WICKED DEED

ww logo finalIt’s been forever and a day since we posted here on Aleheads. For all intents and purposes, this blog is defunct…a relic of a time when craft beer was just on the cusp of entering the zeitgeist. When we started the site, it was the dawn of a new era for beer geeks. We were abuzz that beer laws were changing for the better, that the number of breweries in the US was exploding exponentially, that hop-forward IPAs had become the most popular beer style in America seemingly overnight.

Today, we take all of that for granted. Every grocery store and gas station carries a plethora of craft beers. Every American city of moderate size has at least one decent brewery and most people take immense pride in their local ale factories.  The need for “educational” (cue laugh track) sites like ours has disappeared. At a time where the American populace fully embraces craft beer, Aleheads is a dinosaur.

However, if there’s one facet of the brewing industry that we still feel compelled to talk about here, it’s the continuous, inexorable encroachment of “Big Beer” into the world of craft. Loyal readers know how Aleheads feels about massive, multi-national corporations like Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors, Heineken and Constellation Brands buying up beloved, small craft breweries. Over the years, as craft continued to chip away at the market share of the macro-breweries, the first assault by Big Beer was to fight local legislation to try to make it harder for small breweries to create and sell their wares. When that failed, the big boys flexed their marketing muscles in an effort to paint an “Us Vs. Them/Slobs Vs. Snobs” dichotomy between real ‘Murican macro drinkers and fussy, hipster Aleheads. And when that approach proved useless, the inevitable happened: the purveyors of fizzy lager started buying craft breweries.

From the earliest days of Aleheads, we’ve “reported” on these sales. One of our first controversies was a decision to boycott Terrapin when MillerCoors bought a stake in the brewery. At the time, it was just a small share that still allowed Terrapin to keep their coveted “craft” status as determined by the Craft Brewing Alliance.  However, just a few years later (as we predicted), MillerCoors bought the entire brewery and now owns Terrapin outright. Other well-regarded breweries have followed suit. Ballast Point sold out to Constellation (makers of the abysmal Corona brand). Founders sold 50% of their brewery to a Spanish macro outfit (Mahou San Miguel). Lagunitas sold 50% to Heineken. And Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgian-owned, Brazilian-helmed behemoth that dwarfs every other brewing outfit, has gobbled up former craft favorites like Goose Island, Blue Point, Breckenridge, Golden Road, 10 Barrel, Elysian and Four Peaks.

As a craft beer fan who champions independent breweries, these sales have been disheartening to say the least. And today brought some of the most devastating news since these sales began. First, we learned that Wicked Weed, one of the finest breweries in the country, has sold out entirely to AB InBev. Shortly thereafter, the news broke that Lagunitas had sold their remaining 50% stake to Heineken. Two of the best in the business, owned by two of the worst. The backlash from the rest of the craft industry, particularly towards Wicked Weed, has been predictably intense.

The founders of these breweries have said all the right things as they always do when these deals are struck. They talk about how “nothing will change”. They talk about the impressive resources these partnerships will bring to bear. How they’ll be able to ramp up production by leveraging the massive marketing, bottling and distributing clout of their new owners. All of this is no doubt true. What’s equally true is that two breweries that represented the best in craft beer are now owned by enormous corporations that don’t play fair. Reports of AB InBev being a negative, disruptive force in the craft world abound. In a letter written after the sale of Wicked Weed, HopCat, the hugely popular, Grand Rapids-based beer bar noted that they would no longer carry Wicked Weed after they were bought by a company that “in our opinion…is actively trying to suppress and harm small craft breweries it doesn’t own.”

Indeed, Google the words “Anheuser Busch Pay to Play” and marvel at the litany of lawsuits being levied against AB InBev. The company is a repeat offender (allegedly) in bribing liquor stores, bars and event venues to showcase their products at the expense of other, smaller breweries. They buy refrigerated units, draft systems, and TVs for retailers in exchange for pushing their products ahead of those of their craft competitors. Not only is this grossly unethical behavior, it’s entirely illegal and the company has been fined multiple times for violating the law. If the craft beer industry is a high school, AB InBev is the enormous bully pummeling his peers for daring to be smarter than him.

By “selling out” to AB InBev, a company like Wicked Weed now aligns itself with a corporation that is detrimental to the craft beer industry as a whole. Their beer might not change and the founders may still run the show, but they’re now a cog in a machine that actively damages the very industry they were formerly a part of. The same is certainly true of Lagunitas, although in their case, Heineken isn’t quite the offender that AB InBev has been (at least in the US). It’s cruel news for Aleheads like myself. I LOVED those breweries and the beer they made. I hate that I can’t buy their beer anymore, but I simply can’t support any company that aligns itself with one that actively tries to hurt the craft beer industry. And make no mistake, if you buy a Wicked Weed or Lagunitas beer tomorrow, you’re lining the coffers of AB InBev and Heineken respectively. In essence, you’re funding companies that will then use that money to try to restrict the growth of craft beer to benefit their own portfolios.

Of course, it’s a free country (for now), and I assume many of us would have made the same decisions that the founders of Wicked Weed and Lagunitas did. If someone drives a dumptruck of money to your house, says you get to keep the money, continue brewing the same beer you always did, AND they’ll clear all your competitors out of the way for you…well, that’s kind of hard to say no to.

But I honestly thought if any brewery COULD say no, it would be Wicked Weed. The founders of the brewery had the immense financial backing of their best friend’s parents so they weren’t beholden to anxious outside investors (one of the main driving forces for Terrapin when they sold out). In fact, they were so well-capitalized early on that some  locals thought they were part of a slick, national chain when they first arrived. They were the darlings of Asheville, NC…one of the most supportive and thriving craft beer centers in the US. And they were just joined in the region by three massive craft brewing outfits (New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues) that have grown organically WITHOUT selling out to Big Beer. Wicked Weed had mentors and role models in their own backyard that they could emulate if they wanted to make big money while still maintaining full control of their company. That they sold out anyway is just shameful.

Lagunitas is just as maddening…a topic we touched on when they first sold a huge stake in their company back in 2015. Their founder, Tony Magee, was one of the most outspoken opponents of Big Beer back in the day. But like everyone else, he got dollar signs in his eyes and couldn’t say no. The writing was on the wall as soon as he sold that stake. We KNEW that eventually Heineken would buy Magee’s baby outright…50% was never going to cut it.

It’s sad. It’s always sad when a great craft brewery sells out, but the sale of these two bellwethers really stings. I was just telling a friend the other day that I thought Wicked Weed would always remain independent because of their incredible local support and the internal financial backing they had. I was wrong. Years ago, the Aleheads championed Lagunitas as a brewery that was growing the “right way” and we loved the iconoclastic Magee and his hilarious sniping at Big Beer. We were wrong then too.

If there’s a constant in the craft beer world these days (other than that the Aleheads are always wrong), it’s that the siren song of Big Beer is a powerful one. Every day, we will read about another brewery caught up in that net. Another brewery that simply couldn’t say no to the promises of big money…damn the consequences.

The silver lining is that there are literally thousands of breweries in the US today. Wicked Weed was and is an amazing brewery…but there are many just as good. Lagunitas is and was an incredible outfit…but there are plenty out there that do what they do just as well. I’m sad and more than a little outraged at this latest news (you’d think I’d be used to it by now), but I’ll find new ale factories to love just as I always have. Great breweries selling to the big boys is inevitable…but so is the arrival of new, and better, ones. If you’re like me, you’ll drink that last Pernicious or Hop Stoopid in your fridge tonight, shed a tear, and move on.

Fare-thee-well, Wicked Weed and Lagunitas. You got your money and you ruined your good names. I hope it was worth it.

Barley

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7 comments

  1. Hear hear, etc. Sad days are upon us.

  2. Gramps McHops · · Reply

    Aleheads not only informed all about some really nice new offerings, as well as the very entertaining road trips the principles took on occaision, so I believe, even in an abbreviated way, to keep up the reviews on any new brew you like, would be doing a good thing. It’s always great to hear your opinion, as well as from other ” informed” Aleheads.

  3. Jack Fate · · Reply

    Just like the bicycle industry. Beautiful hand made frames made in the USA .They nearly all sold out to Asian manufacturers with US logos.
    We do have in our corner a lot of choices out there. Excellent ones.

  4. Christ I thought my RSS reader was drunk when it said you had an update.

    Once you get to a certain level everyone has a price. They may tell you they’re all about the local and anti blah blah blah but at the end of the day it’s a business and unless you own your business outright you have investors that want paid. Lagunitas doesn’t surprise me and it’s been many years since I’ve bothered to drink their beers because of better options but Wicked Weed, man that sucks. I loved their old fashioned and they’re supposed to be hitting Pgh soon too.

    I’ve been thinking about this acquisition and really what’s to stop AB from doing this more? General public really doesn’t give a shit who owns the beer they buy in stores. Does it taste good? Fine I’ll buy it. Outside the craft beer diehards beer morals are not a concern. In fact unless you’re going to the brewery the consumer is probably buying the beer from a chain grocery store or mini mart instead of a mom and pop store. Where does making a stand against big corporations end and convenience take over?

    1. I don’t disagree, Spoon. I think most people will continue drinking Wicked Weed because they either don’t know or don’t care who owns them. That said, I honestly think that, relative to other industries, craft beer consumers are more tuned into who makes their products. The local, community-focused nature of craft makes that somewhat inevitable.

      I’ve been amazed at the backlash against Wicked Weed. I’ve never seen anything like it. Other breweries have sold out over the years, but the vitriol being heaped on Wicked Weed is insane. I think it’s partly because they’re a favorite brewery of many craft beer aficionados, and partly because AB InBev’s attempts to harm the craft industry have become quite public in recent years. Their pay-to-play scams. Their “anti-craft” marketing (those Superbowl ads, my god). Their development of beer blogs which trump up their products at the expense of others. They have been very open about their desire to go back to the monopoly they had in the 70s and 80s.

      Already, Wicked Weed is being removed from the taps at craft beer bars across the country. Breweries that were in the midst of collaboration beers with Wicked Weed are cancelling those products. Currently over 25 breweries are pulling out of Wicked Weed’s “Funkatorium International” sour beer event. And I guaranteed many more will join them. AB InBev is reviled amongst independent breweries because their end-game is so apparent. Any craft brewery that aligns themselves with AB InBev is basically blacklisted today. Wicked Weed really did destroy its reputation in one fell swoop. They’ll still be popular because their product is good. But within the industry they were once a part of, they’re traitors.

      It’s been interesting to read some of the “insider baseball” stuff about Wicked Weed after the fact. Apparently to locals, the brewery was always “built to sell”. It’s being said on other craft beer blogs that the company was just the latest investment by a wealthy guy (Rick Guthy) looking to get even wealthier. His former company (Guthy Renker) was a direct marketer that sold beauty products like Proactiv. When his son’s friends (the Dickinson brothers) pitched their brewery idea to him, he basically bankrolled the entire thing. While most small breweries take years to grow, Wicked Weed seemingly sprouted (like it’s name implies) up overnight with a huge, fancy brewhouse and a shockingly well-developed souring program. This gave the locals pause and from what I’m hearing, the sale to AB InBev wasn’t too surprising to Asheville natives. They’ve always seen Guthy as a bit of a mercenary looking to sell out to the highest bidder.

      As we always say at Aleheads, know who makes your beer. Drink Stone. Drink Oskar Blues. Drink your local outfits. Drink homebrew! If you care about the craft beer industry, boycott the “bad actors” trying to destroy it.

  5. Double D · · Reply

    Barley,
    GREAT POST! You got it right with your last two lines…”You got your money and you ruined your good names. I hope it was worth it.”

    So now we all move on knowing people like Tony and the founders of WW are just shills for Big Brewing. And perhaps Tony’s now got the stoners life that pot heads always dream of…Something for Nothing. Or maybe the owners (Previous) of WW can show their face(s) in Ashville? Perhaps?

    But real craft beer drinkers move on from the noise which is big breweries. We worry not that the money changed hands. We move on from big brewing knowing that if we truly believe in craft brewing we will find AND Support local brewers that stay true to our craft of drinking good local beers!

  6. Balanced assessment. Can’t pass judgment on the owners for selling out–totally their right to do as they please. But at the same time, the news is disappointing given the underhanded tactics of AB and others in Big Beer.

    I shall join you in your boycott, Barley McHops.

    Unless of course the price of Wicked Weed drops by 75% as a result of this acquisition. I’m only human, after all.

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