Shouting into the Ether: My Thoughts on the Wicked Weed Acquistion

Recently, AB (Anheuser-Busch) InBev acquired yet another craft brewery, causing outrage to (predictably) erupt across social media. This time, the brewery was Wicked Weed out of Asheville, NC.

I know it’s been a few days since the initial uproar occurred, but I wanted to wait until rational conversation could happen. Don’t get me wrong; I understand why people are upset, but it’s hard to truly try to understand the whole situation when emotions are getting in the way.

And emotions have definitely been running high since last Wednesday. One of my coworkers is from the Asheville area, and here’s how he explained it: local breweries feel like they’re such a part of the community, especially if contribute a lot to the local economy.

I could relate to this because, in Columbia, MO, you can find locally brewed beers everywhere. Even the college bars where you’d expect to only find the Lite/Light beers will have something on from a local brewery, and the bar that’s synonymous with college shenanigans has a beer that’s listed in the BJCP consistently on draft. Hell, even grocery stores have beer on tap in this damn town.

Something similar had happened in Asheville; it’s become a destination for beer, and Wicked Weed was one of the big draws. The brewery has become part of the town’s identity, but now it has been bought out. Even though production will continue at the same location, it doesn’t feel the same. The public begins to talk about how the profits will become part of a larger company that controls nearly half the beer market. The benefits once felt at home will now be distributed among the pockets of executives who’ve barely set foot in the brewhouse. The cool dudes who worked hard to build their business have handed it over to the market leader.

To put it simply, people of Asheville felt betrayed. That betrayal resonated out to fans of the brewery across the country, and the ripples were felt throughout the entire beer community. Then, that betrayal turned into downright anger.

However, the situation isn’t as simple as “they sold out and don’t care anymore!”

First, let’s look at why the deal might be seductive. The short answer is money and exposure. I know that might sound shallow, but think about it for a second. Everyone knows the rich kids get the best toys, and if you decide to swallow your pride, go to the rich kid’s party and pretend to be his friend, you know you’re probably going to go home with the latest iPhone. In this analogy, though, the rich kid is a majority business, and the iPhone is a multi-million dollar deal that subsequently brings in shiny new brewing equipment, access to the best ingredients, increased production, a larger marketing budget, and freedom to experiment.

Don’t tell me you wouldn’t at least listen to that offer.

But we’ve heard from Wicked Weed themselves. The official story from one of the brewery’s co-founders is that this is a good thing for craft beer. Citing the probable expansion of the brewery, the brewery says that they’ll be able to create more jobs and, ultimately, contribute even more to the community. And, although they were doing quite well on their own, they say the acquisition will help them brew amazing beer even more easily, which will help the entire market of craft beer.

But other craft breweries aren’t buying it, and some are even publicly distancing themselves from Wicked Weed. As more time is put between the acquisition and the present, more and more breweries are dropping out of an upcoming festival organized by Wicked Weed. So, why are more than just customers upset at this most recent buyout?

The main reason is due to what AB InBev stands for. In America, AB InBev products are ubiquitous. AB InBev even re-branded one of their most well-known beers AS “AMERICA” LAST YEAR. It sometimes seems like classic Anheuser-Busch brands are untouchable in the American beer industry, and they become an easy target as the evil that all craft beer fights against.

But that’s not quite the case. What is probably closer to the truth is that AB InBev feels threatened. Before you laugh yourself to death, think about it for a second. Craft beer has been rising in popularity, but Bud Light and Budweiser sales have been slowly declining. In 2013, more craft beer was purchased than Budweiser. Granted that’s one brand against all craft beer, but still, I’ll take it.

So, like any good company, AB InBev is responding to trends. In their case, they’re combating a decrease in sales for their major brands by acquiring other brands. And this makes sense. Even if the sales of Bud Light and Budweiser are down, they’re such established brands that they’re not going to lose their visibility at the store. Therefore, to make up for the difference, AB InBev is increasing the likelihood that you’ll take home something they own via shelf space.

The concept of shelf space is common in all types of retail, and the idea is that your position on the shelf dictates how likely the customer is to buy your product. If a company has more brands they can put on the shelves, they use their established relationships to do so. As a result, smaller, less influential brands are pushed out, and in beer, there is a lot of favor for AB InBev brands because they have the money.

But there’s another side effect of AB InBev buying craft brands to trick you into picking up their product: the line between craft and macro becomes blurred. Already, there’s a huge debate as to what it means to be craft, and some discerning individuals question whether larger craft brands are still true to their roots. Even within our own community, we can’t agree on what it truly means to be craft, and these acquisitions don’t make the conversation any easier.

Although this makes a great debate over a few too many IPAs at your favorite beer bar, imagine how baffling it is to someone who is merely a casual drinker, which is most of the beer-drinking population. When most people who drink beer don’t drink craft, the nuances of being an employee-owned brewery versus a “faux craft” brand are lost. What those beer drinkers respond to is advertising, and AB InBev has plenty of money to spare in that department.

Even for the not-so-casual drinker, it seems hard to avoid AB InBev owned brands. One particular example that stands out is Goose Island’s Bourbon County line of beers because they are coveted in the trading world. Although production has expanded through the help of AB InBev funding, people still line up to buy those beers every year, and they are shared across the country when beer geeks unite. In other words, it seems as if more than one person who originally denounced the buyout has enjoyed one of these imperial stouts since then.

I guess that brings up another reason why this particular acquisition hurts so much: Wicked Weed makes good beer. I’ve even enjoyed some of their beers personally, and I have one of their beers currently aging in my cellar. And the thing is, they’re going to keep making delicious beers, but those profits will be split among more pockets, which is the salt on the wound in this scenario.

What’s more, Wicked Weed occupied a niche market within the craft beer world. Although they make a slew of styles, they are known for their sour beers, especially their Angel series, which features different fruits in beautifully funky and tart American sour ales.

Sour beer may be on the rise, but it is still a subsection of a small percentage of the market; therefore, the fans of sour beer are familiar with the heavy hitters, and one of those heavy hitters has been compromised. The big bad wolf of the beer world has now infiltrated a part of the market they really hadn’t gotten to yet.

And that sentiment could be applied in another way too. Before the Wicked Weed buyout, AB InBev had purchased nine other craft breweries, and these breweries are positioned all around the country in major beer-drinking areas. With Goose Island, they tapped into the Chicago market, and then Blue Point and Golden Road opened up New York and Los Angeles, respectively; Elysian brought Seattle, and with 10 Barrel and Breckenridge came Colorado. What this means is that AB InBev understands that people like the idea of local beer, but their actions make it even harder to buy craft, even if they keep the production in your back yard.

And that’s what hurts. People who work in craft beer understand all these issues, and it’s an exhausting battle to fight. At a time when beer isn’t as popular as other alcoholic drinks, craft brewers have an uphill battle to fight. Spreading the word about your new beer is always tough, but it gets tougher when the big guys own craft brands and can push them above a brewery that’s independently owned. Even if you make the best beer, sometimes the brewery with the better exposure will take your spot on the shelf, and you don’t even get a chance with the customer.

It’s that feeling of “no matter how hard I try, someone else is still going to sell better than me,” that’s discouraging, and that frustration gets directed at those who decide to align themselves with the vast resources that AB InBev can provide.

I too have a natural response to mourn the loss of another craft brewery to a multi-million dollar buyout to one of the two major companies that control three-quarters of the market. As someone who plans on making a career in craft beer, it scares me that a brewery that I love (and may work for in the future) could be swept up by the larger companies that I think are more detrimental than beneficial. The thought of my hometown brewery being bought up hurts, and I understand the betrayal that others before me have felt.

What I do know, though, is that craft beer is going to survive. There will always be people who are fiercely independent and are willing to rebel against the man whenever they can.

That, for me, is the spirit of craft beer that I love.

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