Wicked Weed owners focus on growth, not backlash, after sale

ASHEVILLE - When Wicked Weed announced Wednesday Anheuser-Busch InBev would acquire the brewery, the news rippled through the craft beer world.

Founded in Asheville in 2012 by Walt and Luke Dickinson and their friends Ryan, Rick and Denise Guthy, the brewery had already become a local institution, a temple of hops and funky barrel-aged brews.

But in a span of hours, Wicked Weed became a flashpoint for a continuing conversation about how a homegrown industry is being quickly consumed by the churning waters of Big Beverage.

The Asheville brewery is the latest to join The High End, an Anheuser-Busch portfolio that includes craft brands like Goose Island, Breckenridge Brewery, Devils Backbone and 10 Barrel Brewing.

These sorts of acquisitions are becoming increasingly common. The Chicago Tribune reported Thursday, for example, that the Petaluma, California- and Chicago-based Lagunitas Brewing Company had sold its remaining privately owned half of the company to Heineken, one the world's largest beer companies.

The day after news of Wicked Weed's sale to The High End, the brewery's owners gathered in the company's flagship Biltmore Avenue location to answer questions about the deal. Walt Dickinson called the company's move a strategic one in a market that's changed drastically in the nearly five years the brewery's been open.

"It's not the same craft space as when we started," he said, noting the inventory of U.S. craft breweries has grown from just over 1,700 when Wicked Weed filed for its permits, to more than 6,000 at the end of this year.

The craft beer market is no micro-industry, he noted, representing more than 20 percent of the total beer market by dollar last year. "People are paying attention to that, and competition is happening, the market's evolving, and this is becoming a real business," Dickinson said. "That said, we don't have to lose integrity over that, we just have to be smarter about the choices we make and choose partners who support those things."

Dickinson mentioned the altruistic work of the Guthy family. Rick and Denise Guthy, he said, have been active in the Asheville community since the '80s. And he noted the purchase is likely to generate more jobs for the city; his locations presently employ around 220. "We've done a great job of creating a vibrant scene around our brewery and drawing a lot of people downtown and creating business for a lot of other retailers, and our brand has grown because of that," he said.

Continuing that momentum, and supporting the Wicked Weed family comes first, he said. "I think the sky's the limit for our company and we're going to explore that, and at the end this will be a great thing for not only Asheville and the beer scene here, but I think we're going to have a positive impact on the craft beer scene as a whole."

Meanwhile, some in the beer community have indicated that type of growth doesn't sit well with them.

Austin's Jester King Brewery and Denver's Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales both decided to pull out of any Wicked Weed projects. Several breweries have decided not to attend Wicked Weed's 2017 Funkatorium Invitational. The Charlotte Observer reported several Charlotte-area craft beer retailers will stop stocking Wicked Weed products. And the NC Craft Brewers Guild said the brewery could no longer be a voting member.

"I fully support and understand those reactions," Dickinson said on Thursday. "It would be naive of me to think it wouldn't happen. These are very passionate people who helped us get to the place we are and it's our job as leaders and visionaries in this company to see the future and guide us into the future, and sometimes the future is scary. It takes bold moves sometimes to create something really exciting — I think this is a little bit of a bold move and, over time, we'll be able to break down some barriers."

Dickinson said having InBev take the reins of the day-to-day minutiae — business and branding law concerns, for example — will enable him to focus on innovation and quality. Having the purchasing power of the beverage giant will help open the door to a world of ingredients previously out of reach, he said.

That runs counter to what many craft beer enthusiasts imagine for a brewery purchased by a label that famously produces and distributes Budweiser, Michelob and Natural Light.

But Chris Cox, whose 10 Barrel Brewing was acquired by InBev in 2015, said the move has indeed provided access to quality hops, malts and even aging barrels.

Dickinson said access to quality ingredients has so far limited Wicked Weed's growth to a certain extent. "There's only a certain amount of hops in the world and everybody loves IPA — it's the fastest-growing style in the craft beer space right now, and we're known for producing those, and we want to produce more of them."

Still, Dickinson acknowledged the stigma that comes with Anheuser-Busch. "But the idea of finding partners to help you get better at what you're doing is just innately part of entrepreneurship," he said.

Cox said that his own acquisition deal caused a similar backlash in Bend, similar in size and ethos to Asheville, particularly within the craft-beer community. "We definitely felt the heat when we did the acquisition, but over time, people came to trust that the beer is not changing — that's all blown over for us."

Dickinson hoped Wicked Weed wouldn't see too much of a short-term sales impact. And indeed, his brewhouses were humming Wednesday night, and a steady stream of customers filed in Thursday afternoon as he talked.

"If we see a small dip in the immediate future, I'm comfortable with that, because I feel like a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, they're going to come back and realize the beer hasn't changed, it's gotten better," he said. "I think we make some of the best beers in the region, and we do so consistently and we get great support. At the end of the day, great beer will win."

Cox said that with more and more craft breweries partnering with InBev, people will learn not to panic. "We still run our company, we still make all our own decisions, we still brew our own beer, and we're still there every single day with our team," he said. "We're just getting back to what we love to do, and that's brew beer."

Facebook | Instagram | Twitter