With two gold medals in two years from the Great American Beer Festival, Wicked Weed Brewing has been riding a wave of success since opening Dec. 28, 2012, next door to The Orange Peel in downtown Asheville. But the wave didn’t arise overnight.
It started with a longtime relationship between two families, combined with creative and practical brewing by brothers Walt and Luke Dickinson, the expertise and wisdom of Rick Guthy, the innovation and insight of his wife, Denise, and the ideas and hard work of their son, Ryan Guthy.
“Our dads played middle school, high school and college basketball together,” says 28-year-old Ryan of the two families. The Dickinsons “moved to Asheville when they were in middle school. That’s when we really reconnected again, but I’ve known the two [Dickinson] brothers my whole life.”
Walt, 33, and Luke, 30, referred to Ryan’s dad as “Uncle Rick” growing up.
“It was really them believing in the three of us,” says Walt, Wicked Weed’s head blender. “It was, ‘Can my son — and these two kids that have been family to me — do they have the chops to do something great?’ And they really invested and believed in what we were doing and then obviously played a really great guiding role in making sure it all came into fruition, and now we’re all here. It’s great.”
Ryan, who is in charge of sales and distribution, says before opening Wicked Weed, he and the Dickinsons went on an RV trip looking at the best craft beer bars, breweries and taprooms across the country to see what Asheville had to offer compared to the rest of the United States.
The trip led to their decision to do a 15-barrel or “BBL” brew house with more than the standard of six to 10 taps most breweries offered at the time.
“We didn’t quite open with 25,” Ryan says, “but we opened with 17 [taps], which we thought was pretty impressive, and now, we have up to 29 beers at the same time.”
Walt says that growing up in a family that emphasizes quality product led to an innate desire to be craft something: His family founded Dickinson’s Jams in the 1940s, which his grandfather sold to Smuckers in the ’80s.
After working in a few kitchens, however, Walt realized the life of a chef wasn’t for him. But he still loved the creative process he had grown up around. Homebrewing brought it all together, starting in 2001. He then worked professionally at Craggie Brewery, Green Man Brewery and French Broad Brewery.
“But really,” Walt says, “the two years leading up to the brewery, I focused all my energy on spending time working with brettanomyces, lacto, pedio [cultures] and trying to really … understand how to craft sour beer.”
Walt says sour beers, along with barrel-aged brews, are a long-term investment for a company because of the time and money involved. But these beers are a defining factor in the craft, he says.
Luke, head brewer, got into the craft beer game after his brother gave him a home-brew kit for his 21st birthday. After a few successes and failures, the experience eventually led him to a job volunteering at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware.
“That was a time that laid the foundation for how we approach beer and how we make it,” Luke says.
After his time managing the tour department, brewing small batches at Dogfish and serving an apprenticeship in Germany, Luke came back to North Carolina to open Wicked Weed.
“My brother and I started forming a business plan back in early 2011 for a brewery, and that was really it,” Luke says. “The whole thing came together really nicely when the Guthys came on board.”
Walt says he and his brother are like yin and yang. Where Luke is very detail-oriented and scientific, Walt describes himself as being more artful. But when it comes to how beer tastes, they have the same vision.
Rick and Denise Guthy, meanwhile, have been married for 37 years. Their taste in beer has been positively influenced by the unique flavors offered by the Dickinsons — even before they were involved in the formation of Wicked Weed, they say.
“You know,” Ryan says, “originally the thought was they’d come in and be investors, and now they’re their partners. They’re here every day — working, grinding, making sure this place is exactly how we all envisioned.”
The Guthys agree the ownership team has never strayed from the same path as far as philosophies and ideals go, but the journey hasn’t been without snags.
“There’s always challenges keeping things in budget,” Rick says. “And of course, we weren’t able to do that, because once we thought, ‘Well, we need to do this in a very special way,’ … we realized that we had to continue … through the upstairs, the downstairs [spaces on Biltmore Avenue].”
Other challenges included delays with city permitting and development, which Rick says are normal when dealing with a semi-historic space. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Wicked Weed building was a Gulf Pride service station.
Rick says since opening, the main challenge has been maintaining fire-safety capacity — that is, limiting the number of people in the building. The often long line to get onto the premises moves quickly, though, and most people don’t seem to mind once they get in, he says.
“And of course if you talk to the contractor,” Denise says, “I’m sure he could give you a whole list. But everything turned out beautifully.”
Denise handles mainly the aesthetics and ambience in Wicked Weed, along with other important details that she feels the staff shouldn’t have to worry about, such as merchandise. Rick handles what he calls the “non-sexy part of business” — like financing, risk management, facility management and trademarking.
“It’s not just about five people coming together and making it all happen,” Rick says. “You have to have truly talented people — people who are actually more talented and smarter than you are. And I’ve always recognized that in business, … I’m never the smartest guy in the room when it comes to the meetings I’ve held in my companies, and it’s because of that, that the companies have become successful.”
There’s another thing each of the ownership team agreed on: Wicked Weed’s staff is like a family, and without every person involved, the company wouldn’t run as smoothly.
Blake Vaden did the woodwork in the building, and Chukk Bruursema did all of the metalwork, both contributing to Wicked Weed’s unique atmosphere. Even though these two aren’t staff, Rick says they treat their work there as if they have a vested interest or ownership.
Ryan’s wife, Jennifer, set up and handled all the accounting and human resources until recently. It was a huge undertaking and she did a fabulous job, says Denise.
Eric Leypoldt was Wicked Weed’s first hire and has been monumental in the brewing process and the end product since moving from Dogfish Head. He helps to maintain Wicked Weed’s consistency in balance, flavor complexity and drinkability.
“Eric is an exceptional brewer,” Walt says, “and [he’s] helped us establish what we’re doing. Without the three of us, we wouldn’t be where we are. Now, would Luke and I be able to walk into this system and make a good beer? Yes. We would have made beer. We would have never made as good a beer as we make with Eric being on staff.”
Kitchen-side, Rick says Chef Cardiff Creasy, Sous Chef Thomas Ward and their back-of-house staff all do an amazing job.
“When you have someone … that you can trust not only from just an ethical standpoint,” Rick says, “but from a professional standpoint, [you know] that he’s going to do the very best that he can every day. I don’t even meddle or try to tell Cardiff what he has to do or what he needs to have on the menu. I just know he’s going to make great choices on behalf of the company and he’s going to manage a team that executes every day.”
As far as front-of-house is concerned, Dave Herrington is responsible for hiring people devoted to expert service.
Ryan says all these employees are exactly what they envisioned — enthusiastic about working and the product they’re offering.
It’s paid off: In mid-March, Wicked Weed broke ground on its third area location— a production facility in Enka.
Ryan and Walt both compare Wicked Weed’s success to riding the perfect wave. Without the skills and tools necessary, it would be a waste, but because they’ve gathered many people, moving parts and great employees, it’s become something special — something quality, they say.
“You know,” Luke says, “it’s the best problem in the world that we’ve had to grow so fast. It would have been nice if things would’ve happened just a little bit slower, just so we could enjoy it.”
To experience Wicked Weed Brewing, visit its original location at 91 Biltmore Ave., and if it’s a little crowded there or if you have a love for sour beers, visit Wicked Weed’s other downtown location — The Funkatorium at 147 Coxe Ave.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sierra Brodland is a contributor to Xpress. She is a student at UNC Asheville and works part-time as a server at Wicked Weed.