My Thoughts on the Wicked Weed Brewing Company / Anheuser-Busch InBev Sale
Disclaimer: I’m just a guy who loves beer and seeks to promote community and awareness around my passion. My thoughts below are not based on any hard data or expert insight from the brewing industry, but rather simple observation of the reaction to Wicked Weed’s announcement on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.
My Instagram feed seemed business as usual on Wednesday morning, until one business did something unusual that sent the Craft Beer community ablaze.
Renowned and beloved craft brewery, Wicked Weed Brewing Company, out of Asheville, North Carolina, announced its sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev. This unexpected news sent shockwaves throughout the Craft Beer industry and community. Instantly, battle-lines were drawn, and many took to social media to declare which side of the fight they were on. Those that supported the brewery’s decision to sell to Anheuser-Busch held strong to the notion that the brewery reserves the right to decide their own future and expand via any means of their choosing. Those in opposition voiced that Wicked Weed turned its back on the Craft Beer Community in ‘selling out’ to “Big Beer”. To each side, there really is no middle ground.
Throughout the day Wednesday, I just watched and listened as the community reacted. As words were exchanged and opinions expressed, the dialogue espoused that people are passionate, not just about drinking beer, but also the business of how it is created, produced, and served.
With the sale, Wicked Weed will be joining The High End, AB InBev’s division of Craft and Import Beer. Wicked Weed co-founders Walt and Luke Dickinson and Ryan, Rick, and Denise Guthy will all remain a part of the brewery. The sale is still pending regulatory approval, and no details of the agreement have been disclosed.
Having spent much of my professional life working with high-dollar contracts, the fact that no further details of the deal were disclosed leaves room for an assortment of assumptions and even more questions. Many ask how such an innovative leader in the Craft Beer Industry could “sell out” to big beer. That’s a great question, but I would have to contend that the question really isn’t all that simple. Again, we don’t know all of the details of this sale, and without them, we really can’t condemn Wicked Weed for their actions.
Now I understand how some will disagree with me. Many will say any deal with “big beer” is a bad deal period, as it is detrimental to the Craft Beer industry. I respect that — especially with AB InBev buying many craft breweries, controlling the domestic market, and putting stifling pressure on those craft breweries that dare remain to stand against them. I am not a fan of “big beer” by any means, but it would be prudent for us all to take a step back from an “Us vs. Them” mentality and consider that on either side of these deals are people.
I think one of the most amazing things about beer is the people. It takes people to create it, it takes people to enjoy it, and it takes people to grow an industry. At the end of the day brewing beer is about people. In Wicked Weed’s case, its about their team and their customers.
In the official press release, Wicked Weed Co-Founder Walt Dickinson stated, “We have chosen to partner with The High End to position ourselves to make Wicked Weed what we imagined it could be when we first sat at a craft beer bar and talked about opening a brewery. As a brewer, giving our team more resources to continue innovating our portfolio and the ability to reach more craft drinkers, allows us to keep putting the beer and the people first.”
In light of these comments, I would like to hope that this deal was made because it was in the best interest of the people- Wicked Weed employees and consumers, rather than sole financial motivation. In my perspective, this decision, as with many decisions, boil down to heart vs. head. By heart, I mean values, principles, and passions. By head, I mean thoughts and reasoning.
From the head standpoint, I can understand this move. Again we don’t know the terms of the deal, but at the end of the day breweries are in business. With business comes income, expenses, assets, balance sheets, employees, and a whole plethora of other things that many of us — the consumers — rarely consider. Simply, breweries have to make money to stay in business. They have to manage their earnings and in turn, use that to sustain and grow. From what we know, Wicked Weed feels that this deal is their best path forward. No doubt there will be significant dollars and opportunities associated with this deal, which would not have been afforded to Wicked Weed otherwise.
Now, this is not to say it is, nor should be, all about the money- we need to talk about the heart. The heart is who we are — it’s our essence. It’s what makes you, you, and what makes me, me. Within our heart is our values, our principles, and our passions. Some people will call this our compass. When we compromise one of these things, for one reason or another, we cease to be ourselves, and our compass has lost its direction. We have traded who we are for the sake of something else. In terms of a brewery, its heart, its compass, is comprised of that brewery’s values, principles, and passions. Assumably, for Wicked Weed, those ideals and visions were established and infiltrated into the growth and trajectory of the brewery. Therefore, if the sale is congruent with their heart, then we shouldn’t blankly label this as a “sell out,” but rather see it as a business decision for continued growth of its brand. According to the Wicked Weed website, their focus is to create beer that is “forward thinking, ingredient focused, and a direct reflection of our need to create.” Can they continue to fulfill that mission as part of AB InBev? Does this decision align with their heart?
My heart, however, is in a different place- I would like to think that if faced with the same offer, I would have made a different decision. I feel, like many, that in some ways this is a loss for those of us who love craft beer and want to see the industry thrive. Wicked Weed had really set the bar for innovation in the industry and they were a vital part of the craft beer scene in Asheville, NC. With the purchase by InBev, all of that feels somewhat hollow now.
But, as I am enjoying the Pernicious IPA from the very brewery we speak of, I am reminded of what makes the industry what it is and what it will continue to be despite the acquistion. The Craft Beer Industry is a living thing, one that adapts to the movements of the market and of “big beer.” In fact, situations like this makes Craft stronger, as it strengthens the resolves of brewers, owners, and enthusiasts alike.
In the end, only time will tell whether this was the right decision by Wicked Weed. Will they continue to produce quality brews and push the line of creativity and exploration in the brewing world- or will another brewery seize this opportunity to be a new trailblazer in the industry?