2014 is shaping up to be a huge year for Asheville breweries. Over the past few months, Highland, Green Man, Hi-Wire, Burial Beer, Brevard Brewing, Catawba and Lookout have all announced expansion plans to meet with current demand and to prepare for what is expected to be a huge influx of new beer tourists. I’ve heard many people comment that the list of Asheville breweries NOT expanding is shorter than the list of those who are. Today one of Asheville’s hottest breweries announced huge plans for the future.
Wicked Weed Brewing will build a 40,000 barrel a year production facility in Enka-Candler and begin packaging its beers for sale outside of the Asheville area. This is the second expansion for the brewery this year, as their “Funkatorium” barrel aging facility and tasting room on Coxe Avenue is currently under construction and should be open for business later this year.
Since Wicked Weed’s opening in 2012, the brewery has garnered national attention for its beers, including a Gold Medal win at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver last year for “Serenity,” an all Brettanomyces fermented “wild” ale. The brewery’s first year demand far exceeded initial estimates, as Wicked Weed produced 2700 barrels, 1500 more than anticipated. As a member of the opening team at Wicked Weed, I was regularly asked when the brewery’s beers would be available in bottles, and when those bottles would be sold outside of the Asheville area. Earlier this year, Wicked Weed began packaging some of its specialty barrel-aged beers in 500mL mini champagne bottles, though distribution has continued to remain limited to a few select accounts throughout North Carolina. With the new facility, that distribution footprint will be significantly increased.
A production facility was always part of the long-term plan for Wicked Weed. The brewery is known for innovation, and patrons of Wicked Weed’s Biltmore Avenue location can expect upwards of 25 different beers each time they visit. Perhaps even more impressive is that if they come back two months later, they will very likely see a DIFFERENT 25 on offer. Brothers, owners, and brewers Luke and Walt Dickinson didn’t want to have to sacrifice that creativity by rushing to package their beers. Many small breweries get pigeon-holed into only producing four or five products once they start bottling, as they suddenly have obligations to retail accounts to have available product. With a separate production facility to crank out the brewery’s core products, the Biltmore Avenue location can continue to experiment.
The production facility itself will be located in Enka near the site of New Belgium’s new distribution facility. An existing building was selected, which will allow Wicked Weed to get the facility up and running much quicker than if they chose to build something new. A 30 barrel brewhouse will feed 60 and 90 barrel fermenters, though the building will accommodate a much bigger brewhouse when the time comes. By year two, Wicked Weed expects to produce over 20,000 barrels per year. For reference, Asheville’s largest locally owned brewery, Highland Brewing, produced roughly 50,000 barrels last year and distributed that beer to nine states. According to co-owner and sales director Ryan Guthy, one of the first beers to roll off the line will likely be 22oz bottles of Freak of Nature, a Double IPA considered to be Wicked Weed’s flagship beer. Further plans involve a canning line.
Ryan told me that growth beyond 25,000 barrels a year will largely depend on legislation in North Carolina. Wicked Weed intends to self-distribute its beer for as long as possible. Currently, breweries producing in excess of 25,000 barrels a year are legally required to enlist an independent distributor to sell their product. Many breweries, including Wicked Weed, see this as a sort of cap. Distributors don’t work for free and breweries have to produce significantly more beer just to maintain the same profits. The new building is capable of housing equipment to produce 100,000 barrels each year, if the brewery chooses to expand further. Should Wicked Weed self-distribute 25,000 barrels of beer each year, dozens of jobs will be created including truck drivers, sales reps, administrative staff, and warehouse personnel. Additional brewers and support staff will also be needed to make all that beer.
If everything goes according to plan, the new facility will be up and running in the first half of next year. Ryan and his sales team have already been hard at work establishing accounts throughout the state at specialty retailers. With 20,000 barrels of product to sell, they’re going to be busy.
UPDATE: A few more details: the production facility will be a $5 million investment on Wicked Weed’s part, Guthy said Friday night. The building is actually owned by Buncombe County (it’s off Sandhill Road). The county gave Wicked Weed a lease-to-own deal on the building, according to David Gantt, chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
The company expects to add 80 jobs, according to Guthy.