Whenever sour beers are mentioned, a certain funk comes to mind that’s all the rage in the craft-beer culture these days. Living in the South, one of the most well-known producers of sour beers is Wicked Weed Brewing. Within three quick years, the North Carolina brewery’s grown from a cult following to a craft-beer powerhouse. In 2014, the brewery opened up the Wicked Weed Funkatorium, a separate downtown location from its production brewery and brewpub, which specializes in producing barrel-aged sours and wild beers. Each of the Funkatorium’s beers is brewed with 100 percent Brettanomyces strains during primary fermentation, creating a unique character that stands out from all of its competitors, ultimately leading to a gold medal awarded at Denver’s Great American Beer Fest.
During a recent road trip to Asheville, I visited with Wicked Weed Head of Sour Production Rich Kilcullen to discuss the creation of The Funkatorium, Wicked Weed’s sour beer program and the brewery’s upcoming craft-beer collaborations. Special thanks to Erin Jones for setting up the interview and assisting with my visit.
How did you get your start, as a brewer?
– “I got my start at a small craft brewery in Black Mountain, Pisgah Brewing Company. I was a brewer there for about four years and worked with those guys almost from the time they opened. After that, I worked for a craft-beer bar for a while and when I saw that Wicked Weed was hiring, I really saw a lot of potential in this company. It looked like it was going be a great opportunity for me and it worked out wonderfully. I’ve been with Wicked weed for two-and-a-half years now. I started out as an assistant brewer at the pub. It was just Eric Leypoldt and I. Eric is now the head of production at the production facility — our larger brewery — and I split off to go here, at the Funkatorium.”
Are you originally from the area?
– “No. I’ve lived here for about 10 years. I’m from upstate New York, originally.”
How did the Funkatorium come to be?
– “The Funkatorium is 100 percent Walt Dickinson’s brainchild, one of our owners. There’s two brothers who own the company. They couldn’t be more different from one another and their tastes in beer could not be more different from one another. Walt is a pretty social, outlandish guy and Luke’s a little more reserved. Luke has an amazing mind for recipe creation — he does some awesome IPAs. He’s got a gift for it. Walt has a gift of funky beer. He’s got a passion for it. Pretty much, from the moment we opened our doors, we had some sort of sour beer or Brett beer on tap. Walt pushed really hard for it. He was out there dosing barrels in the driveway when we didn’t even have a place to do it. Basically, it grew from there. When the pub expanded, we took some of the older tanks and put them downstairs, in the back building. The Funkatorium was really born out of that little white building. We had just a bright tank and a fermenter. We’d occasionally brew and we would truck the barrels out, in an old U-Haul, to Fairview, up the Continental Divide, about 20 minutes each direction, to a little warehouse, where we kept the barrels on racks.”
“This place was the first push to expand that program. Once we saw the appeal of these beers and the increased interest in the expanded palates of a lot of consumers in the Southeast, we realized that Walt was really onto something. We’ve easily grown 200 percent since then. We now account for 50 percent of the wort production at the pub. We’re producing about 75 barrels a week of sour and wild ale. We wanted to have a special, separate venue to let people see what goes on in these barrel houses, how much work goes into it, how much oak goes into it, how long it takes for the beer to sit and to develop. Walt saw this as a way to increase people’s appreciation and understanding of sour beers. It’s not just a warehouse. It’s a lot more than that. We really focus on the educational aspect, here. We give tours several times a week. What’s good for sour beer and craft beer, right now, is good for everyone. As people’s understanding increases, their desire and energy increases and they’re more interested in beer. Sour beer is a really beautiful thing.”
When did the Funkatorium open?
– “October of 2014. We just hit our one-year anniversary. We started with about 500 barrels in the program. We’re now at 1,200 wood vessels, including four foeders.”
Can you explain how the sour-beer phenomenon has skyrocketed?
– “As craft beer expanded, people’s palates really expanded. Their desire for obscure styles and their desire to try new things expanded. Like anything else, the more education that goes into things, the more appeal, the more understanding that people have for the product, the more they’re going to go out of their way to find these rare things. I think there’s a certain romance that goes into the barrel-aging. It’s a really cool process, but basically, I just see it as an expansion of the consumer’s palate. It’s a really good sign for the health of craft beer. I’d say five years ago, we would have never had this level of success, this quickly. We’re in a great place at the right time. The Southeast is exploding, right now, as far as craft beer goes and it’s awesome to see. It’s an evolutionary thing.”
“People want more refined products. They want to get a little weird. A lot of people think the idea is off-putting. I love seeing people try sour beer the first time. There’s that initial reaction of, ‘I hate this,’ but then they’re like, ‘I don’t. This is just different.’ That develops over time. It’s kind of a learned experience.”
Please describe the craft-beer scene of Asheville.
– “When I first moved here, there were only a handful of breweries: Asheville Brewing, Highland and Green Man. Pisgah opened when I was a Sophomore in college — that’s when I got a job with them. Slowly, but steadily, it built momentum and now it’s such a cool beer scene because it’s so concentrated. We get so much traffic and so many visitors into this town, that it doesn’t feel saturated. Every brewery, here, is offering something unique and something of a different appeal. There’s not one type of craft-beer drinker, any more. There’s tons of people who are into craft beer from all different backgrounds and it’s really cool to see each one create their own place, to see what they’re after.”
“Business is booming. I think we’re nearing 25 breweries and it’s a really small city. The year-round population is about 85,000 people. When we beat out Portland, OR to become the Beer City, that drew a lot of attention and now, the newest addition is all the large-scale breweries coming in. People ask me, ‘Do you see it as a threat to your business?’ It’s absolutely not. They already have a tap presence, here. It means we get fresher, better beer, more resources and a broader education base from some of the people who work for places like Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and New Belgium. They’re very generous to all the smaller breweries. We can’t be more grateful to a lot of these larger companies that have helped us out, as we’ve expanded and saved us from some really painful lessons. We’ve learned quite a bit from them, so it’s been really awesome.”
What was the first sour beer that was released by Wicked Weed?
– “It was Black Angel Cherry Sour. Walt had brewed that at another brewery and was aging it at the warehouse before Wicked Weed was even open. So, when we opened, we had two sour beers on tap. We had such a limited supply, that we would tap one keg every week, at 3 P.M. on Thursday. People would wait at the top of the stairs for us to tap that beer and that’s when we realized sour beers were viable. Black Angel is a really special beer. It’ll never leave the state of North Carolina. We only sell it here. It’s one of our favorite flagship beers. We built a whole beer series based off Black Angel, that we released throughout this year. We had Red Angel (a raspberry sour), Golden Angel (an apricot sour), White Angel (a Scuppernong and muscadine sour) and we’re about to release Angel of Darkness (a boysenberry, blackberry, raspberry and cherry sour). It’s been an inspirational beer for us.”
Can you preview your upcoming release, Angel of Darkness?
– “Angel of Darkness is the culmination of our Angel Series. It’s a strong dark sour that’s aged in Oloroso Sherry casks for a total of 14 months with a pound and a half per gallon of boysenberry, cherry, raspberry and blackberry. We then pull it out of the casks and we pump it into a bright tank, where we add an additional pound and a half per gallon of all of those same fruits and it ages an additional two months, for a total of 16 months and it’s about 11 percent ABV. It’s a big, assertive truly unique beer. We wanted to experience what we experienced, the first time we all tried Black Angel. We always want to push those creative boundaries and using Sherry casks adds an incredible flora and flavor. I’m really happy about the way it turned out.”
What are some of the most interesting ingredients you’ve brewed with at Wicked Weed?
– “We’ve used frankincense, we’ve used 14-carat-gold flakes in a beer once, chestnuts were a nightmare, figs are a really interesting one. I made a Saison with gummy bears, once.”
How many sours, would you estimate, are released by Wicked Weed each year?
– “That is one of the really unique things about Wicked Weed: We are not afraid of variety. Most breweries have a much different blending and production program. That’s one of the things that Walt and I work well together on. I’m a very production-and-process oriented person. Walt’s a great conceptual person. He’s got a really good flare for what people don’t even know that they want, yet. He’s always ahead of the curve. This year, we are on track to do about 42 separate brands. Next year, we’re paring down to about 35 or 37 brands. It means a lot of work and a lot of management, but there’s no replacement for that sort of innovation. It keeps us happy to come into work every day. It’s exciting.”
“One of my main jobs is sourcing crazy ingredients and cooperage from all over the world. We have sherry casks from Spain, we have rum barrels from Barbados, Italian puncheons, Kentucky bourbon barrels, red wine barrels from Napa Valley and others from all over the place. It’s really cool to bring all these different ingredients and different inputs into one place and create a different feel for each beer.”
What are your flagship sour beers?
– “We have several flagship sour beers: Amorous (dry-hopped sour IPA), Black Angel (dark sour aged in bourbon barrels with cherries), Medora (blonde aged with raspberries and blackberries), Oblivion (sour red ale aged with blackberries and dates), Genesis (tropical blonde sour aged with papaya, mango, pineapple and guava) and Serenity, which is a once-a-year release. It’s a 100 percent Bret beer that won gold at GABF. It’s a really beautiful, delicate, balanced, difficult-to-make style of beer and we love it.”
Please tell me about the Christmas sours for this year.
– “Our Moeder Series is something we do for Christmas. They are a nod to the Old World. They’re really traditional-styled Belgian beers that are barrel aged over the entire course of the year. We produce and release them right before Christmas. The Tripel is 9.2 percent. It’s really dry since it’s aged in white-wine barrels with candy sugar for a year. It has a proprietary strain of yeast that Walt and Luke ‘borrowed’ when they visited Belgium, that we propped up in the lab. We mix that up with our house Bret. The dark strong has picked up a little more mixed culture in the barrel, over time. It’s a little more acidic. It’s a much bigger-bodied beer, but it drinks really nicely.”
Is Wicked Weed beer currently distributed in Nashville?
– “Not yet. We’re not currently distributing in Tennessee. The legislation in Tennessee has been up in the air. It seems like it’s going in a really positive direction, but we’re kind of waiting to see how the dust settles, to see what that will mean for us.”
Is the brewery waiting for the state’s new high-gravity law to go into effect?
– “That’s going to be a big thing for a lot of craft breweries in Tennessee. Having to deal with that restraint is kind of not in the spirit of what we do. It’s not something we want to have to consider. That being said, we make plenty of beers that could work out, but for now, we’re just seeing where the craft scene is going go.”
Has Wicked Weed collaborated with other breweries, on the sour side?
– “Oh, absolutely. We just did a collaboration with Jester King Brewery, out of Austin. We’re working on a year-and-a-half-long collaboration with The Lost Abbey, out of San Marcos. We are going to be collaborating with some other really big hitters out of the West Coast. The Rare Barrel will be coming up next year, that’s going to be really fun. Jay Goodwin and Alex Wallash are a huge inspiration for our program. We’ve done one with Funkwerks and New Belgium, out of Colorado and collabs with local breweries. We’ve done one with Burial Brewing. We get around (laughs).”
What upcoming events will you be participating in and/or hosting in the near future?
– “We’re going to be at the Craft Brewers Conference this year. We’ll have 14 or 15 entries for the World Beer Cup, so we’re going hard for that. Our third-year anniversary will be on December 28th, so that will be fun. Coming up in the summer, we always throw one big festival ourselves, it’s the Wicked Weed Funkatorium Invitational. It’s a sour-beer festival of about 50 breweries happening on July 16th. Literally, we bring the best sour breweries from around the country and they bring some of their best sour beers.”
What’s the one thing people need to know about Wicked Weed?
– “If I had to say one thing about Wicked Weed that I’m proud of and that I appreciate is that we take really good care of our people. The people who work for us never, ever cut a corner, when it comes to beer. We have a lot of fun, but we take our beer really seriously. I trust every one of my guys to do the same thing.”