Note: This story originally appeared in Issue 78 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. It is reproduced here without the work and revision of my editors.
England’s King Henry VIII wasn’t exactly a hophead. The 16th century monarch declared that hops were a “wicked weed,” destined to ruin beer. About 500 years later hops are more prominent than ever, and many American drinkers can’t imagine beer without them.
Certainly, they stand in the spotlight at one of newest brewpubs, Wicked Weed Brewing. There, brash and hoppy American Ales are celebrated and featured alongside old-world Belgian styles all the while praising a local culture that is quickly becoming one of the most impressive beer cities in the world.
Few cities have dominated barstool conversations the way Asheville has over the past several years. Not only has the city repeatedly been dubbed “Beer City, USA” in online polls, it has enjoyed an explosion of local breweries opening within the city limits and surrounding areas. Bigger brewers such as Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have announced plans to expand their operations into Asheville and the surrounding area as well.
While Ashville and Buncombe county can’t compete with regions like Portland, Oregon, San Diego and others in terms of quantity of breweries, it matches, and perhaps surpasses, those regions with passion about beer.
“There’s just no way we could even compete,” says Wicked Weed co-owner Walt Dickinson. “There’s 12-13 breweries in Buncombe county compared to 25 in Portland doing amazing things. But that’s not what the survey was about, it was about communities that loved and supported craft beer.”
Conventional wisdom might suggest that the Asheville market is heading toward oversaturation, and that the local brewers should be worried about each new arrival or expansion. Instead, the local community has embraced breweries like Wicked Weed – in large part because Wicked Weed embraced Asheville.
The pub is loaded with beautiful, hand-crafted work from local artists and artisans. Hop bines grow alongside custom metalwork on the pub’s casual back patio. Patrons sit at the bar crafted out of a 200-year-old piece of gumwood that still carries embedded musket balls from the civil war. Wood in the rafters came from an old Ashville Hotel, and exposed brick came from demolition sites around the city.
The downstairs pub feels like a craft-centric beer pub with its chalkboards and brick, while the upstairs side has the air of a more traditional restaurant, but still has 14 beers on tap.
“Everything is about pairing what we think is good craft beer, well-executed and creative with good, creative elegant bar cuisine,” says Walt. “We’re really trying to challenge people to think differently. This week we’re putting six new beers on tap. We put at least two to three new beers a week on. We’ve done around 86 batches since we’ve opened, and 45 of those have been new recipes. We always try to put new things on and challenge ourselves, and we encourage the kitchen to do the same.”
A big part of Wicked Weed’s embrace of Asheville includes collaboration with local restaurants and breweries – and even a local teahouse. Collaboration is nothing new in Asheville, or the beer industry in general, but it is essential to Wicked Weed’s operation.
The brewery was the brainchild of brothers Walt and Luke Dickinson, but it was little more than the dream of a couple of home brewers in a basement before they got in touch with their lifelong friend, Ryan Guthy. Together, they approached Ryan’s parents, Rick and Denise, as potential investors.
The original plan was that Luke and Walt would start the business in Chatanooga, Tennessee—where Walt had a business partner and ties to his wife’s family. They hosted a paired dinner with their beer and food from the chef they planned to employ, and the Guthys loved it, but there was a catch.
“Two days later, (Denise) called me and said ‘Look. I love what you guys are doing. I think your beer is exceptional and really interesting and this idea you have is great.’” Says Walt. “’But we love Asheville. We’re invested in Asheville and we want to do it in Asheville. If you come back to Asheville, we will back the entire thing.’
“The amount of money Luke and I had was pretty minimal. Anybody who is trying to open a brewery knows it isn’t cheap. And they’ve just been very quality-oriented. They really believe in our vision of craft beer. They’re supportive in embracing our ideas.”
Old Meets New
The brewery’s personality is split between hoppy American Ales and Belgian-style beers, particularly Belgian Saisons. Luke, who described his brother as the “big-picture guy” and himself as the one who hammers out recipe specifics, and Walt wanted to brew the beers they loved. Rather than focus on a niche that might be able to set them apart in the Asheville market, the Dickinsons simply said, “why not do both?”
Wicked Weed’s name stems from an appreciation of hops, and beers like Zealot, a 7% ABV IPA and Freak, an 8% Double IPA, both tickle the palates of hopheads. But what sets Wicked Weed apart from many small breweries is its dedication to Belgian styles.
“First off, my brother and I, we’re just beer geeks and we love Belgian beers,” Luke said. “We love the great Belgian beers – the Rocheforts and the American beers from Allegash and Ommegang are wonderful. But I’m a huge hophead and love hoppy beers. My bro and I both grew up our younger years in Los Angeles. We have these ties to the west coast.
“With the beers on the west coast, they know what they’re doing. East coast IPAs are good, but we felt especially in Asheville, the west coast IPAs are missing, and that’s something I love to make. We were hit with this dilemma of do we do one or do we do the other, and we thought: why not do both?”
Of course, this is where the benefits of having understanding investors come in. The Dickinsons were able to act out on their brewing fantasies because of a financial flexibility that many startup breweries can’t afford. For example, few new breweries have a room set aside for open fermentation complete with a HEPA filter on the ventilation system and a glycol-cooled open fermentor.
“We do all our Belgian Saisons in that room, and that’s all we do in that room,” Luke said. “With those, we tend to hold it right around 70 degrees for the first two days, and then we let it go. Our Saisons are getting up to 89 degrees in there and our Belgians are in the high 70s in there.”
The idea to employ open fermentation at Wicked Weed came from a trip to Belgium while Luke was completing an internship in Germany. He noticed that a lot of Belgian brewers were still using open fermentation, and thought that it added something to the beer that American beers lacked.
Still young, the brewery opened just before the start of 2013, Wicked Weed is constantly expanding with a barrel program and sour ale program still in its infancy.
King Henry VIII probably wouldn’t approve of a lot of what happens at Wicked Weed, but Asheville has fully embraced the newest players on the scene.