Q&A: Marty Velas, Smoky Mountain Brewery's brewmaster

Woodruff Brewing Company and Smoky Mountain and Marble City breweries will all participate in the Craft Bier Garden in East Tennessee's first official Oktoberfest, in Kingsport on Saturday, Sept. 24. Marty Velas, SMB's brewmaster, will also speak as part of the event's Beer University, which involves unique samples. The fest benefits Toys for Tots and Speedway Children's Charities.

What's your topic for the Beer University?

I'm going to be discussing the history of Oktoberfest and Oktoberfest beer style.

Where did you learn about that?

Mostly at Oktoberfest.

The German one?

I did a journeymanship in Southern Bavaria in 1989. Of course, Oktoberfest started long ago, but the modern-day fest lore is still pretty pervasive, and I went several times while living there, and got to pick the brains of the people I worked with there.

Is that your primary education, brewing?

I attended Cal State, Northridge, in engineering.

Wait, how'd you go from engineering to brewing?

It's been a long, strange trip, but I essentially started homebrewing in 1978, like a lot of my contemporaries. When the first craft brewery opened in Southern California, I jumped out of engineering and have never looked back.

What makes a festival an Oktoberfest, instead of just a bunch of people with some kegs?

Of course, Oktoberfest was an extension of the harvest festivals that were very common throughout Europe. And the one in 1810 expanded to include the royal wedding [of Crown Prince Luitpold I and Princess Theressa of Bavaria]. We're not celebrating a wedding, but we are celebrating agriculture here in East Tennessee. Another integral part is the beer, a special beer brewed this time of year called Marzen. This was once the last beer brewed of the season, around spring, because they didn't brew in the summertime. The March beer was stored in cold caves all summer, and they brewed it just a little stronger to preserve it. Those three things really make an Oktoberfest—the Marzen beer, the music of a good Bavarian band, and the traditional foods served, like bratwurst and roast chicken.

The beer served in Kingsport wasn't brewed last spring.

No, now we have temperature control so we're able to brew in late summer.

Has interest in beer education increased in this area?

Absolutely. Beer culture in East Tennessee and the surrounding areas is just growing exponentially. People are discovering beer with flavor and becoming more discerning and more experimental about the styles. It's very exciting.

Since you work for a retailer, do you have camaraderie with home brewers, or view them as competitors?

We're not at all competitive; home brewers are the backbone for this whole industry. They are the ones that drove it. Most of my colleagues who now run national brewing companies started as home brewers, like I did. But a lot have stopped brewing because there's so much good beer around.

Do you have a higher tolerance for alcohol than most?

No, I taste a lot of beer, but I'm still a lightweight, and I don't drink a lot of beer. People say, "You don't look like a brewmaster, you're too skinny!" I adhere to the Surgeon General's recommendation of one to two servings a day, and I enjoy those very much.

For more information on Kingsport Oktoberfest Sept. 24: kingsportoktoberfest.com.