Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with Wicked Weed’s Walt Dickinson

It’s easy to forget just how young some of the country’s best breweries are. As Wicked Weed enters its fourth year, and opens its fourth facility, the Asheville company is still figuring out what it could one day become. Even with a clear business model, the quickly growing team is asking itself tough questions about portfolio, capacity, and reach.

Now, as they begin what is planned to be their final phase of growth (not in terms of tanks, but rather, locations) co-owner Walt Dickinson is using quality as a lens to look at what the future holds for Wicked Weed. He sat down with GBH at the brewery’s downtown Funkatorium space following the release of the brewery’s much-loved wild ale with raspberries, Red Angel. There, we talked about moving beyond the friendly confines of North Carolina, and what that means for the place he calls home.

You guys seem to be at the epicenter of Asheville beer right now. How has Wicked Weed and Asheville changed over time?

I think we’re the new generation of craft beer in Asheville. I wouldn’t say [we’re] definitely at the epicenter of what’s happening here. But at the same time, who’s to say what the epicenter is when you have breweries like Highland, who’ve been here for 20 years, and Oscar Wong—that guy has built craft beer in North Carolina in a lot of ways. And you have Sierra and New Belgium and Oskar Blues and guys like that coming into the scene, and then up-and-coming small breweries like Burial. I think that we played a big role in forming what craft beer can be in Asheville.

Do you think you’d be the same brewery if you weren’t in Asheville?

I think we’d be the same brewers. I don’t think we’d be the same brewery. I don’t think our ideas would’ve changed… We wanted to be this hybrid of the best hoppy beers and the best Belgian-style sour beers and funky stuff happening. And then be really creative in the middle. I think we would’ve done that anywhere, but given state laws in craft beer communities, I don’t know if we would’ve seen the same kind of support we saw here. The support we saw at the pub because we’re in Asheville, and it being such a big beer town and having so much beer tourism, that really drove what Wicked Weed is. Without people coming to the pub and standing in line to drink Black Angel or being there every week to drink Freak of Nature, we wouldn’t have Red Angel, we wouldn’t have all the things we’re doing right now. The drinkers created Wicked Weed. They created our barrel program, they created Pernicious, they created everything we’re doing. Without them, we wouldn’t be anything, because it was all based out of them coming, drinking, having a good experience, then coming back and drinking again, and really giving us that pub revenue and that pub mentality that let us expand our barrel program. 

Last year, there was a bit of an issue with Funk Fest and the enforcement of some of the local laws, and I know Oskar Blues—

I don’t know what you’re talking about. Refuse to comment. [pauses] Just kidding.

Do you think your role in the community played a part in how Funk Fest was handled versus how Burning Can was handled?

As far as enforcement? No. As far as Funk Fest was handled, we were in compliance, as far as we could tell. And we worked really hard to do that. Our team is very dedicated to knowing what’s going on. We’ve always communicated directly with the ABC. As far as festivals, that was a bummer for Oskar Blues. I think what they were doing with Burning Can was a really cool concept, and unfortunately alcohol law in the South is a challenge. You asked if Wicked Weed is the way it is because of Asheville. Well, if you put us in Georgia or Tennessee… We looked at opening the brewery in Chattanooga, and I think Chattanooga is a great potential craft beer city, but Tennessee is a terrible craft beer state. There, we couldn’t be the brewery we are. I couldn’t really make a lot of beer with the distribution laws, what you can sell in-house, what you can do with taxation, and on top of that, the ABV level. Those laws kind of pushed us out. And I think the same thing happens across the board in the Southeast. Now we have good laws when it comes to being a brewery: self-distribution, the excise taxes [are] pretty high here, but nothing crazy. Other states in the South really make it challenging: Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, all these Southern states. We’re in one of the most restrictive legals systems with alcohol in the country, and I think that’s a big reason why the South had been challenged as far as craft beer growth until the last few years. But that’s all changing and we’re excited to be part of that.

You guys have four locations now: the brewpub, the Funkatorium, the production facility, and the new barrel warehouse that will eventually become a second production facility, right?

Yeah, we’re calling it the Funkhouse. What it’s going to be is this kind of evolution of the Wicked Weed barrel program. Right now, we’re completely dependent on the pub to produce our wort stream to make sour beer. On top of that, sour beer is one those extremely space-intensive and time-intensive processes. We’ve been completely maxed out for almost six months as far as production, and on top of that, we’re maxed out and working on top of ourselves. So this move is really allowing us to open up, streamline, do some process things that I want to see us do [in order to stop] limiting beers like Red Angel. Being able to spend a lot of time in steel post-fruiting and things like that. We just need a lot more space to be able to do that, and we don’t have it here. Along with the commitment to wort production, which the pub is already running seven days a week, wide open. We’ll brew almost 8,000 barrels of beer at our pub this year on a 15-barrel system, which is pretty crazy. The goal of this expansion is to allow us to put more focus into our process, our beers, be able to slowly grow the barrel program, and continue to keep that a big piece of our portfolio.

You told me you guys are “obsessed with Lager” right now, and I was curious about those traditional German styles at the pub. How do they fit into the mix?

I think Pilsner fits into the portfolio because Pilsner is the most basic and purest essence of what beer is. Pilsner is everything out of the way and nothing to hide behind and just perfection in a lot of ways. And I think you see great brewers trend back to Pilsner. Look at [brewers like] Matt Brynildson [of Firestone Walker] and Vinnie Cilurzo [of Russian River]—those guys are winning medals with their Pilsners now. Why? Because it’s such an amazingly drinkable style. There’s a reason that Lager won the battle of beer. There’s a reason why it took over the country. It dominates the backbone of what the majority of brewing process and technique came out of Germany. If you’re a brewer, Lager is deep in your roots somewhere, and there’s beauty in simplicity… Taking something so basic and doing it in such a well-executed way when it’s been so forced. There’s a lot of Lagers out there that are being produced too fast that aren’t really great examples of the styles, and I think the people that are really taking the patience to produce them well, that in some ways, is cutting-edge.

Say a Wicked Weed Pilsner makes it to market. How would you resolve something that’s so simple and clean with something that’s on the complete opposite end of the spectrum?

[A great example] would be Black Angel. How do you resolve the difference? [pauses] I don’t know if you do. I think you just accept the differences and hope that the consumer understands the beauty of a delicate Pilsner. And if they don’t, that’s fine. It’s something you evolve to. As a new craft beer drinker, you want flavor intensity, you want things that speak to you without having to get into nuance… We all trend toward these beers that are easy to understand, whereas when you really get it, you want something that’s a little more stripped down that you can dig into a little more. It’s kind of funny, it’s this cyclical thing that we all go through as drinkers. When I started drinking craft beer, it was Imperial Stouts, then it migrated to IPAs, and then it was Belgian beers for while, and then I got into sour beer, and now I’m back to Pilsner.

You’ve talked quite a bit about pH, almost targeting a specific pH. I wonder how putting that in front of the drinker affects things and how you see pH working into everyday verbiage? Do you see it becoming common like ABV or IBU at some point?

We’ve kind of used that here at the Funkatorium because pH is the easy way to understand it. Total acidity is really a more accurate way to understand acidity in beer, but that’s almost too obscure to try and throw out there. So we use pH because it’s something people are somewhat familiar with. But in the same way that IBU is, it becomes a tool we use to understand, “Is this beer hoppy? Is this beer not hoppy?” We were using that in the 2000s as a craft beer community to let people know this beer has a lot of hops in it. But then we realized that doesn’t matter. Some of the hoppiest beer we make is lower IBU than other beer because IBU is actual bittering units that happen from isomerization during the boiling process, so depending on the beer, we have relatively low IBU beers when you have them tested, that are still very hoppy… The same thing happens with pH. We never want to lean too much on pH as a descriptor because a kettle sour is obviously a low pH beer, but does that make it have any of the acid complexity of something like Red Angel? No. It’s impossible.

There’s no shortcut to these beers. There’s no shortcut way to make a Brett beer, to make a sour beer. There are people who are faking it in the market, but the drinkers will overcome that. They’ll let you know. People will say while we’re drinking, “Oh, you have such a great palate.” I don’t have a great palate—I just use my palate all the time. Everybody has a great palate. Just because you don’t know how to talk about something doesn’t mean you don’t know what tastes good. Good is good. Things that taste good are a universal thing. I mean, there’s acquired tastes, like Scotch, or sour beer in some ways. But even that, I think when sour beer is made well, it’s sweet, it’s tart. Those are the easiest things in the world for people to enjoy. At end of the day, that’s why these beers will win. Good beers will always win in the market. We just have to use these tools to try to get people to understand that this beer is more sour than this beer. We’ve chosen to do that in the taproom, and I don’t mind it being out there but I don’t think it’s necessarily the best tool for how to get people to understand the value or the quality of a beer.

As you’ve scaled up, how has supply met that demand, or is it better to hold back?

This is the never-ending, big question for Wicked Weed. How do you take something that has built its entire existence on the idea of scarcity and uniqueness and expand it? Why grow? Why get bigger? We want to get bigger only because it adds to the quality of the product we’re producing. I think we’re making the best beer today that we’ve ever made. And we’re making a lot more beer than we did in the first year. I think that growing is giving us the ability to be better at what we do. It’s also allowing us to put ourselves in front of more people and give them more of that experience and have a larger impact on the momentum of craft beer as a whole. That’s why we do what we do. Now as far as how does scarcity play a role in that, for a beer like Red Angel [Wicked Weed made a single, 30-BBL batch, and pre-sold 400 cases of bottles at the pub.], it’s hard for me to make much more of this beer. It takes so much time, so many tanks, 5,000-plus pounds of fruit. For me, to scale that up starts to get a little bit ridiculous. And there’s also a point that we want it to be savored, we want it to be enjoyed. I think the demand for a lot of beer is out of control right now, and I think it’s helping propel craft beer. But we would like to be a nice mix of easy-to-access beer that’s really good, and then some rare stuff that’s super-rad, that we can really go at and not have to worry about. I don’t even have to think about how much money I’m spending on producing this beer. And I don’t really care if we make money on this beer. Red Angel is just to be this expression of what we really want to do.

That’s our challenge as we go forward as a company: how do we continue to grow as a brand and put ourselves in more people's cabinets and refrigerators while at the same time maintaining this scarcity thing? And you know what, Wicked Weed is not always going to be as cool as it was last year. That’s just the way the market goes. Everybody wants the new hot thing. They want the new guy. Our goal is just to be a really, really high-quality example of these beers, and we hope the drinker goes and buys the new guy’s beer. They deserve it. You should be excited about trying something new. Just don’t forget about good. Good is the point. 

How do you make sure Wicked Weed isn’t just another brand on the shelf when you expand into new markets?

Our price point is a little more, I think our packaging is unique. We use a custom bottle now that we’re using for all of our 12-ounce and all our of 500-mL. We’re in a unique bottle shape across the board. We really try to set ourselves apart from a packaging standpoint. We then try to follow through with a really high-quality, consistent experience. If you don’t want to pick Pernicious every single time, then we’ve failed. That’s our goal as we go into a market—that should be the best IPA you can get your hands on. Now, I’m not saying that Pernicious is the best IPA in the country, by any means. What I’m saying is that we want it be that consistent, that you know when you get it it’s going to be fresh, it’s going to be cold, and it’s going to taste just like you expected it to taste. I think that’s how we stand out… We’re never going to be all across the country with beers like that. We understand there’s a localism and a regionalism that we need to focus on if we’re going to be what we are because IPA just doesn’t travel well. For us, it needs to be cold-stored, 60 days, picked up and moved quickly. Every drop of Pernicious we make is spread to every account and gone within a week. If there’s Pernicious out there that’s more than two or three weeks old, we feel like we’re not doing our best.

As you start to expand the reach into the rest of the Southeast, does that change how you approach things here at home? As far as how you approach the Asheville market, will your hometown still get the same attention?

Yeah, totally. Here’s how it goes: first of all, we are absolutely an Asheville brewery. We want to think of Asheville first. We’re going to give them the number one experience because, at any given moment, there’s 45 different Wicked Weed beers on tap in downtown Asheville. We’re going to give that to Asheville first. They’re going to get the first pick of anything rare we’re doing because it’s getting released here. Next, it’s North Carolina. North Carolina is our home state. We want to be the North Carolina brewery. There’s other great breweries in the state, but when other people think of North Carolina beer, we want Wicked Weed to be one of the things they’re thinking of. North Carolina will always be our focus. And then after that, we’ll look at those other states. And that’s the joy of having an 80-beer portfolio, is that we can go into other states and still offer them more variety in a portfolio than almost any other brand in the country, yet still have 25 brands that are completely unique to North Carolina. I mean, Black Angel will never leave the state of North Carolina. Why? Because it was our first impactful sour beer and it’s so much a part of what we’re doing. It’s only going to be a North Carolina thing and we’ve committed to that.

You have a lot of big, new neighbors in Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium. What kind of benefits or challenges has their movement into the region given you guys?

We’ve only seen benefits. They’ve been extremely supportive partners for us. We’ve brewed beers with all three of these breweries now. They’re some of the most open, amazing companies that we’ve ever had experience with. We look to Sierra Nevada [and] New Belgium as how we want to be when we grow up. We’re like a little infant brewery over here doing our thing. Those guys are older brothers and, in some ways, fathers… I can’t tell you how many times their labs have helped us in researching things or doing tests.

Do you ever see Wicked Weed growing to that scale?

I hope not. I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t think Wicked Weed is meant to be a New Belgium or Sierra Nevada. We’re what we are, and I think we’re trying to find our own space. And our space looks different than their space. We prefer to be accessible to the drinker, but at the same time, we want to be the Silver Oak of beer. We want to be that more premium brand that’s able to pour the energy, love, and effort into every bottle and every package and not have to worry about volumes as much because we’re just focused on the end product and running what is, at the end of the day, kind of a smaller family business. I know people probably look at Wicked Weed and go like, “Oh my god, you guys are so big,” but we’re not really that big. We’re still run as a small company. The owners are in here every day. We’re connected to this product and this is a family, so we want to run it like a family company.

Craft beer is so different. If you said, when we started the brewery in 2012, what does a big craft brewery look like, I would’ve told you 40,000 barrels/year and a 30-barrel brewhouse. You ask me today, 250,000 barrels/year and a 100-barrel brewhouse. That’s happened in three years. And the fact that that’s happened means it’s hard for me to give a firm line of what does it mean to be a big brewery or a small brewery anymore. Because realistically, we’re bigger than I ever imagined us being when we started the company already. But the way the market’s grown, it makes me feel confident that we can be a small-to-mid-size brewery and still be Wicked Weed. I think it’s going to be hard for us to be Wicked Weed and get much bigger than that. And I don’t know what that looks like volume-wise, but I know it’s something we’re committed to. 

Beyond the Funkhouse, what’s next?

Hopefully nothing. At all. Zero. There’s no more. This is it. This is the end of Wicked Weed. There will be nothing else. That’s official. No, I hope not. As much as we like to say we’re done every time we do one of these expansions, something else happens. I hope there’s no more expansions. I think what we’ve done is we’ve structured ourselves going forward to where we have a facility that can produce IPA and barrel-aged beer and Belgian beer, and now we have a facility that can produce Brett beer and farmhouse beer and sour beer. And now that we have those two facilities with lots of room to grow, I don’t think we’re going to need to do anymore facilities. I think we’re done as far as facilities. So what’ll happen is we’ll focus more on how do we keep innovating and creating new things. There’s already new projects on the way for this year that we’re excited about. And we’ll continue to try to evolve the retail experience and the consumer experience at our main hubs… Our thing is, we never stop. If we’re not offering the drinker something new every time, if Wicked Weed isn’t a little different, a little better, a little new, every time they come, we’re letting them down.

Critical Drinking™

Beer is so much more than what's in the bottle for the men and women who make it and sell it. There are real livelihoods at stake, and they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the industry they serve. These are their forward-looking thoughts, and their critical thinking on what's happening now.

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