Note: Originally appeared in Issue #50 of BeerAdvocate Magazine
Chris Collier and his wife Cristina pulled into a Bryson City, North Carolina hotel on the backs of their motorcycles tired and thirsty after a long trek back from Cincinnati where he participated as a judge for the 2008 National Homebrew Competition. The couple spent the previous dozen hours cruising the back roads and decided to call it a day 160 miles from their Atlanta home.
Collier was hoping for a hot shower and some good beer at the bar downstairs. He got that, and a lot more.
Collier met a man in the bar who would become his business partner, and by the Spring of 2009 Nantahala Brewing Company was born in Bryson, and has been contributing to the burgeoning Southern beer scene since the first batch was brewed in May, 2010.
A Safe Haven
Nantahala may have been born out of a chance encounter at a bar, but Collier and his wife had already been eying North Carolina as a potential site for his first foray into commercial brewing. Unlike many of its neighbors, the Tar Heel State allows brewers to self-distribute their product.
Collier, who was an avid homebrewer and a BJCP-certified judge, would have liked to put his brewing skills to use close to his home town where he still lives and works as an IT director for a clothing company, but knew that giving 30% of his profit margins to a distributor would make life as a small business owner difficult.
“We’re relatively small and obviously if we were a brewery this size in Georgia we wouldn’t be close to breaking even,” Collier said. “For us, what [operating in North Carolina] does is gives us the ability to be a small business. We’re not terribly profitable, but we’re not losing money at the same time.”
Collier said that the reason why North Carolina is emerging as a brewing leader in the South is because it isn’t hampered by outmoded laws that restrict brewers with antiquated caps on ABV or force them to deal with a three tier distribution system that favors big brands over regional specialties.
Still, Western North Carolina is not yet a major beer destination. Bryson is already a popular tourist spot for the outdoor type that enjoys the wilderness of the Smokey Mountains, but Collier hopes that Nantahala can help introduce the nature freaks to the beer geeks, and that they can talk about everything from the best mountain bike trails to hop varietals in Nantahala’s tap room, which opened this March.
He plans to use the tap room as a place where patrons can taste small test batches and one-offs brewed on his half-barrel homebrew system, but also as a place to showcase the wide variety of beer that North Carolina has to offer.
“We’re looking forward to doing as many of those [small batches] as we can in house,” Collier said. “We’re also interested in getting some other beers from Asheville, [NC]… our ultimate goal is to be the beer destination in that part of Western North Carolina…. We really want to get those beers over in our neck of the woods.”
In Complete Control
Self-distribution affords Nantahala and Collier another benefit apart from the increased profit margins. Rather than suffering at the whims of the distributor and its warehouses, Collier goes to great lengths to make sure that his beers are well represented in the market.
Rather than push beer out the door at all costs, Collier and his partners are able to ensure that his beer, currently available only on tap or in growlers, is treated properly from the cooler to the glass. If that means losing some business, so be it.
“I wouldn’t be in it if we didn’t have control over that,” Collier explained. “That’s one of the huge advantages to [self-distribution]. And obviously as small as we are we’re not filtering or pasteurizing our beers. We have a limited shelf life with what we’ve got out there. We’ve had some situations where we can’t sell five cases of growlers because they don’t have cold back stock. You’re going to sit them here on the floor at room temperature and we don’t want to do that. Unfortunately we’ve had to turn down sales, but we can’t compromise on the product”
Collier cannot help but to be particular about the flavor of his beer. Trained as a BJCP judge, he knows when beer is not at its best. This attention to detail served him well in his homebrewing days, and was essential at competitions. He applies the same level of scrutiny to his beers and recipes when formulating Nantahala’s next brew.
“Being from a BJCP background – I’m not a style Nazi by any means – but at the same time I always try to brew something true to style,” Collier said. “I don’t go overboard with it…. But I’m going to sit down and think about the style guidelines and make it authentic. If I’m making an Oktoberfest, I’m going to use German malts and German hops – same thing with an English beer; I’m using English malts and English hops.”
Bringing Hoppy Back
In this era of hop heads and lupulin addicts, most modern brewers are judged by their IPA. Collier understands this, and decided that Nantahala’s had to stand as a unique representation of the style. Another nondescript ale was simply not enough for Collier, who wanted his IPA to burst with the citrus aroma that friends had come to love in his whole-hop IPAs he made as a homebrewer.
After experimenting with hop schedules and varieties, Collier decided that he couldn’t get what he wanted using just the pellet hops that worked well with his kettle with a built-in whirlpool. So rather than settle for less aroma, he got a little crafty and built a hop back. Before heading to the heat exchanger, each batch of Nantahala’s Noon Day IPA is sent through a heaping amount of leaf hops to get the beer’s signature aroma.
“When I first met my partners, when they tasted my IPA that I had been working on a while, everybody said ‘Wow I love your IPA because it’s not bitter,’” Collier said. “It has so much flavor, but it’s not bitter like everybody else’s. It’s because we use most of our hops on the back end of the process.”
The general public seems to agree, as Noon Day IPA – which Collier compares to Bell’s Two-Hearted – is Nantahala’s best seller.
Nantahala also offers something seldom seen in the beer world these days – a well thought out session beer. Collier offers Bryson City Brown (3.8% ABV) to those who claim to only like the kind of beer seen in football commercials.
“We had been trying to do, basically a transitional beer,” Collier explained. “A lot of people will do a Blonde or a Kolsch or something like that, and we wanted to do something that had a little more flavor.”
North Carolina is bursting with new breweries and craft beer revolutionaries who have found a save haven for their creativity amongst the more restrictive Southern states, yet through close attention to detail Collier has found a way to stand out from the rest.
If you have trouble remembering Nantahala – it’s the one with the hop back. And if you can’t recall Collier – he’s the one with the Harley.
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and homebrewer. He is currently working on his first book: Beer Road.