Wedge Brewing: Everybody May Not Know Your Name, But You're Still Welcome

written by Bill Kopp

When Capital at Play published its 2013 profile of Tim Schaller and Wedge Brewing, the beer landscape in and around Western North Carolina looked very different from today. While locally-brewed beer was becoming much easier to find, the scene was still in its developing stages. Asheville was home to about two dozen local breweries, but the city was years away from gaining the coveted status of "Beer City USA." But over the years Wedge has thrived, with careful, limited growth and deft pivots from its original concept.

In the early '00s, a number of breweries came and went, and the Asheville beer scene slowed a bit in the wake of the Great Recession. Launched in 2008 in the city's not-yet-trendy River Arts District, Wedge Brewing was at the tail end of the region's locally-owned microbrewing vanguard. When Wedge opened its doors, the primary breweries in town were Highland Brewing Company (opened in 1994 by Oscar Wong) and Asheville Brewing company (begun in 1998).

As the market for locally-sourced craft beer grew, so did the number of Asheville breweries. "There's obviously a bigger pie to cut up," says Tim Schaller, Wedge's owner and founder. With capacity at around 1300 barrels of beer annually, Wedge would never compete with local counterparts who put their brews into cans, bottles, restaurant menus and grocery shelves. But Schaller's brewery established its own niche.

Wedge took a different approach than its putative competitors. "We didn't go into the wholesale market or the distribution market in a very strong way," he says. Instead, Schaller's brewery built its business around providing its beer at the source. "So we're [only] cutting into the pie of 'coming in and buying a pint,'" Schaller says.

As a result of focusing on that business model, Wedge Brewing's facility -- the bottom floor of an historic, century-old warehouse building situated on the dusty verge of an active railway line -- quickly developed into something unique: a favorite watering hole for locals that also welcomed tourists.

Schaller admits that tourism -- the lifeblood of Asheville's economic engine -- can be a mixed blessing. But he makes a point of not contributing to an anti-tourist backlash he views as unproductive. Schaller says that the concept of "'respect to the locals' got to be 'us and them,' And it's important not to do that."

Believing that beer tourism isn't a bad thing, Wedge quickly pivoted from its original vision of a locals hangout. "I hope that when people from out of town com into Wedge, they feel welcome," Schaller says. "When we do social media, we let people know we're a 'locals' place," he admits. But he emphasizes that when he travels, those are exactly the kind of places he likes to visit. "I always tell my bartenders, 'When you go someplace, you go looking for the out-of-the-way place.'" So at Wedge, local beer quaffers and out-of-towners peaceably coexist.

That approach has served Wedge well, and its no-frills railside location is as popular as ever. But the biggest change for the brewery in recent years has been the opening of a second location, also located in the River Arts District. Schaller laughs when asked about Wedge's expansion. "People keep coming to me, saying, 'We thought you were never going to expand!'" Pandemic and social distancing notwithstanding, having a location that offers indoor seating makes a lot of sense. Asheville winters can get cold, and the second location means that visiting Wedge Brewing for a pint or two can now be a year-round activity.

Though the second location has been successful right from its start -- Wedge Brewing's total production is now around 2000 barrels a year -- Schaller readily admits that the process of launching a second facility exposed what he describes as his own "lack of business acumen. It was more challenging than I thought," he says. For example, "There are personnel issues because you [can' t be] in both places at the same time." But the learning experience was ultimately a successful one.

And though the idea was the farthest thing from Schaller's mind when he started the brewery, Wedge now offers some of its beers in cans. "Mobile canning companies cut down on the expense," he says. But even though Wedge's popular Julian Price Pilsner, Payne's Ale and Iron Rail IPA can be found in cans, the brewery isn't implementing a big-business model. Wedge doesn't have a wholesale distributor; sales are "retail out-the-window and delivery," he says. And those sales have helped see the brewery through the rough landscape of 2020. "We have to supplement any way we can," he says.

While there aren't any other major changes planned in the near future, Schaller remains optimistic about the future of Wedge Brewing. More foot and vehicle traffic in the RAD increases Wedge's business. And he says that having a megabrewer neighbor is a good thing. "New Belgium Brewing moving in near us actually had a positive effect, because it brings people to the neighborhood," he says. "The new greenways and bike lanes have changed the River Arts District, too. And adapting to that is a real positive for us as a business."

Schaller notes that while Wedge doesn't try to copy what other brewers are doing, there's still room for experimentation and creativity. "I've encouraged my brewers to not get so snotty that they [say], 'Okay, we're not doing that,'" he emphasizes. "If you can do it better than somebody else, go ahead." Wedge Brewing's careful growth and high quality beers mean that the future looks bright, and its two location will continue to be a space in which Asheville beer lovers and those from elsewhere can enjoy brews side-by-side. "For people who don't want to deal with tourism," Schaller says with a smile, "it's too late."

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