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June 18, 2013

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Culinary travel is nothing new. Travelers often try recommended restaurants as they roam, or choose their destination based on the cuisine. Wine trails have an established track record, too, but the newcomer on the scene is brewery hopping.

Over the last three decades, American craft breweries have grown from fewer than 100 to more than 2,000, creating a product that stands on its own as a culinary delight or pairs with food from pizza to escargot. With dozens of styles, endless creative variations, small-batch releases and seasonals, there is always a new brew to enjoy.

Fortunately, such enjoyment doesn’t require travel to distant locales. You can explore craft breweries in the Blue Ridge Mountains, pleasing your palate and your sense of adventure. Though dozens of breweries are eager to host you, here’s just a sampling, helping you to create your own personalized brew-hopping tour.

A logical starting point for the craft beer experience is North Carolina, which has become second home for three large western U.S. craft breweries: Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues. With more than 20 active area breweries, Asheville has earned the title of Beer City, USA.

And North Carolina mountain beer isn’t restricted to Asheville. A short drive away are two quality breweries nestled in the Smoky Mountain playgrounds, where a relaxing draft and entertainment can follow a walk in the woods.

In Bryson City, self-proclaimed “Basecamp to the Great Smokies,” is Nantahala Brewing Company, where “Water is for wimps.” As I sampled several beers in the taproom, I chatted with the bartender and a local regular, who freely shared tales of the Road to Nowhere and gave recommendations for local hiking.

Nantahala produces several flagship beers that are good representations of the style. The Noon Day IPA (5.75% ABV), an American India Pale Ale with pine and grapefruit flavors, is brewed using pellet hops in the kettle and a hop back system that mingles fresh hop flowers with the wort. The very sessionable Bryson City Brown, at 3.8% ABV, is mild in flavor as well, with a touch of nutty character.

In 2012, Nantahala introduced their Trail Magic series, beers that showcase the creativity and community focus of American craft brewing. Not only do these beers use local ingredients, portions of the sales benefit the Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner Program. The third Trail Magic release was on tap when I visited, a unique Belgian Golden Ale aged in French oak red wine barrels with added elderberry (9%). The first two releases I took home in bottles: Bourbon Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Stout brewed with local sorghum syrup and wildflower honey (9.8%) and Lemongrass Imperial India Pale Ale, with lemongrass, fresh lemon zest and wildflower honey (8.5%).

Just a few hops up the road is Frog Level Brewing Company, Haywood County’s first microbrewery. The business takes full advantage of the whimsical name, with a generous sprinkling of frog footprints and statues.

Their creativity in the beer names is matched by creative blends using quality ingredients, with a focus on local. I tasted a flight of their beers, enjoying all but especially surprised by several styles that don’t usually get my attention: Lily’s Cream Boy cream ale (4.4%), the Catcher in the Rye red rye ale (5.5%), and Ale Be Home for Christmas (6%), a wonderful winter ale with ginger and other wintry spices.

For the rest of this article, also featuring information on breweries in Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, pick up a copy of the July/August 2013 issue on newsstands beginning June 25. Or download our iPad app or view our web-based digital edition today!

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June 18, 2013

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