Charleston has made great beer strides, especially in the last seven years, but one has to face facts. When people think about craft beer in the Carolinas, many think about Asheville. We lord over our first-place designations in countless listicles like spoiled brats, but dammit, Joffrey, you can't have everything.
Asheville has been named "Beer City USA" by Examiner.com more than once. They landed two major West Coast breweries looking to set up shop on this side of the States, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada. They've got beer fests, a beer week, beer shops, local pints in hotel bars, and nearly 20 breweries. It's one hell of a beer town.
In the last two years, one operation in particular has raised the bar, along with national eyebrows: Wicked Weed Brewing. Brothers Luke and Walt Dickinson opened their brewpub near the corner of Biltmore and Hilliard streets in December 2012, and things basically blew up. After multiple visits, I can vouch for both the quality and sheer variety they offer, but their style choices have also helped push the brand. They focus in two areas: hoppy beers, a perennial favorite of beer enthusiasts, and funky/sour beers. The latter have long, complex roots in Belgium and Germany, but are undergoing a surge in popularity with craft drinkers worldwide.
Speedy success means speedy expansion, and it was with great joy that I got my first peek at their latest facility, The Funkatorium, in July. Located a few blocks south of the original brewpub, The Funkatorium is fully dedicated to funky, sour, barrel-aged beer. We're talking floor-to-ceiling barrels, around 500 to be exact, with capacity for over 1,000.
Crafting this category of beers presents unique challenges. Used spirit and wine barrels are expensive and unwieldy, so Wicked Weed's aspirations to become "the largest producers of barrel-aged beers in the Southeastern U.S." make this new space sensible. Further, the organisms used to ferment this beer are quite different from good ol' Saccharomyces (the genus containing ale and lager yeast), and cross-contamination can have ill effects on gallons of the good stuff.
Beers in these styles are also being produced here, most notably by Westbrook. The Mt. Pleasant brewery opened up shop in 2010 with a dedicated barrel room, eventually yielding releases like Mr. Chipper, a Flanders Red Ale that sat in red wine barrels for three years, and the Old Time series, a strong, dark sour-base beer aged in a variety of barrels. While not barrel-aged, their canned salty/sour Gose has been a massive hit. Meanwhile, COAST was the first local brewery to barrel-age anything with their 96-bottle Jack Daniels barrel-aged Blackbeerd release in 2009. Most of our locals now dabble in some combo of barrel-aging or funky/sour production, as do other breweries in both Carolinas, but none at the scale of The Funkatorium. It's a unique operation and may serve as a proving ground for this category for the entire Southeast.
Beyond just a place to inoculate and age beer though, The Funkatorium is a unique tasting room that, according to Team Wicked Weed, "more closely resembles a Belgian bar than an American brewpub." Tap selections are almost exclusively farmhouse ales, barreled sours, and the like. They even put a unique spin on the food menu, organizing it not into courses, but flavor categories like "Sweet," "Savory," or "Earthy," so patrons can have fun with pairings.
It was time to return to the Funkatorium Thanksgiving week. The sign above the entrance gives off a Willy Wonka vibe for good reason. If you're into this style of beer, it's a wonderland. The chalkboard wall menus, encased in what look like slices of giant oak foudres, boast seven funky options (fermented with Brettanomyces), and seven sour options (fermented with some combination of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus), all house-brewed. Paper menus describe these in more detail, noting hop varieties, aging time, and barrel type, in rich detail. All beers are available for flights, which consist of four three-ounce pours in tiny tulip glasses.
PR manager Abby Dickinson recommended the "morte series," a new line of fruit sour beers, wherein they "blend a massive amount of fresh fruit," two-to-three pounds per gallon to be exact, into a sour beer base. This process uses acidity to override the natural sweetness of the fruit. The resulting ale is the truest essence of the fruit flavor. Framboos Morte, blended with raspberries, and Perzik Morte, blended with South Carolina peaches, did not disappoint. The volume of fruit in the blend fends off the lactic tartness in their blonde sour base beer, Cosette, for a balanced final product. Another standout, this time on the funky side, was Lusus Naturae. Our server let us know that's the Latin translation of "freak of nature," Wicked Weed's year-round Double IPA, and original claim to fame. The recipe is essentially the same, but Lusus sports a wet hop addition, and it's fermented with Brett.
The Funkatorium's first big bottle release was on Halloween, when they released Dark Arts, a 15-percent ABV bourbon barrel-aged sour imperial stout. It was a rousing success.
For those who can't wait 10 months, head north this Fri. Dec. 12 for Funkin' Hoppy, an event with Stone's head brewer Mitch Steele. Or you can head up Dec. 28 for the second anniversary of the original location. Or, just go on a whim. Given that Wicked Weed is breaking ground in March on a third facility — a 40,000 square foot production brewery in Candler, N.C. — I don't think they're going anywhere anytime soon.
Timmons Pettigrew is the author of Charleston Beer: A High-Gravity History of Lowcountry Brewing, and co-founder/editor of CHSBeer.org. Follow him on Twitter @CHSBeer.