Mountain Hoppin’

In terms of visual appeal, the Wedge’s brewing system — best viewed when standing in front of the tasting-room taps while turning your head roughly 45 degrees to the left — is my fave in town.

The labyrinthine system of gleaming copper and crisp steel exudes a mix of the fantastical and the industrial. It’s a look that calls to mind the late-19th-century classics of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne: The Time Machine, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, War of the Worlds and, of course, A Journey to the Center of the Earth. At any given moment, you half-expect the entire building to start spewing steam, turn perpendicular to the ground and, with the late John Payne’s richly gnarled metalwork for a drill bit, burrow a gaping hole straight to the planet’s core.

The beers produced within this hermetic complex embody their origins. From the obscenely popular Iron Rail IPA, to the well-measured Julian Price Pilsner, Wedge beers are sturdy testaments to design and engineering. Ineffable subtlety isn’t their point — expertly modulated potency is.

I met Wedge Brewmaster Carl Melissas only recently. As a fairly regular patron, I caught glimpses of him operating his fin de siècle machinery. Over time, and a great number of pints, my imagination transformed this total stranger, wiry and goateed, into a character torn from the pages of one of the books mentioned above: a stoic and intense engine-room steward, forever monitoring his arcane equipment, or possibly an eccentric chemist who profoundly believes the mystical can be achieved via the rigors of scientific method.

Gradually, I realized this fiction I concocted wasn’t just fanciful — it was borderline crazy. In order to re-tether my noggin to the here and now, I required verification one way or another. I decided to meet the man himself under the guise of a brewery tour. Getting a look-see at the Wedge’s brewing process would be awesome, sure. But to meet Melissas and discover who he truly is would be even better. He didn’t disappoint.

To begin with, he’s not some oddball caricature. He’s down-to-earth, affable, intelligent and terribly unique. He’s my kind of brewmaster, one who isn’t afraid to engage in the lofty and philosophical. He's also more than happy to flesh out the mechanics of his grand chemistry —  decoction mashing, cooking wheat, conical fermenters, yeast generations and so on. But what ultimately kick-starts Melissas’ imagination is when all that nuts-and-bolts jargon is allowed to turn abstract and impressionistic, freely mingling with larger cultural issues. After all, this is a man whose license plate reads “BREWNART.”

Even when I babble about the “Victorian-era sci-fi aesthetic” of the titanic apparatus surrounding us, he keeps apace, describing the mash tun and kettle at his former brewery as giant “diving bells,” complete with glass portals. Pure Jules Verne, I think to myself.

Melissas' theoretical musings on the brewing process are particularly stimulating and jibe with the engineered feel of his brews. While crouching next to a bucket of bubbling something or other (sanitizer, I believe), he details the myriad distinctions between “imitation” and “replication,” before calling himself a “glorified janitor.” Assistant brewer Dave Misson interjects (jokingly) that his boss suffers from OCD. Melissas smiles and concurs, saying that he aligns his über-meticulous approach with the brewing traditions of Germany, the same details-oriented kultur that gave us the BMW.

Probably the coolest thing about the Wedge is how Melissas’ views don’t stray far from the actual business of selling beer exclusively around here. At a time when craft-beer sales climb month after month, the temptation for owner Tim Schaller to start pumping out the brews must be great, to say the absolute least.

Yet the brewery, increasingly popular since opening in 2008, isn’t at all down with hawking more beer than Melissas’ extremely diligent methods can handle. That’s because the guy’s all-too bohemian personality is the double helix floating imperceptibly in every one of his brews; you change how the brewmaster works, you change the beer.

Of course, the Wedge has, as Melissas points out, a knack for driving local bars and restaurants a little batty with their limited production and somewhat unpredictable operation.

But hey, there’s no getting in between Captain Nemo and his submarine — however eccentric.

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One thought on “Mountain Hoppin’

  1. Louis Lange

    I thought that no one would ever make a better beer in Asheville than Highland brewing company’s Gaelic ale but the Julian price Pilsner @ the Wedge is a better beer.Sorry Mr. Wong.

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