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Hike-n-Beer: Great Smoky Mountains NP Edition

People often ask me how I stay so slim drinking as much beer as I do. After LMAO at the idea of being considered “slim,” I generally answer something about not eating fast food, watching what I eat, and exercising. Admittedly, that last part is often a challenging routine to maintain, but we’ve developed something we like to call “Hike-n-Beer.” Basically, it’s a hike followed by a session of beer drinking. During the summer Chris and I hike with the dogs and drink beer afterwards almost every weekend, but it doesn’t really become Hike-n-Beer unless we’re joined by friends.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We try to maintain this routine even while on our trips and hiking is one of the easiest forms of exercise while traveling. Our Western North Carolina itinerary included a hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with our friends and fellow beer trekkers, Matt and Michelle.

The morning after Wednesday’s Urban Beer Hike in Asheville, we were all moving a little slow. Even so, we managed to pile ourselves in the car and drive over an hour to the park. Driving in Western North Carolina is a beautiful sight–clean, fresh air, lots of green grass, and loads of trees lining the road. It was also an interesting experience to drive through Cherokee, a town at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the headquarters of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Interspersed with vintage motels we passed shops that sold “1,000 styles of moccasins,” “authentic Indian crafts,” and “rat cheese.” We had no idea what that last thing was, but it just didn’t sound right to us.

Merideth crossing the Bradley Fork

We started our 6-mile hike at a trail head located in a campground. It started out slow and we meandered on a path along the river. Leaves frequently fell from the canopy of trees above, a sign that fall had arrived. Before we knew it, however, the terrain turned steep and the uphill climb seemed to go on forever. The tree cover was beautiful, but even at the top, we could only get slight glimpses of the mountains and valley below because the trees blocked the view. From what I could see, the mountains were covered in green with patches of rust here and there. Give it another few weeks and the mountain sides will be an amazing display of bright red fall foliage. The lack of full view was okay, though, because by the time we reached the top, we all had beer on the brain. It wasn’t lingering we had in mind, but rather getting to the beer part of Hike-n-Beer.

After two and a half hours, we were back at the car and a short time after that, we arrived at our first stop: Heinzelmännchen Brewery in Sylva, North Carolina.

Definitely a gnome theme at Heinzelmännchen

Sylva is a small historic town of around 3,000 people; the perfect location for a quaint brewery with a gnome for a logo and “Your Gnometown Brewery” for a motto. Heinzelmännchen had several beers available to taste, including the Weise Gnome Hefeweizen (described as a “clear wheat ale”), Middleworld Brown Ale (a light-bodied malty brew), and the Black Forest Stout, which was a Schwarzbier.

We enjoyed our samples while wandering around the brewery (Chris especially liked the flag that read “Chillin’ with my gnomies”) and chatting with Deiter, the bräumeister. He even suggested a tasty little cafe for lunch where we could get the brewery’s Gnarly Gnome, a Black IPA not available at the brewery for tasting.

The wonderful Gnarly Gnome at City Lights

Heinzelmännchen Brewery bills itself as the “beer brewed for food” and they offer a cookbook of their favorite recipes for sale, as well as offer monthly food and beer pairing events. While the beers weren’t quite as authentically German as we were expecting (and I hoping), they were solid and tasted refreshing after our hike.

The large quonset hut was easy to spot

After lunch at the City Lights Cafe up the street, we were back on the road and headed to Bryson City and Nantahala Brewing. Located on across from the Great Smoky Mountain railroad stop, Nantahala is housed in a large quonset hut that is divided into several businesses, including the brewery, a bar, and a kayak rental company.

Inside, Nantahala was huge with the feel of an airplane hangar. With more than enough floor space, a long bar and a large projector television, the bartender assured us that during football games, the place is packed. The tourist season is almost over, however, and having been open only since March, the bartender wasn’t sure what business would look like in the slow season.

Winner of tap handle of the trip

Nantahala had all three of their year-round brews available for tasting. Chris especially liked their flagship beer, Noon Day IPA, a 6% brew with a piney hop flavor. In addition to the Dirty Girl Blonde Ale and Summer Wheat seasonal offerings, they served a Belgian Extra Pale Ale, their App Trail Extra Pale ale fermented with Belgian yeast. This was a popular one with our group.

The beers at Nantahala were tasty and the atmosphere fun and playful, but we were losing steam fast. The hike, sun, and beer had all caught up with us. During the ride back to Asheville, I thought it might be time to add an a new part to our Hike-n-Beer: Hike-n-Beer-n-Sleep.

View all the images from our day

The Road to Asheville

We began our latest beer adventure by landing in Greensboro, North Carolina, several hours east of our final destination. While not the most convenient, flying into Greensboro did give us the opportunity to visit a few breweries on the road to Asheville, North Carolina’s beer mecca.

Foothills Brewing in the heart of downtown Winston-Salem

Thanks to a red-eye flight from San Francisco, Merideth and I arrived in North Carolina at noon a bit tired but ready to drink some beer. Our friends, Matt and Michelle, picked us up at Piedmont Triad International Airport and our foursome was quickly headed west to the nearby city of Winston-Salem. Foothills Brewing, our first stop, was located downtown in a beautiful brick 1920s era building that originally housed a car dealership.

The ten beer sampler at Foothills

After I had a quick jolt of coffee, we delved into a sample set of their brews. Their six regular beers were augmented by four seasonals. It’s always great to start a trip with a double-digit sampler.

Our only prior experience with Foothills was drinking a one-ounce sample of Sexual Chocolate at the Great American Beer Festival a few years back, so we weren’t sure what to expect. Their line-up was the typical brewpub range, from the golden-colored Salem Gold to the jet-black People’s Porter. All the beers were clean and well-made with the overwhelming Bourbon barrel-aged People’s Porter being the only brew we didn’t care for. It had too much barrel for only four hours of sleep.

Merideth at Foothills Brewing

While Merideth favored the Torch Pilsner, my highlight was the seasonal India-style Brown Ale. At 7% ABV and 70 IBUs, it was the beer that most satisfied my West Coast palate.

We’re not vegetarians, but kudos also goes to Foothills for their non-meat fare. Merideth really enjoyed the DIPA Glazed Tofu and I thought the Black Bean Cake Sandwich was delicious.

Olde Hickory in Hickory's main square

Heading west on I-40, it was an hour before we reached the second stop of the day in the town of Hickory. Situated in the town’s main square, our destination was easy to spot with it’s large green awning proclaiming “Olde Hickory Tap Room.”

Gazing at the beer list on the chalkboard, two beers immediately caught my fancy. First was Cookville Blonde, a pretty typical Golden Ale but made with local hops. I would like to say that I could taste the North Carolina terroir in the Cookville Blonde, but it was an pleasant, sessionable brew nonetheless.

My second beer at Olde Hickory, Death by Hops, was the winning entry in the brewery’s first Pro-am competition. Brewed with five varieties of West Coast hops, the 7% ABV Death by Hops was a competent West Coast style brew.

Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain

Our final stop before we reached Asheville was Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain. North Carolina’s first certified organic brewery, Pisgah was located at the back of a somewhat dilapidated industrial park a few minutes off I-40. Well, a few minutes if your GPS doesn’t crap out and you get lost, that is.

We joined a crowd of about a half-dozen fellow beer drinkers enjoying the beautiful afternoon weather in the beer garden out front. One of the most anticipated stops of the trip, I quickly ordered a taster set of their beers.

The nine beer sampler at Pisgah

There were nine beers to sample at Pisgah. It was an eclectic mix of brews ranging from an American Wheat and Solstice, a Belgian-style Tripel to Nitro, Coffee and Imperial Stouts.

The Imperial Stout probably was the best of the lot, but given the bright sunshine and warm day, not the best beer for the conditions. The other two that stood out for me were Solstice and the Red Devil, a 9% ABV Belgian-style Pale Ale with cherries and raspberries.

Pisgah was one of those places where we could have spent hours relaxing in their beer garden. The beers were nice and the neo-hippie vibe pretty cool. But Merideth and I were starting to fade a bit and we thought it best to continue on the road to Asheville.

View all the images on the road to Asheville