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.”