Sunday, June 23, 2024

N.C. Year of the Trail gets its own craft beer

I received an invite last week to head out to Blue Blaze Brewing in Charlotte’s West End for the launch of the official craft beer of North Carolina’s Year of the Trail.

The pale ale is a limited collaboration available at the brewery on tap and in really cool looking cans, which reminded me of when people used to collect beer cans? Maybe people still do.

More than the beer, I was interested in talking to Bret Baronak, the director of Carolina Thread Trail based in Charlotte and Palmer McIntyre, a conservation planner with Piedmont Land Conservancy in Greensboro and state director of N.C. Year of the Trail about the overall goal of the yearlong celebration.

Charlotte’s Blue Blaze Brewing launched this pale ale, which is the official craft beer of the state’s Year of the Trail celebration. Photo by Des Keller.

About Blue Blaze

But first, a few things about the ingeniousness of the brewery’s tie-in to the Year of the Trail. For Appalachian Trail hikers, a blue blaze on the trail refers to a spur off the main trail leading to a vista, a water source, shelter or some unusual natural feature.

Blue Blaze Brewing would certainly qualify as a watering hole. The brewery, which opened in 2016 about a mile from Uptown, draws its name because it comes at the terminus of the Stewart Creek Greenway, a 2.06-mile pathway that connects several Charlotte neighborhoods. 

The brewery owners are also outdoor enthusiasts, and the establishment has a hiking, backpacking and outdoor recreation vibe. A really nice place that also welcomes dogs with plenty of outdoor seating.

Great trails state

State lawmakers designated 2023 as North Carolina’s Year of the Trail as a way to encourage residents to get outside and enjoy all that nature offers and also invite visitors to the Tar Heel state. More than 70 local governments, nonprofit organizations and businesses have joined in to help support that effort.

Supporters of trail development are also using the year to try and get more state money so that local governments, nonprofits and businesses can continue to invest in creating more walkways. So far, that goal seems to be working.

Baronak and McIntyre were both happy about the $25 million included in both the N.C. House budget and Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget for a sustaining investment in trails. The money would be used for matching state grants to help local governments pay for building more trails.

“We want to set up a sustainable fund so that money is always there,” says McIntyre. Other states have already created such funds, and the money would go a long way toward promoting North Carolina as “The Great Trails State” to visitors, she said.

“You’re never far from a great trail in North Carolina,” says McIntyre. Those trails can help spur economic growth and add to the quality of life for residents already here, says the trail advocates.

Trails as economic development

New trails can especially benefit North Carolina’s smaller towns, especially those that have been dealt economic blows by the departure of historic economic drivers, such as textiles.

“Smaller towns can rebrand themselves and revitalize with trails,” says Baronak.

An example can be found in nearby Gaston County, where the Carolina Thread Trail group is working with local governments and business leaders to create a 20-mile linear trail from the South Carolina line in the town of Belmont, and traveling northwest through Cramerton, McAdenville, Lowell and to the top of Spencer Mountain in Ranlo.

All five Gaston County towns were distressed by the departure of textile mills, but leaders believe a new trail can be blazed that would encourage development and attract visitors. Some key Gaston County business leaders have signed on to the project and made what Carolina Thread Trail leaders characterized as generous contributions.

The trail will be called the Matthews-Belk South Fork River Corridor Trail, in honor of all those who worked at Matthews-Belk department stores over the years. A portion of the trail will be called the Duke Kimbrell Trail, after the late leader of Gaston County-based Parkdale Mills. Another portion will be known as the Pharr Yarns Family Trail, named after the former textile mill in McAdenville that was owned by the Carstarphen family for decades.

The Carstarphen family sold its textile operations in 2019, but they still pay for a huge Christmas light display in the town each year that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the so-called Christmas Town U.S.A.

The Matthews family, the Carstarphens and Andy and Pam Kimbrell Warlick, owners of Parkdale Mills, made significant contributions to help pay for the project, which should be completed or the final stretches under construction in the next four years. Pam Warlick is the daughter of Duke Kimbrell, who died in 2014.

Businesses say they want to locate in good areas, and people say they want opportunities to get outdoors and enjoy nature, says McIntyre. “Trails help create that quality of life,” she says.

Trail advocates hope the state Senate’s budget will include money for trails, and that the Year of the Trail launches a continuous investment in North Carolina trail development.

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