Tasting Three Beers from Nantahala Brewing Company

Drink Features Nantahala Brewing
Tasting Three Beers from Nantahala Brewing Company

First impressions can be a tricky thing. There’s so much pressure built up around that first encounter, that it can be downright impossible to overcome a poor showing. Personally, I have a hard time getting past that first encounter. TV pilots, my brother’s girlfriends, restaurants…if I don’t like something after the first five minutes, I’m not likely to give that thing another shot. Life is short, there’s no reason to waste your time on a girl who wears gloves in the summer, or a restaurant that overcooks pork. But here’s the thing about first impressions: sometimes, people have off nights. Sometimes, it takes a while for a restaurant to get its shit together. And if you judge a person/place/thing strictly on that first, brief encounter, you might be missing out on something great.

Case in point, Nantahala Brewing Company, which holds down a corner of Bryson City, North Carolina, right on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The first time I had one of their beers several years ago (I think it was an IPA), I thought it was…fine. Not bad, but not worth going out of my way to track down. I tucked Nantahala Brewing (NBC) into that “fine” category and moved on, never giving them a second thought. Fast forward several years to a party where I’m given one of NBC’s stouts, and I’m absolutely blown away. Not only is the beer better than just “fine,” it’s the exact stout I’ve been looking for at this moment in my life. A soul mate stout, if you will.

What changed between my first impression of NBC and this killer stout? Hell if I know. Maybe NBC has hit its stride. Maybe they had an off batch so many years ago, or maybe I was having a bad day and nothing was going to taste great in my mind. Or maybe, over the past several years, they’ve upped their game. Brewing is as much of an art as it is a science. The more you do it, the better you get, so it makes sense that some breweries will simply get better over time. I think that’s the case with NBC. Age and experience has worked in their favor.

So maybe first impressions aren’t that important after all. Maybe it’s the second, or third impressions that really seal the deal. With that in mind, I gathered a few limited release, big bottle beers from NBC to taste, all of which confirm my second impression of this brewery: they make damn good beer.

Nantahala Pale Ale

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Billed as an “off season” pale ale, this 6.25% pale has a malt-forward, rich body, pouring a dark orange with a thick head. It smells like the waffle cone beneath your ice cream scoop. It’s heavier than your standard summer-friendly pale, both in the body and ABV. They’re not calling it a Red IPA, but you could get away with that classification. There’s nothing too fruity or hoppy in the taste—think chunky bread and a light, caramel sweetness that gives way to a ginger-like zing on the back end. There’s a little bit of grapefruit that comes out when it warms. It’s a solid, very well balanced pale that serves as a nice counter to all of the over the top fruit bombs on the market today.

Sticky Dog Stout

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This is the stout that made me change my mind about NBC. It’s part of the brewery’s “Myths and Legends” series, and named after the Sticky Dog of the Southern Appalachians—an ancient beast that gets you tangled in its fur, then drags you to the bottom of the river. Weird, right? Luckily, the beer itself isn’t weird. It smells like cocoa and coffee and pours dark with a thin, tan head. It has a rich and silky mouthfeel that somehow still comes off as being relatively light. Not thin, but light. There’s a faint hint of dark chocolate bitterness and a bit of raisin too, which sticks around after the sip is gone. Also, I found some light, roasted coffee character. Sticky Dog is exactly what I want out of a stout: Rich, balanced, and just interesting enough to make me crave it every fortnight.

Judaculla Russian Imperial Stout


If Sticky Dog Stout is balanced and restrained, then Judaculla is outlandish and over the top. This is like drinking a boozy candy bar, which, let’s be honest, is freaking awesome. The barrel-aged stout pours thick and dark, like how your oil looks when it’s time to change it. There’s basically no head whatsoever and a very subtle nose, but the taste is bold, rich and chewy. Again, it’s like a melted candy bar that’s heavy on the caramel. You get all kinds of barrel notes out of Judaculla—tons of vanilla, and caramel with a bit of whiskey at the end. There’s also some coffee bitterness that lingers. NBC isn’t reinventing the wheel here; Judaculla is well within the confines of what a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout should be, but it’s so well-executed, I had to take a break after my first few sips and write, “damn!” in my little notebook.

Cheers to second impressions.

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