Beer Scout: Wicked Weed owners talk A-B InBev partnership

FAMILY TIES: The Wicked Weed Brewing ownership team and Adam Warrington, second from left, of A-B InBev's The High End, celebrate their new partnership at Wicked Weed's  downtown brewpub.
FAMILY TIES: The Wicked Weed Brewing ownership team and Adam Warrington, second from left, of A-B InBev's The High End, celebrate their new partnership at Wicked Weed's downtown brewpub. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

The Wicked Weed Brewing ownership team knew the backlash was inevitable.

In the wake of the May 3 announcement that the popular Asheville brewery was taking on The High End branch of Anheuser-Busch InBev as a strategic partner, co-owners Luke and Walt Dickinson and Ryan, Rick and Denise Guthy readied themselves for mixed reactions from industry peers and the public — which came quickly and often with great vitriol.

On social media platforms, customers vowed to boycott Wicked Weed’s beer. In a Facebook post, Austin, Texas-based Jester King Brewery founder Jeffrey Stuffings said his company will “always consider the people of Wicked Weed friends,” but since one of its core principles is to not sell beer from A-B InBev or its affiliates — a stance chosen “because a portion of the money made off of selling it is used to oppose the interests of craft brewers” — it will no longer carry Wicked Weed products.

Then came an open letter from former employee Jed Holmes, who left the brewery in December citing “an increasingly corporate atmosphere.” Holmes’ statement also calls Wicked Weed joining forces with A-B InBev as a sign that “local no longer matter[s]” to the brewery and says the deal “is not a ‘partnership.’ It is a sellout.”

The owners can relate. Before getting to know their future business colleagues, they too were among those who viewed the global beer giant with suspicion and as a threat to independent breweries. But over time, as those discussions took place, it became clear to the Wicked Weed braintrust that The High End has changed its understanding of and practices with its craft breweries. Now the challenge is to convince the public of the same, something Luke Dickinson accepts will likewise not be immediate but believes will ultimately prevail as his brewery continues to produce creative, high-quality beer — albeit with some help.

“Part of the beauty of this partnership is that [A-B InBev] really [has] said, ‘Look, we want to be an amplifier. We want to come in and, like, you’re talking through a paper megaphone. We want to give you a microphone.’ That’s really what they’re going to do. They’re giving us the opportunity to still act as the five owners we’ve been all along and make decisions as we have, and all of us are going to be really involved day-to-day — probably more than ever as we go forward,” he says.

When Wicked Weed opened in December 2012, the five owners’ vision was simply to run the Biltmore Avenue brewpub. Luke Dickinson says the dream was that if they had great success, they might be able to make 1,500 barrels of beer their first year. They ended up making 2,800 barrels over that time, a sign that — as he says Denise Guthy has voiced “hundreds and hundreds of times” — Wicked Weed was bigger than the core quintet. In turn, their minds opened up to what the company could be after that first year and remained receptive to new ideas.

“Having a strategic partner was never part of our thought process, but it became evident as we built out our fourth facility last year that Wicked Weed has an extremely bright future, and though we’re smart businesspeople, we could use some help,” he says. “We could use some other resources and knowledge out there, and that’s what The High End group offers.”

Among the advantages he identifies is being part of a network of experienced, knowledgable craft brewers who’ve been through comparable situations as they’ve grown. He points to Chris and Jeremy Cox, co-owners of Bend, Ore.-based 10 Barrel Brewing, who celebrated Wicked Weed’s addition to the High End family with an enjoyable first visit to Asheville. The other breweries ready to share their wisdom are Goose Island Brewing Co., Blue Point Brewing Co., Elysian Brewing Co., Golden Road Brewing, Virtue Cider, Four Peaks Brewing, Breckenridge Brewery, Devils Backbone Brewing Co., SpikedSeltzer and Karbach Brewing Co., all of whom have reaped the benefits of A-B InBev’s wide-ranging capabilities.

“We’ve got the resources of the largest beer company in the world: hops, raw ingredients, stainless steel equipment, glass, cans — it goes on and on,” Dickinson says. “So as we go forward, us having someone to help us along, I think it’s going to make Wicked Weed way better as we get bigger and start to sell more and more beer outside of our doors here at the pub.”

Wicked Weed is distributed in eight territories throughout the U.S., with North Carolina receiving the bulk of its volume. Ryan Guthy notes that, beyond the state, the brewery has focused on building its brand in larger markets and sending speciality, high-end items that travel well, such as its sour and barrel-aged programs. Wicked Weed’s current key focus is to expand its footprint in the Southeast. It has yet to have any beer in South Carolina or Tennessee and sells in only a portion of Virginia, but over the next year and a half, the goal is to have a far greater presence throughout the region.

“[A-B InBev is] really letting us dictate how we want to continue to develop and grow the brand,” he says. “We’re not scared of growth, as you’ve seen over the last 4½ years. We’re excited. We’re hungry, but we want to do it as long as the quality and the consistency is there. We’ll grow as long as that allows us to.”

One consequence of ceasing to be an independent craft brewery is that Wicked Weed will no longer be a voting member of the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild and the Asheville Brewers Alliance. Instead, it says it will shift to being an affiliate member of both organizations while continuing to support its craft brewer peers statewide any way it can.

“Our goal isn’t to take our ball and go play somewhere else now,” Rick Guthy says. “If they need our help and expertise, or financial help, we’d be happy to help anyone that asks us. We’re in it for the long haul.”

Luke Dickinson echoes his co-owners’ commitment to Asheville. “Rick and Denise and Ryan have lived here for over 30 years. My brother and I moved out here in the mid-’90s with our family. Ryan, Walt and myself went to middle school, high school. … Walt went to college here. I went to A-B Tech,” he says. “This is our home — we’re not going anywhere. We care about this community. There is a name associated with Wicked Weed now, but it doesn’t mean we’re any less Wicked Weed.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin is a freelance writer and a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). He also contributes to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

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13 thoughts on “Beer Scout: Wicked Weed owners talk A-B InBev partnership

  1. Brian Boyd

    How can they say they support craft beer when they have partnered with the very organization who spends millions of dollars to prevent the growth of craft beer? They never mention that in these announcements. It seems to me they are in damage control mode and they should be. Craft beer enthusiasts have written these guys off and budweiser drinkers aren’t going to spend seventeen dollars on 16 oz of sour beer. Your beers are destined to join the rest of the A-B InBev craft brews in the build your own six pack section of the grocery store.

  2. Lulz

    Even Bothwell said he wouldn’t grace their front door again. A person convicted of DWI mind you lulz. That statement is gold folks and too bad you allow your ideology to cloud your minds when he writes this stuff.

    • luther blissett

      I hear that Lulz once had a parking ticket, which disqualifies him to speak about anything ever again.

  3. Chris Davis

    If you are in the craft beer industry you know exactly what the intention of AB Inbev is. One is to purchase mass quantities of ingredients, making it more difficult and expensive for craft brewers to find. Second is to flood the market with their so called craft beers at a reduced rate. This will devalue real craft beers and they hope add value to the Budweiser core line-up. I have no problem with Wicked Weed selling to AB-Inbev. It’s your decision and you have to live with it. However, stop claiming to be a craft brewer and support craft brewing. You are AB-Inbev.

    • You got it exactly right. AB Inbev lobbies aggressively to restrict craft brewers ability to run a business. The silly NC requirement that they use a distributor when they reach a certain size is a prime example. AB loves it because they then put the clamps on the distributor to restrict the sale of the smaller guys.

      WW is obviously free to sell their company. Does anyone know the WW people well enough to know if they believe the PR fluff they have been putting out or they know they are in damage control? My pet peeve is their incessant reference to the deal as a partnership. Nope, you sold the company.

  4. Karen Wright

    I’m sure the folks at Wicked Weed are good people, but by selling yourself to AB Inbev you are aligning yourself with the exact opposite of what you claim to be. If the French Broad Co-op sold out to Walmart would it be the same? Nope!

  5. BabaP

    Good comments by Karen, Chris, and Brian. I will add that there is no ill-will from me for the owners’ decision. Good on them for successfully building a business – congratulations. They have the right to leave the craft beer business and go on to bigger things – just like I have the right to not support them. I choose to support local, craft beers and their places of business.

  6. budweiser frog

    this article is inaccurate, in that it continues the “strategic partnership” ruse. Wicked Weed was SOLD to ABInBev.. even the press release said they “purchased outright”. The brewpub, the funkatorium, The big production brewery… The marqee still says wicked weed, but in reality these are outposts of Anheuser-Busch.

    sure, the “owners” keep their job, sure the managers of the various locations got $10,000 bonuses to stay on and not speak ill of the sellout, but wicked weed was sold! It’s not a partnership they sold out plain and simple

  7. Beer Snobs

    The success through growth Luke Dickinson speaks of defines his sellout mentality. Where is that connection to the customer? Bigger batches and assembly line bottling/canning is not environmentally sustainable and promotes fossil fuel transportation and distribution. Honestly, I would rather meet the brewer and drink a hazy flat IPA than be able to purchase robotic quality-controlled macro brews. Drink local, put down your phone, and meet your neighbors.

  8. Don

    this is ridiculous. Wicked Week is now part and parcel of Anheuser Busch inBev… a HUGE multi-national corporation whose reach was felt most recently through the recent defeat of the Craft Brewing distribution cap legislation here in NC (to raise the 25,000 barrel cap to 200,000 barrels for self-distribution) …that was 100% supported by the NC Craft Brewers Guild… the same folks who recently gave Wicked Weed the boot upon learning of their acquisition by Anheuser Busch. The campaign to defeat this antiquated legislation was orchestrated and funded by AB inBev, and successfully implemented by the NC Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association and their lobbyists…. folks like Tryon Distributing based out of Charlotte that stock the shelves at Ingles et al here in WNC…. and why you now are VERY hard pressed to find any small independent craft brewery beers at Ingles or any other grocer who is dependent on Tryon Distributing and the other large wholesalers to keep their beer shelves stocked.

    • The Real World

      In my local Ingles tonight and, as usual, they had several beer styles each of: Catawba, Pisgah, Green Man, Asheville Brewing, Highland, Oskar Blues, Hi-Wire and MORE.

      You need to get out more, Don. Or maybe need some new glasses.

      • Don

        dude, I don’t wear glasses… but I can read…. you should try it sometime…. lol.

  9. luther blissett

    Lots of corporate jargon about “partnership” here to blur what actually happened, but I’ll focus on this:

    “We want to come in and, like, you’re talking through a paper megaphone. ”

    C’mon. Wicked Weed had a national PR budget and brand management and marketing in place from day one. It had a target demographic and cultivated relationships with the media from day one. It’s an obvious acquisition for AB InBev because it was operating like a national corporate brand already. And that’s fine enough. But it was always “the heartwarming tale of two families with only a dream and several million dollars and the experience of running a massive direct marketing company.”

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