Wicked Weed Brewing

From the Source by | Jul 2013 | Issue #78

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, American drinkers can’t imagine beer without them. Certainly they stand in the spotlight at one of the country’s newest brewpubs, Wicked Weed Brewing. There, hoppy American ales are featured alongside Old World Belgian styles, as co-founders and brothers Walt and Luke Dickinson carve their own niche in one of the most impressive beer cities in the world.

Brewing Epicenter
Considering the high rate of brewery openings (both large and small) in Asheville, N.C., 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. But the local community has embraced breweries like Wicked Weed—in large part because Wicked Weed embraced Asheville.

The pub, which opened in December 2012, is loaded with handcrafted work from local artists and artisans. Hop vines grow alongside custom metalwork on the pub’s casual back patio. Patrons sit at the bar built from a 200-year-old piece of quilted gum that still carries embedded musket balls from the Civil War. Wood in the rafters came from an old Asheville hotel, and exposed brick was sourced from demolition sites around the city.

The downstairs area feels like a craft-centric pub, with its chalkboards and brick, while the upstairs has the air of a more traditional restaurant … just one with 14 beers on tap. “Everything is about pairing what we think is good craft beer, well-executed and creative, with 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.”

Collaborative Effort
Wicked Weed was the brainchild of brothers Walt and Luke Dickinson. While Luke was working in the merchandise and tour departments of Dogfish Head in Milton, Del., where his wife’s family lived, Walt was running his own gutter cleaning business in Asheville, where the brothers are originally from.

But their idea of opening a brewery together finally got traction when they reached out to their lifelong friend, Ryan Guthy, and his parents, Rick and Denise, as potential investors. It had been the Guthys’ dream to own a restaurant or bar, and as Luke’s wife Abby puts it, “The visions aligned, and Wicked Weed was born.”

The original plan was that Luke and Walt would start the business in Chatanooga, Tenn., where Walt’s business partner as well as his wife’s family lived. The brothers hosted a dinner that paired their beer with 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.”

With limited funds, Walt and Luke agreed. “Anybody who is trying to open a brewery knows it isn’t cheap,” Walt says. “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
Luke and Walt are big Belgian-beer geeks, citing Allagash and Ommegang as inspiration for brewing Belgian styles; but, says Luke, “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.” So when it came time to brainstorm their portfolio, the brothers decided to go after both styles.

“With the beers on the West Coast, they know what they’re doing,” Luke says. “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 benefit of having understanding investors comes in; 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. That’s where the Belgians and the Saisons are brewed. “With [the Saisons], 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.”

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, Wicked Weed is constantly expanding; they’ve hired about 90 employees, and have a barrel program and sour ale program in the works. King Henry VIII probably wouldn’t approve of a lot of what happens at Wicked Weed, but Asheville certainly does.

The Brewhouse
15-bbl Specific Mechanical Brewhouse
– 8 15-bbl conical fermentors
– 1 30-bbl conical fermentor
– 1 open fermentation vessel
– 3 15-bbl bright tanks that serve as secondary fermentors for the open fermentation vessel

What’s On Tap
Zealot IPA: A West Coast IPA dry-hopped with 1.5 pounds of Columbus and Centennial per barrel. 7% ABV
Freak of Nature Double IPA: Although slightly lower in alcohol than many Double IPAs, it is dry-hopped with 48 pounds of hops per 12-barrel batch for an intense hop presence. 8% ABV
Pallino Wit Biere: Brewed with a touch of oats, and plenty of wheat and Pilsner malts, then spiced with coriander, orange zest and chamomile. 4.7% ABV
IX Apricot Saison: The ninth rendition of Wicked Weed’s Saison, this small-batch seasonal is fermented in the brewery’s open fermentor, then undergoes a secondary fermentation with 200 pounds of apricots and 50 pounds of peaches. 5.2% ABV

What He Said
“The open fermentor is really unique. I did an internship in Germany and while I was there, I worked on open fermentors and went to Belgium and saw a lot of Belgian brewers still using open fermentors. I thought, maybe this has something to do with why you can taste the Belgian in U.S. beer, but the U.S. Belgians don’t taste authentic. So we went ahead and got an open fermentor and did some tests on it, and the beers are coming out real well.” –Wicked Weed co-founder & head brewer Luke Dickinson