Behind the scenes of Sierra Nevada and Wicked Weed Funkatorium tours

TASTE AND LEARN: Although offering tours was not a top priority when Wicked Weed Brewing opened its Funkatorium, the brewery’s educational one-hour tours and guided tastings led by Jesse Van Note, far left, have become very popular with both out-of-town visitors and locals. Photo by Matthew Spaulding

Editor’s note: This story is the second in a two-part series by Scott Douglas and Edwin Arnaudin about brewery tourism in Western North Carolina.

From the largest national-scale stalwarts to the most promising local up-and-comers, craft breweries all share a passionate consumer base  of people as thirsty for knowledge as they are for beer. To satisfy this demand, most Asheville breweries offer in-house tours that strive to both educate and entertain their craft-curious customers.

Informed and creative

Consistent with the range of beers in Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s portfolio, tours of its facility likewise specialize in variety, starting with the guides themselves. Hired through an online application process, the 13 current members of the tour team sport such diverse backgrounds as hydrology, business and journalism and come from an array of states, including Alabama, California and New York, but they all have one quality in common.

“I can train you on the brewing process and beer styles, and you can learn chemistry, but you can’t teach your content, your character and personality – so we really look for that first and foremost,” says Mills River tour supervisor Scott Randall.

In the two months of fairly extensive training before giving their first tour and leading its concluding beer tasting, guides study a comprehensive manual, shadow veteran guides and meet with supervisors and managers of other departments to get a firm understanding of day-to-day operations. Once the time comes to take a group around the brewery, guides are given the freedom to craft the tour in their own unique way. Sierra Nevada’s history and sustainability practices are among the standard details covered, but the order of information and focus of the tour changes with each person.

“We might not know enough to brew a beer from start to finish, but we know a lot about every single department, whether it’s brewing or the natural resources department, to packaging to logistics of trucks going in and out,” Randall says.

Supplementing the 90-minute Brewhouse Tour, which Randall calls the department’s “bread and butter, kind of our [Sierra Nevada] Pale Ale,” the Natural Resources Tour returns in spring 2016. A customized offshoot of the original Chico, California, brewery’s Sustainability Tour, it focus on features implemented for the brewery’s pending Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, such as water recovery.

But for the rest of the specialty tours, guides are invited to develop a concept and run it by general manager Brian Grossman for approval. Current offerings created by the team are the two-hour Bigfoot Vertical Tour, in which eight different years of Bigfoot Barleywine are sampled and compared, and the three-hour Beer Geek Tour.

Upcoming additions include a Belgian beer night with the Ovila Abbey Ales series in February and March, an IPA tour in the fall, separate nights featuring German and barrel-aged beers and possibly a chocolate and beer evening around Valentine’s Day.

One man band

When he’s not touring exotic European stages with his metal band, Bask, Jesse Van Note is leading tours of his own at The Funkatorium.

Though tours were not a top priority when Wicked Weed Brewing decided to open a taproom in its dedicated production space for sour and funky barrel-aged beers, as interest in wild-fermented ales has exploded, so too has demand for a behind-the-scenes look at how these complex beers are made. When Van Note started working crowd-control at The Funkatorium, he found that his passion for beer and his background in the industry as a beer buyer for Whole Foods put him in a unique position to help educate consumers on the alchemy taking place inside all those barrels. Word got back to Wicked Weed owners Walt and Luke Dickinson, and soon Van Note found himself leading official 60-minute tours (half of which is a guided tasting) four days a week.

“I try to make it educational without being too scientific,” said Van Note of his approach to developing tours that meet the needs of his varied clientele. “I’m trying to tell the story of these beers more than what goes into making them. I feel like it’s really romantic when you see how much time and love goes into it.”

While the groups Van Note leads are predominantly composed of visiting tourists, he has been surprised by the number of locals who have availed themselves of his services. The common thread uniting those looking for back-stage access is a passion for craft beer — specifically an interest in lambic and farmhouse styles — and an awareness of Wicked Weed’s growing national reputation for its unique take on these traditional European brews. However, not everyone who takes the Funkatorium tour is well versed in sour and funky beers, and Van Note says converting novices into wild-fermented beer aficionados is the most rewarding part of his job.

While Van Note is currently Wicked Weed’s sole tour guide, he predicts expansion in the future. And while space constraints in the production area at the original brewpub make tours there unlikely, he expects that tours of the brewery’s new Enka-Candler production facility should be available soon, along with training tours for new employees and a variety of more in-depth tour packages that might include food pairings.

Van Note’s thoughts on the bright future of Wicked Weed and the Asheville beer community as a whole are overwhelmingly appreciative and optimistic: “I feel very fortunate to be a part of this community. This ever-growing beer scene is amazing, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.”





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