By Bobby Bush
Following an eye-opening trip to Czechoslovakia in 1978, Marty Velas returned to his home in California with brewing on his mind. As with most of his career, he was in the right place at the right time when he joined the Maltose Falcons, the nation's oldest homebrewers club, while working for Hughes Aircraft in Southern California. By 1986, the amiable beer enthusiast had had enough of the aerospace industry and took a drastic corrective change in career course.
Turning passion into sustenance, professional brewing became Marty's main interest. In 1989, as part of his training, Velas spent four months as a journeyman at Hofbrauhaus Traunstein in Southern Bavaria. Upon return, he assumed the brewmaster position at the first Los Angeles area microbrewery, Alpine Brewing Company (now micro Southern California Brewing), a German-style restaurant/brewery in Torrance. Before morphing from brewer to brewing consultant in 1992, Marty developed and directed, in conjunction with brewing equipment supplier Bohemian Breweries in Redondo Beach, a hands-on brewing school called The American Craftbrewers' Academy. Joining the ranks of academicians, he also instructed brewing science classes at UCLA.
Marty literally traversed the globe as a much sought after consultant and played a key role in establishing Japan's first craft brewery in 1994. Late that year, the hustling brewery expert landed an assignment as consultant to Copper Cellar Corporation (CCC), a restauranteur concern based in eastern Tennessee. That project, Calhoun's BBQ & Brew in Knoxville, opened in January 1995. It also opened a window of opportunity for Velas and his wife. By March 1996, Velas signed on as Copper Celler's Director of Brewing Operations and left beer-friendly California behind.
Some thirty miles away, Velas designed a second brewpub for Copper Cellar. Smoky Mountain Brewing Company began operation in Gatlinburg in December 1996. Today, both operations are near capacity, practically bursting at the seams of their shiny brew kettles. The Knoxville location, which specializes in delicious smoked meats, produced 1300 barrels last year at about a 50/50 lager/ale mix. Mountain Light, a crisp low-calorie lager and the requisite beginner's beer, starts the line-up. Thunder Road, a traditional Saaz-hopped pilsner, joins Mountain Light as the brewpub's best sellers. Inspired by Irish "red" ales, Cherokee Ale is a smooth, medium bodied creation, while Tuckaleechee Porter, a hefty flavorful brew, bats cleanup. Half of Calhoun's output is distributed to CCC's eleven other operations.
In Gatlinburg, just a stone's throw from country music mecca DollyWood, Black Bear Ale, a malty brown ale, subs for the Porter. The Vienna-style LeConte Lager is also on tap. Smoky Mountain serves no national beers, just their own.
Each week, Velas travels to-and-fro, Knoxville to Gatlinburg and back, on his brewing tour of duty. With assistance from Jay McGough at Calhoun's and Cris Corneliussen at Smoky Mountain, the breweries also offer a range of seasonal selections, including Red Fox Fest, Winter Warmer, Capricator Bock and Windy GapWheat Ale. Smoky Mountain hit 1255 barrels in '98, with 95% consumed on site. The remainder went to the Calhoun's facility just a few yards down LeConte Creek. Velas is making plans to install a bottling line later this year, primarily so other CCC restaurants will be able to keep a wider variety of beers in stock.
Once the bottling line is up and running, chief brewer Velas will have another problem, albeit a good one: producing even more of his award-winning beer. Life should be filled with such worrisome concerns. Stop in for a plate of steaming, finger-licking ribs and some delicious beer. The combination is scintillating.
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush