frog Level Brewing.
Frog Level Brewing is relatively new, having opened their tasting room just in the last few months. I walked in right at 2pm on Saturday which is their listed opening time. I could tell they weren’t expecting anyone that early, as the place was empty and the bar stools were still up off the floor. I saw someone on the back patio and went and spoke with him. It turned out to be the brewer, Clark Williams. He was as nice as he could be and apologized for not being ready. I told him it was fine, that I was passing through on a beer tour and wanted to drop by and check things out. He was painting tables on their beautiful back patio. He said that his assistant brewer should be in any time to pour beers, but if I wanted he was more then happy to wash his hands and come in and help me. I’m not one to interrupt a man in the middle of a project, so I thanked him and told he I’m in no hurry and was happy to wait. Not a minute later the assistant (whos name I forgot, sorry) came in and we started talking. Frog Level is truly a nano-brewery that brews on a 1 barrel Sabco System. They have three beers that they brew. They also have a guest tap that had Heinzelmannchen’s Gnarly Gnome on it. The beers offered by Frog Level Brewing are: Catcher in the Rye (a Rye P A), Tad Pole Porter and Lily’s Cream Boy (a Cream Ale). I opted for a sample pour of all three. I enjoyed speaking with the assistant brewer who’s name I feel like an ass for forgetting. Half way through my sampling I felt a presence and looked over. My new buddies that Ihad met at Nantahala, Dan and KP from Atlanta had wandered in. The Brewer, Grant, joined us and we talked some more about his beer and the brewery. I could have stayed there all day, but I knew my son was hungry and eager to get to his favorite place to eat in Asheville, the Pizza & Brewing Company. Dan told me about a beer store that I should check out in Asheville, Appalachian Vinter. I told him I am a big Bruisin Ales fan. He insisted that I check out this new place. I felt conflicted by my loyalty to Bruisin, but took his advice.
I drove to Asheville and arrived at Appalachian Vinter, which is near the Biltmore Village area of town. It is a great spacious store that sells wine and craft beer. In the middle of the store is a bar that had several taps of greatness. Their selection rivals Bruisin Ales, and the prices were lower as well. The store is owned by 2 brothers and I got to talking with one of them who turned out to be a really cool guy. He said that he had just moved the store into that new place, and still didn’t have all his shelves put up. I dug the layout and the vibe. If it wasn’t for the waiting kid and his mom in the van, I could have spent hours sipping and talking beer. I plan on doing just that next time I go. I still got love for Bruisin Ales, but I think Appalachain Vinters will get most of my beer purchasing dollars in the future based on the prices. So thanks Dan from Atlanta for the heads up. I made my purchase and heading to my next stop, The Thirsty Monk.
Knox Beer Crew founder Matt Crowell and his wife Kristen were in Asheville for the day, so we planned to meet for beer at The Thirsty Monk in Downtown. While my son and his mom went to French Broad Chocolate, I went and had a quick flight of samples with Matt and Krissy. It’s always a pleasure to hang with local buddies while in another city. One of the things I love about that bar is that everyone there is a beer geek. Don’t expect to find multi-national corporate macro brews on tap, only the finest in craft beer. I met a really nice couple sitting next to me at the bar and we had a great conversation. I told them about the upcoming Beer City Fest, and the Thirsty Orange Beer Fest. I believe that they said they live in Maggie Valley and travel often to visit nearby breweries. They were big fans of Frog Level Brewing as well. They seemed like genuinely good people, and I hope to run into them again sometime.
Well, I finished my flight of beers and said goodbye to Matt and Krissy. I met up with my son and his mom who were adventuring through downtown. We drove down Merrimon Avenue to Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company. My son was happy to finally get to play video games and have dinner. I only had 1 beer with my dinner, Shiva Ratri, a double IPA. By that time I was pretty tired from all the traveling and beer sampling. On the way out, I purchased a six pack of Shiva IPA cans. My son’s mother drove us home and I slept for most of the ride. I woke up when we were on the outskirts of Knoxville. I thought of the great adventure that I just had. I might have spent all my savings this weekend, but I’m grateful that I had it to do what I did. I am grateful for the company of my son Orion and his mom, Mary.
I’m glad I made some new friends this weekend and I hope we have the opportunity to enjoy beer together in the future. Thanks for checking out my adventure. If I met you this weekend and you are checking out my little hobby of a website, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you all. Until next time…
(click on pictures below to enlarge).