I've been asked numerous times these past 24 hours—by publications, friends, family, co-workers, and patrons—how I feel about AB InBev's recent purchase of Wicked Weed, and whether or not Green Bench will be attending their annual sour festival in July. The acquisition hit hard. I consider Wicked Weed Co-Founder Walt Dickinson to be a close, personal friend.
Khris Johnson is the Founding Brewer of Green Bench Brewing Co., writing here in conjunction with his partners Nathan Stonecipher and Steven Duffy.
Among the 5,000 or so breweries in the country, a handful of us tend to gravitate toward one another's beers, philosophies, and ways of life. Some of my most fond industry-centered memories involve Walt. I never found him very mysterious: his shaggy hair and tall thin body always seemed to fall and stand in a way that exuded his current mood. Walt keeps it real.
Many of us look forward to the few times a year that we see each other at festivals and conventions around the country. Social media allows most of us to stay connected, see what the others are up to, and ultimately what their breweries are doing, releasing, and working on. But at these special gatherings, we often have an opportunity within our hectic schedules to be friends. We share knowledge, we share laughs, and we challenge each other to make the best beers that we can because we're all so damn passionate about what we do.
Like everyone else, I saw the news on Wednesday morning. I had to re-read the email. This news was big. I thought of the ramifications, the uproar, and the hurt that so many would feel— including those at Wicked Weed who were no doubt braced for the backlash. I was worried. Immediately, I picked up my phone and texted him, "Homie! I'm happy for you, man!" And I was.
We’ve all seen how these things go down, and many of us wonder what we’d ever do in a moment like that—how we’d handle the pressure.
I also felt for the drinkers. It is quite reasonable to be upset by Wicked Weed's departure from independence. For most that supported and loved Wicked Weed, it feels like a betrayal. By investing in their brands and being loyal to that company the consumers built them into the powerhouse that they are, essentially putting them in a position to even be considered for purchase. Most of us can’t even imagine being that successful. Every dollar spent at Wicked Weed, for some drinkers, was a little way of "sticking it to the man," and now that dollar is owned by the man! I can understand the outrage.
Most of us in the craft sector consider ABI a threat. Wicked Weed is the 10th U.S. craft brewery to sell to them, but for some reason, this one really stings. Among our "like-minded breweries" are "like-minded drinkers”—this engaged, obsessive group of craft drinkers (like us!) that understand what a Grisette is, or the difference between Gueuze and Gose. This is the crowd that we see at some of our favorite events and with whom we feel a kinship. Things like Yazoo's Funk Fest (happening right now!), and Wicked Weed's Funk Asheville.
Wicked Weed, even among this ambitious group, is a phenomenon. I have never seen a brewery grow as quickly as they have while maintaining and increasing quality along the way, especially considering the wide breadth of styles they produce. It has been impressive (and, honestly, frustrating) to watch. Wicked Weed has become the pinnacle for some of us, and ABI took them away. We were in shock, and it took a few hours to digest. It felt like we were all holding our breath waiting for someone to make the first statement. And then came Jeff.
My respect and admiration for Jeffrey Stuffings is well documented. Jester King is one of my favorite breweries in the world. The word that comes to mind, when I try and describe why they are so special to me, is "authenticity." In everything they do, Jeff and the Jester King crew remain true to themselves. Whether it be their beers, their property, their brewery, their process, their values, their fight against injustice and inequality, their incredible integrity, or their transparency, it all resonates with me like it does with so many of their fans. In his very direct and tasteful way, Jeffrey stepped forward and, I imagine, with a lump in his throat, publicly distanced his business from Wicked Weed.
This was the first real blow. I read Jeff's post a few times over and I could feel the hurt. I know how much Jeffrey respects and admires Walt, and I know how much Walt loves Jeff and Jester King. But Jeff's hands were tied. I mean, hell, his brewery's name is "Jester" and "King," for crying out loud. The man's mission statement might as well be "Suck it, ABI." Much like when I saw the news of Wicked Weed selling to ABI, when I saw Jester King's official post on the matter, I wondered about Jeffrey, about my friend, and what I knew was an extremely difficult decision for him to make. Again, I picked up my phone and, after exchanging a few texts I told him that, "I think you did the right thing for yourself and your brewery." And I meant it.
Soon after breweries like Black Project, Fonta Flora, The Rare Barrel, and Creature Comforts, among several others, officially announced that they would be distancing themselves from Wicked Weed Brewing, killing collabs that were in process, and not going to the festival citing moral and ethical reasons associated with the ABI purchase.
The rift had begun. A line had been drawn. Pressure from media, consumers, and peers to "pick a side" was escalating, and it felt as if everyone wanted to know how we, and the other breweries committed to the festival, would react. At first I wondered why anyone would care to hear what we thought about Wicked Weed's business decisions. Green Bench had nothing to do with it, and none of us felt comfortable commenting on someone else's affairs that we know nothing about. On one side there is a growing number of breweries and friends that are standing in defiance of Wicked Weed and ABI's partnership, and on the other side is...well, what, exactly? At this point, it feels as if people are waiting for our answer just so that they can know whether to vilify or praise us. It’s opening ourselves up to scrutiny and possible condemnation for fulfilling a commitment to a friend and the drinkers we were excited to pour for in Asheville, all because the context shifted around us—and the politics are fierce.
The alternative is we don't attend and we join the other breweries that have distanced themselves from Wicked Weed, likely opening up ourselves to praise and approval that, frankly, we also don’t want. We take no joy in this and some of the virtue signaling for easy fan approval feels cheap. This is the obvious choice for our business, but doesn’t feel true to who we are.
We're brewers, not politicians. But ABI struck a nerve. We thought that, for the moment, this tight-knit niche was safe from ABI's strategic acquisitions of regional breweries. And now we're divided. I don't like the notion of giving ABI that much credit. I'd much rather place the blame on us, the members of this family. Like it or not, this is the beginning of the world we're going to have to live in. A world in which there aren't just a group of us on one side of the line and a massive company on the other. We're going to have to learn to co-exist with friends and family that may blur that line a bit. Maybe a lot. But as long as we all continue to make decisions that are best for us and for our businesses, which does not mean that we have to make the same decisions as everyone else, we might be able to survive with our integrity without sacrificing inclusivity.
Wicked Weed made the business decision that was best for them at the time and we've chosen to do the same. We’re going to do what’s right for our business, and put our fans’ desires perhaps ahead of our own, and we’re going to stay home. The controlling powers of this industry are the drinkers and the connoisseurs, the enthusiasts and the loyalists. We’re no exception to that rule. Our struggle to balance our commitment to Wicked Weed and our friends there makes us question our own authenticity. We’re either heeding the will of our fans, or we’re cowards for not pouring. Maybe both. But that’s the no-win game that was given to us, and we simply don’t want to play.
We love Asheville, we love the residents that live there, we love the employees and staff at Wicked Weed, and it will hurt not being there this year with our beer.