Carl Melissas of Wedge Brewing Company

Going Pro by | Jul 2011 | Issue #54

Carl Melissas, brewmaster at Asheville’s Wedge Brewing Company, brews up unpretentious ales and lagers inspired by the classic style benchmarks. It’s a simple-sounding proposition, until you account for the stiff competition all around town. It’s no accident that Asheville has topped Charlie Papazian’s “BeerCity USA” poll for three years running. The little North Carolina city is bursting with people who make stuff, be it arts and crafts, music or food. The city knows quality and craftsmanship. “These customers coming in have other choices,” Melissas says. “You can’t slack off and rest on your laurels.”

1. Await inspiration
Before Carl Melissas was a brewer, he was a chef and wine lover. Before that, he worked construction. Both professions put him on the road to brewing professionally. He understood mechanics and was good with his hands, and he was giving his palate a workout every day. The day it all clicked was the first day he sampled a Piraat Ale. Up until then, he’d always considered beer to be a more basic beverage. That first Piraat, and the Chimays and Orvals and Duvels that followed, “blew me away,” Melissas recalls. “I had to learn how to make those beers.” So he did.

2. Revel in complexity
Melissas spent more than two decades living in California, but that state’s aggressive ales could never captivate him the way strong Belgians did. “I love hoppy West Coast beers, they have their place, but they’re not as multidimensional as Belgians,” he reasons. “Belgians are a marriage between beer and wine. That’s what really caught me. A really well-made Belgian ale, from this country or Belgium, has way more going on than the greatest wine from France or California. It’s the complexity, the yeast character.”

3. Pay homage to the greats
While he gushes over the beers being brewed at Russian River and Dogfish Head, Melissas says he’s not being driven to break new barriers with every batch. It’s more important for him to brew classic beers as well as they can be brewed. “The wackiest I get is dry-hopping a Helles Bock,” he says. “I love classical music. I love classic rock. I like the stuff that stands the test of time.” Melissas sees his tap rotation as a way to pay homage to brewing’s greats. “I want to make styles as authentic as possible. I have a lot of respect for what happened before. I’m just keeping a great thing going. ”

4. Brew with the Force
When brewing at home, Melissas experimented wildly—he says he test-drove nearly every strain of yeast offered by Wyeast and White Labs. Now, he’s more concerned with refining classic styles. Many of the recipes Melissas brews at Wedge date back to his days as a homebrewer—a fact that was less of a conscious decision than the result of years of work. “You do all this studying, you’re tasting beers again and again. There’s a point where you’ve learned all the technical stuff, and it becomes intuitive. You just know it’s right. You just do it, like Star Wars and the Force.”

5. Cook with heart, unless it’s time to bake
Wedge Brewing is located in an Asheville artists’ complex, and Melissas tries to imbue his neighbors’ creativity in his beers. The glaring exception is when it’s a lager day at the brewpub. “Belgians are about heart,” he says. “Belgian brewing is much closer to cooking. It’s almost Zen—don’t think about it too much, because when you do, you wreck the whole thing. Lagers are the opposite. They’re a science. You have to be very strict about sticking to rules, doing everything exactly the same with no wavering, no matter what. It’s like being a baker.”

6. Invite some malt to that hops party
Wedge Brewing’s Iron Rail IPA makes up half the brewpub’s production. It’s heavily hopped with Centennial and Cascade hops (along with some East Kent Goldings), but the beer definitely isn’t a West Coast burner. “Those West Coast hops are so wonderful, but I don’t like anything that’s too one-sided,” Melissas says. Iron Rail is a hybrid IPA that spans the Atlantic. Melissas balances out the hop charges with a sizable English-style malt bill: Maris Otter, plenty of Crystal malt, and a bit of Honey malt.

7. Enjoy that crunch
Like Wedge’s IPA, Melissas designed his hugely popular Porter to showcase transatlantic influences. Hop additions are made sparingly, as in an English Porter, but Melissas believes the beer still shows strong California markers. A bit of maple syrup pumps up the alcohol level, and carob adds a soft chocolate flavor that softens the astringency of the beer’s dark malts. Melissas describes the result as “a malted milkshake thing. It has a woody, West Coast hippie granola edge to it.”

8. Reach back
Melissas calls Orval “one of my favorite beers in the universe,” so his warm-weather Super Saison is a nod to that classic. Wedge’s interpretation packs more of a punch. It’s dry-hopped with Goldings, and thanks to plenty of light candi sugar, it clocks in above 7.2-percent ABV. But its Brettanomyces finish is pure Orval. Melissas pitches the Brett a couple weeks after starting primary fermentation, when there are still some residual sugars for the wild yeast to feed on. The result is bitter, earthy and tart at the same time. It’s a beer, Melissas says, that tastes like it could have been brewed 200 years ago.

9. Get toasted
Even traditional brewers need room to play around. Melissas passed on brewing a standard Nut Brown Ale in favor of creating a Brown with a healthy dose of toasted hemp seeds. Malted rye gives the beer bite, while a huge hemp seed addition—it represents 9 percent of the mash—lends a unique, creamy nuttiness. Legally, the seeds have to be toasted before importation, to prevent germination. But toasting also brings the seeds’ natural nuttiness to the forefront. “It turns it into an extreme Nut Brown Ale.”