The Wicked Weed to AB-InBev apocalypse

May 17, 2017 at 10:48 am
Against the Grain

Talk in the craft beer world over the past week and a half has revolved largely around the stunning announcement that Wicked Weed Brewing, a craft-beer darling in Asheville, North Carolina, has been sold to A-B InBev, or ABI, which owns Anheuser-Busch and dozens of other major brewing operations.

The conglomerate has been buying craft breweries for several years, but the news about Wicked Weed, which is, or at least was, highly regarded by craft beer aficionados, seems to be hitting the industry hard, with craft beer fans, other breweries and even some retailers crying “foul.”

ABI, did not respond to a request for comment, but Wicked Weed cofounder Walt Dickinson told the Durham Herald-Sun that the brewery’s mission will be unchanged, and the beer will get only better.

And so the debate for some becomes just how devoted any craft brewery should remain to independence in the face of a lucrative payday; most small business owners would consider it an ultimate success to cash out. But the craft beer industry has an us-versus-them mindset when it comes to the mega-brewing corporations, and ABI in particular.

This is due in part to the perception of ABI’s questionable tactics when it comes to its approach to the market, including last week’s announcement it had gained control of a segment of South African hop varieties and would not be releasing any to independent breweries, even going so far as to renege on previously-agreed-upon transactions, which has brewers fuming.

“Next time you consider buying beer from AB InBev & their zombie breweries,” tweeted San Diego’s Modern Times Beer, one of the breweries to be stiffed, “we hope you’ll take this extreme dickishness into consideration.”

Two of the owners at Against the Grain Brewery here in Louisville said they understand Wicked Weed’s position, but have concerns.

“How much?” said Adam Watson, when asked how he would respond to an ABI offer to buy his brewery. “Everybody’s got some number, somewhere, no matter how idealistic you are.”

He rightly points out that, while any sale like that of Wicked Weed will have far-reaching effects for the craft beer industry, “it’s hard to take those into consideration when you’re sitting at the [bargaining] table.”

Still, Watson and Sam Cruz, another co-owner of AtG, believe that ABI is not buying craft breweries to raise its production qualities, but rather to add leverage in order to ultimately push independent craft breweries out of business.

By selling, Wicked Weed made it just a bit tougher of a battle for breweries including AtG, which is doing its best to provide for its families and employees, and to help make their community better by sponsoring and hosting local events and contributing to the economy. It’s a local business; the beer is only part of the equation.

ABI’s tactics will continue, Cruz said, before evoking a theological metaphor. “The war has been waged. We always have been and always will be David.”

Added Watson, “Behavior like that is when they show who they are. When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

Independent breweries across the country certainly are believing their eyes. After the Wicked Weed sale announcement, close to 50 breweries pulled out of the annual Funkatorium Invitational beer event that was set to be held at Wicked Weed in July. Wicked Weed has now canceled the event, replacing it with a different event in the fall.

“The craft industry is apparently using the Funkatorium Invitational event to send a clear message that joining the ranks of AB InBev can get you ostracized from the community,” the Food & Dining Magazine wrote last week.

Another brewery, Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, wrote on its website, “We truly believe that AB InBev intends to systematically destroy American craft beer as we know it.”

Only time will tell if that is true — and whether the effort will be successful.

Happenings at Holsopple

In less apocalyptic news, Holsopple Brewery is installing a new chilling system that will enable the small brewery in Lyndon to expand from eight to 12 tap lines. The work is in progress now and is expected to be completed in a month or so.

Meanwhile, owner Sam Gambill has tweaked the recipe of the brewery’s flagship Aloupa Ale slightly, dry-hopping it and leaving it unfiltered. It also seems to have just a tad more malt backbone (slightly higher alcohol content would bear that out), but remains a solid, American pale ale that is moderately bitter, refreshing and approachable. Summer is going to love this one.

Also, a new tent is up on the brewery’s patio area, and word is that live music will become a regular attraction as the weather warms up.