Travel

Beers, biking and bluegrass

Exploring the sights and sips of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains

  • Feb 19, 2020
  • 1,395 words
  • 6 minutes
Isis Music Hall in Asheville, N.C. (Photo: C2 Photography)
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It’s Thursday night at Oskar Blues Brewery on the outskirts of Brevard, a tidy little town with an apple-pie perfect main street in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Matt Hartell, as tall as his southern drawl is thick, pulls up a bar stool for a cold one following our two-hour mountain bike trek through the Dupont forest. A punk-bluegrass quintet from Kansas blasts out a raucous set from a compact stage at the other end of the room next to windows overlooking a warehouse full of gleaming steel fermentation tanks that produce 135,000 barrels of beer annually.

“Back in its prime, the local pulp mill made paper for bibles and rolling papers,” says Hartell, summing up the big industry roots of Brevard and laughing at this juxtaposition of the pious and profane.

Brevard is a 2 ½ hour drive west of Charlotte, a growing metropolis where the legacy of the late firebrand evangelist Billy Graham lives alongside NASCAR fever. But it could be a world away. Out here in this little slice of the Appalachian Mountains, it’s all about hoppy brews, mountain biking and bluegrass.

The Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard, N.C. (Photo courtesy Visit NC)
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A local from Brevard, N.C., takes a beverage break midway through a ride in Pisgah National Forest. (Photo: Andrew Findlay)
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In 2002, the Ecusta pulp mill, a bedrock Brevard employer, shut down for good in the same year that chemical conglomerate Dupont announced the closure of its x-ray film plant between Brevard and Hendersonville. It was a double economic whammy, but the region received a massive endowment of forested land formerly owned by Dupont, which the state had begun acquiring in 1995. Today Dupont State Recreational Forest Park totals nearly 4,500 hectares of rugged bedrock outcrops and hardwood forest, bisected by the cascades and bends of Little River. Dupont also has more than 120 kilometres of hiking and biking trails that Hartell knows as intimately as the lines on his palms.

Two years ago, he relocated back to his native North Carolina with his wife and young family after spending the better part of 15 years growing an adventure tourism company in Guatemala. He landed in Brevard, after accepting a dream job planning biking events and tours at REEB Ranch, a former dairy farm snuggled against the border of the Dupont forest owned by Dale Katechis, founder of Colorado-based Oskar Blues Brewery, which is one of the largest craft brewers in the United States. Katechis bought the ranch in 2011, and transformed it into a mountain biking retreat, concert venue and a place to showcase one of his side projects — the boutique bike-manufacturing firm REEB Cycles. Katechis also wanted a piece of the region’s rich craft brew scene (in case you haven’t figured it out yet, REEB is beer backwards), so he opened this brewery on the outskirts of Brevard in 2012, a year after buying the dairy farm.

“Dale came here to ride and he just fell in love with the area,” Hartell says.

Dupont forest is one reason Brevard is on the outdoor adventure map. The other is Pisgah National Forest. This 65,000-hectare biking, hiking, paddling and rock climbing playground is home to America’s first school of forestry, the Biltmore Forest School, and more than 270 kilometres of trails. A chunk of this protected Blue Ridge Mountain wilderness stretches from Brevard 50 kilometres northeast to Asheville, a distance that could be covered in a day by an energetic trail runner or hiker.

A view of Asheville, N.C. with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. (Photo courtesy Explore Asheville)
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Asheville is Brevard’s older, larger and slightly more polished Appalachian sibling. This city of 90,000 has always marched to a unique rhythm, thanks to a refreshing mountain setting that has long attracted refugees from the sweltering and crowded cities of the American southeast. The 3,500-kilometre-long Appalachian Trail passes through Asheville as does the French Broad River, a paddler’s and summertime tuber’s dream. Every autumn, diverse forests of oak, maple, sassafras, hickory, sourwood, black gum and other species turn ablaze in orange, red and yellow, attracting leaf peepers by the thousands. George Washington Vanderbilt II, youngest son of industrialist William Henry Vanderbilt, was one of them. He started decamping to Asheville in the 1880s, and was so enamoured with the climate and scenery that he decided to break ground on what he purportedly dubbed his “little mountain escape.” Completed in 1895 and at nearly 180,000-square-feet, Vanderbilt’s humble retreat, known as Biltmore Estate, is an ode to America’s Gilded Age that wouldn’t be out of place in France’s Loire Valley. It is the largest privately owned residence in the United States and one of Asheville’s enduring tourist attractions.

But the city’s modern appeal is much more grassroots, accessible and perhaps cooler than the stuffy aristocratic pretensions of the Vanderbilts. Among the art galleries and restaurants of Asheville there’s a small and diverse manufacturing sector, including high-end bicycle component companies Cane Creek and Industry Nine, and Moog Factory, the creators of the Moog synthesizer prized by music nerds worldwide, especially those with a soft spot for synth-heavy sci-fi movie soundtracks and 1970s prog rock. The Moog Factory feels like it belongs in Asheville. From old-time Appalachian bluegrass to classical, the city is synonymous with music.

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The expansive gardens at Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. (Photo: Jared Kay)
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A banjo player at Isis Music Hall in Asheville, N.C. (Photo: Art Meripol)
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Over at the Isis Music Hall it’s the Tuesday night bluegrass jam. A baby-faced guitar player picks out a furious solo while the stand-up bassist, mandolin player and fiddler keep stoic time.

“This is a real high quality jam,” says owner Scott Woody.

Originally from Gastonia, a city on the North Carolinian piedmont, Woody spent his career as a veterinarian in Atlanta. When he retired back to his home state in 2012, the lifetime banjo picker pursued a different dream, and bought the old Isis movie theatre in West Asheville with his wife and two adult children. They stripped the walls and floors and converted it into a restaurant and concert hall that has become one of Asheville’s most happening live music venues.

“It’s more than a full-time job. We have music six nights a week and we don’t really need to reach out to musicians — they get in touch with us,” Woody says, as servers weave among the tightly packed tables-for-two on the floor where theatre seats once stood.

If tourists aren’t coming to Asheville for the music, they’re likely coming for the beer. When Highland Brewing Company opened its doors 25 years ago, the small-batch beer biz was a lonely endeavour in Appalachia, says the brewery’s co-owner and president Leah Wong Ashburn, whose father Oscar Wong founded the brewery as a hobby after retiring from an engineering career.

“Back then, it was quiet in Asheville and there wasn’t much going on,” Wong Ashburn says, from Highland’s hilltop bar and brewery.

Today you can barely walk a city block without stumbling into a brewery. Asheville has embraced the craft beer revolution with the fervour of a southern Baptist preacher.

“There are more than 30 breweries in and around Asheville,” says Cliff Mori, one of North Carolina’s first certified cicerones — a beer nerd of the highest order — and the owner of  BREW-ed, a brewery tour company. He sips a glass of Lime Agave Gose at Catawba Brewing Co., one of a half-dozen breweries and cider houses that have colonized the once decaying South Slope warehouse district in Asheville. That’s one brewery per 3,000 residents, but Mori estimates that more than one million tourists visit Asheville annually to tour the taps.

A flight of brews at Hi-Wire Brewery on Hilliard Avenue in Asheville, N.C. (Photo: C2 Photography)
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Lisa Hallstrom rides the Squirrel Gap trail in Pisgah National Forest, N.C. (Photo: Andrew Findlay)
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High up on the Squirrel Gap Trail in Pisgah National Forest, Matt Hartell and three friends work up a thirst as they benchpress their mountain bikes up Black Mountain. This is a local classic route with a mix of technical, rocky trail, and smooth flowing single-track trail snaking through the hardwoods. A view opens up through a dense wall of rhododendrons, overlooking a valley of crimson forest that sweeps upward to an exposed granite dome, a southern bald spot that glistens in the sunshine like a monk’s pate.

Like most Pisgah rides, this one ends at The Hub and Pisgah Tavern, an outdoor store with a fleet of bike rentals, rock climbing gear and, of course, a small thirst-quenching tavern a stone’s throw from the lazily flowing Davidson River near Brevard. A sign in the tavern reads, “Ride Bikes, Drink Beer.”

“That pretty much sums it up,” Hartell says.

That and a healthy serving of Appalachian bluegrass.

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