My first taste of sour beer was not at Wicked Weed in Asheville. I did, however, receive a real eye-opening experience after tasting a whole range of sours in Wicked Weed’s taproom underneath its restaurant in the city that has been dubbed the craft beer capital of the East. At the time, I wasn’t aware of any craft breweries doing sours that close to the coast, and I certainly wasn’t expecting them to be done that well at a year-and-a-half-old brewery that virtually nobody had heard of outside of Appalachia or the Carolinas.
That was the last time I was in Asheville, the same Sunday that Sierra Nevada capped off Beer Camp numero uno, in August of 2014. I didn’t go to Beer Camp. Rather, I was beginning a six-day drive all over both Carolinas, visiting with construction engineers, architects and governmental agencies for my then employer. Can’t front — I planned the entire business trip around the beer I wanted to taste and had hit up 14 breweries by the time I headed back to Cincinnati on Friday, then as a Grade A Wicked Weed fanboy.
Here we are almost three years later, and I’m shedding my fandom of Wicked Weed, just like I did for Breckenridge, just like I will for the next craft brewery to sell out. The brewery that is situated beautifully among the Blue Ridge Mountains, about an hour South of my boyhood home is now the 10th American craft beer producer that has been acquired by the Belgo-Brazilian conglomerate, Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev); they’re the first to be acquired by AB InBev in 2017.
I have a personal policy, which translates into how I manage Brew Studs content: I don’t drink a single drop of anything that is owned (wholly or in part) by craft beer’s number one enemy. With over five thousand actual craft breweries in America, I don’t think I’m going to be hurting in the near future, but that brings me to a concern that is kind of always looming for a lot of beer lovers I know.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when good beer was hard to find and when there was a better chance of becoming a corporate officer than of starting a business as an offshoot of your favorite hobby. We could appropriately call those the Dark Ages of Beer. I, like a lot of readers here, remember those Dark Ages like they were yesterday. We remember them less like they were old times and more like they were the societal structure, like what we are living through now is just a vacation from reality — a metaphysical or socioeconomic beercation, if you will.
The craft beer pioneer and founder of Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams), Jim Koch, recently published an editorial in the New York Times, entitled Is It Last Call for Craft Beer? — it proved to be quite effective at drawing attention, especially since it ran just days before most of craft brewdom assembled at this year’s annual Craft Brewers Conference.
Koch made an argument in his editorial, which was basically a summary of what the Brew Studs brand has been publishing and sharing on the topic off Big Beer aggression all along (not that it was our idea). It goes like this: because AB InBev (ABI) is scared of perpetually losing market share to craft beer, it is buying up craft breweries with a monopolistic strategy in mind, and it will do serious harm to the craft brewing industry if left to do as it pleases. It came to the point where they were near enough threatening on a legal level, acting as though there would be something unethical going into the work in those companies (click here for more about what that would involve).
Apologists for ABI sprung to action and called out Koch only hours later, citing that Boston Beer has as much to fear from the modern craft beer revolution as do the most notorious Big Beer companies. And as much as the company’s slumping sales would work to validate that commentary, Boston Beer’s under-performance doesn’t refute its CEO’s argument. It helps to know that the most popular dogging of Koch happened on webspace benefited by relationships with ABI.
Bringing the focus back to yesterday’s announcement that Wicked Weed is being acquired by an $108 billion offshore company (not that it is moving to set up a company in Malta like some sources are claiming – though there’d be no issue with that), there are a few points about the development on which I thought it would be helpful for beer lovers to reflect.
Once there was a head of sour production at Wicked Weed’s Asheville, NC brewery. Then, BrewDog hired him. Although I don’t know how many of Wicked Weed’s most popular beers were from the mind and hands of Richard Kilcullen, I know he was on the bridge when the brewery launched its Funkatorium, a 57,000 square foot facility dedicated to producing sour and wild ales and a robust barrel program.
Before that Kilcullen helped lead the company’s foray into experimentation with traditional Lambic-style spontaneous fermentation, which is one of the most difficult and riskiest beer making procedures a brewery can undertake. He was good enough at making sours that a company much larger decided to scoop him up for their first venture into standalone sour beer production.
Earlier this year when BrewDog announced the hire to head up its new Overworks facility, co-founder James Watt said they were very pleased to have somebody so talented join their team. I imagine what he really meant was that BrewDog was extremely lucky to land the guy in charge of one of the most popular and renown sour beer programs in all of the U.S.
In Koch’s NY Times piece, he calls on the U.S. Department of Justice to use effective antitrust oversight during the process of vetting each future AB InBev acquisition of another beer company. And I agree with him that the United States government should be concerned enough to ensure that a foreign-owned company, with an annual revenue larger than the GDP of a third of the world’s nations, doesn’t get to throw around its power within our borders with the intent of crushing one of the greatest homegrown economic drivers we all have witnessed in the past several decades.
Koch was only piling on what has been under-reported criticism of AB InBev for its alleged monopolistic practices, which includes more than just buying out independent brewers. As recent as 2015, the Justice Department was investigating ABI for actions that were seen as its attempt to “curb competition in the beer market by buying distributors.” In fact, ABI has been accused of and fined for a litany of–at a minimum–unethical behavior in its operations as a beer maker within American borders.
Earlier this year the multinational had to settle with the State of California for engaging in pay-to-play with retailers, where ABI was accused of offering illegal incentives to bar owners to push its products. For those infractions, ABI received one of the largest fines ever levied by California’s alcohol board, the equivalent of 200,000 pours on $2 Bud Light night. In 2016, ABI was handed another massive fine of $150,000 for violating alcohol law in Washington.
During the time of the hearings that lead to approval of one of the largest corporate mergers to ever take place in the known universe, the DoJ promised it would scrutinize each future proposed acquisition. After the approval of number ten, it may be time for at least one pro-craft representative to join that review panel. I nominate Bart Watson.
YouTube beer reviewer and Oakland, California native, Chauncey Jackson, just wrote a post for Brew Studs asking that Bay Area beer lovers withdraw any and all support for L.A.-based, InBev-owned Golden Road Brewing. In it he says that part of ABI’s acquisition strategy is to Disneyfy the craft beer experience at the retail level, that the goal is to make its crafty brands more appealing for mass consumption and place chain-style breweries in prime real estate locations or in the middle of existing brewery districts.
If that tactic is indeed a real one, North Carolinians should’t be surprised when a Funkatorium opens in Uptown Charlotte or takes over a vacant spot in the NoDa district. Both Tigers and Cocks fans could be able to hit up a gastropub specializing in crafty sour pairings after a day of shopping on King Street. Or perhaps a night on Music Row could include a live folk concert at Nashville’s new Wicked Weed Neon Snifter (I’m claiming that one). Your less than fanatical beer-drinking friends are sure to prefer any of those places to a boring old brewery taproom, and they probably give zero shits about the lost tap revenue for the actual craft breweries trying to compete for their patronage.
When I visited Asheville back in August of 2014, the first beer company I visited was a place called Green Man Brewery. I had an IPA on draft at their brewpub while listening to a genuine folk band play. I struck up a conversation or two at the bar and asked some locals about the beer scene. When I asked which breweries in town were can’t miss, Wicked Weed was reluctantly offered up as an option.
There are certain breweries that spring up around the country that have come to be labeled as “built to sell.” Turns out that folks around Asheville were slapping that label on Wicked Weed from the very beginning — or at least that was the scoop I got during my time there. It was the Beer Camp attendees I sipped with who were most excited about the sour abundant taps at Wicked Weed. The locals mostly talked about how the new turnkey brewery was just the next investment for some guy who got rich off of acne sufferers. To be fair, it was the Dickinson brothers’ investment partner, Rick Guthy, who got rich off of manufacturing and marketing Proactiv, and Guthy was a 20-plus-year native of Asheville at the time.
So, not only does AB InBev spend millions to influence politicians all over the country to derail regulatory reform and spend billions on marketing to do things like insult craft beer drinkers — not only is ABI creating a ten-point plan through strategic acquisitions to dominate craft distribution and retail marketing, it is also creating a propaganda engine through websites that seem like they’re devoted to craft beer but are actually funded by ABI. That’s how they’ll distract the craft beer community from all of its actions of aggression against small brewing in America.
ABI’s brewery acquisitions have already provided a return to it in the form of PR. When the Brewers Association reported the state of craft beer in March this year, it was revealed that previous double digit growth in the industry had slumped all the way to six percent in 2016, whereas much of the reduction can be attributed to top craft producers being bought by macro beer companies.
The launch of two stealth “craft beer” blogs in 2017 can be placed into that same PR category. In just the few months after they spawned, we have seen content on their pages chastising the genuineness of producers who champion small brewing and praise for several sellout breweries.
I am routinely questioned about mine and the Brew Studs brand’s contempt for Anheuser-Busch InBev. That contempt rises from both a loyalty to the craft beer industry and a love for American small businesses. The Brew Studs ethos comes into direct opposition with AB InBev because of its un-American acts against the small business engine that is the craft beer industry in the Unite States. One clear example of its un-Americanness always comes to mind, an example which turned into a call for freedom loving Americans to stand up to monopolistic bullies.
In 2014, AB InBev bought an independent distributorship in Owensboro, Kentucky, an action that is banned in most states to prevent companies like ABI from creating vertical monopolies. It promptly removed an estimated 195 brands from the delivery trucks’ routes, and much of Southern Kentucky lost access to purchase many of their favorite brews. The state of Kentucky responded by changing the law to disallow ABI to own any distributorships anywhere in the Bluegrass State. ABI spent the kind of money that could have launched a beer production facility in an attempt to maintain its stranglehold on beer access, but Kentucky stood strong and won.
It seems that in the wake of this new acquisition announcement, good damn beer drinkers — and makers of the stuff — are standing strong like the people of Kentucky, like Chauncey Jackson is imploring Californians to stand strong against Golden Road.
Just hours after the acquisition was announced, a long-time collaborator with Wicked Weed, Jester King Brewery of Austin, Texas, made a statement in which it proclaimed it will cease all beer making in conjunction with the soon-to-be Big Beard based in Asheville, NC. Brew Studs shared that news, and most beer fans were in staunch approval of Jester King’s decision. Craft beer bars in Colorado, one of the rare states outside of NC where Wicked Weed is distributed, are also cutting off the brewery.
Wicked Weed makes some of the best beer in the South, and they’re straight up pioneers when it comes to making sours in America. That is something that good beer fans will have a hard time forgetting, but if you continue to support them now that they have sold to the company that tried to pigeonhole you as stuck-up neckbeards, you’re acting to advance their agenda. That agenda may or may not include more offensive marketing during televised sporting events, but it definitely includes more intrusion on small brewing in America.