Good Beer Hunting

From the Gutters to the High End — How Wicked Weed Grew Like One

In its most niche acquisition to-date, Anheuser-Busch InBev announced today the purchase of Wicked Weed, a fast-growing brewery from Asheville, NC known for its hop-forward IPAs and barrel-aged sour ales.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but it will be subject to regulatory approval by the Department of Justice. Last September, the federal agency promised to “carefully scrutinize any future craft acquisitions” made by the world’s largest brewery in light of its mega merger with SABMiller.

Either way, those that watch the space see it as a savvy move. Scott Metzger is a board member with the Brewers Association and a founder of Freetail Brewing in San Antonio, Texas.

“I think the talent on the team is worth more than the novelty. It's an all-star team,” Metzger says. “They have the internal talent to start any number of new brands/breweries around the country now. None of that will be subject to DOJ. Scary.”

Metzger is referring to the possibility of AB starting new brands from scratch rather than through acquisition, as they recently announced they’re planning to do in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood.

Though founded only in 2012, Wicked Weed is already operational in four separate outposts, including a dedicated sour taproom and barrel facility in downtown Asheville called the Funkatorium, and a 50-barrel production brewery. The company is on track to produce 40,000 barrels of beer this year, up dramatically from 7,000 in 2015.

Speaking with GBH, company co-founders and brothers Luke and Walt Dickinson—who had co-owned the company with family friends Rick, Denise, and Ryan Guthy—say the deal will allow Wicked Weed to better secure vital resources and raw materials while it shifts its attention from the details of business to the creativity of brewing. The brothers were the face of the company, but minority owners, according to people close to the matter. In today's calls, AB-Inbev and the Dickinson's declined to confirm.

“I’m extremely excited for the ability to really get focused on what I personally do best, which is creating new recipes and diving into ingredients,” Luke says. “For our company, I’m extremely excited for the opportunity for our staff to be surrounded by some of the greatest professionals in the brewing field in the years to come, and the amazing amount of support we’re going to have from this great company we’ve partnered with.”

Long before the Dickinsons were teaming up with AB, however, they were entrepreneurs of a different kind. Walt was the co-founder of a rainwater reclamation company called Higher Ground in 2005, a company which self-describes as “two guys cleaning gutters,” and eventually built a sizable business located in two states, North Carolina and Tennessee. Wicked Weed made Dickinson into a bonafide serial entrepreneur. But he wasn’t the only one. 

The largest financial partners in the brewery, Rick and Denise Guthy, are the friends of Walt and Luke’s father from as far back as 1969 in California. The Guthys are known for their infomercial business that sold motivational and self-help products, including a series titled Think & Grow RichThe company, named Guthy-Renker, is also the marketer of the Proactiv skincare product line that leveraged influencers and celebrities to sell acne medications to teens. The manufacturing side of that business was split between California and Asheville and run by Rick Guthy until 2012 when he retired. That’s when Wicked Weed was founded. 

According to North Carolina investment publication Capital at Play, Guthy’s money sent the brewery concept on a different course altogether: “Instead of planning for a 2,000-square-foot brew pub, the partners went after the two-story, 7,000-square-foot building at 91 Biltmore, which can accommodate 500 customers at a time. Instead of opening with a few brews on tap, Wicked Weed launched with an astounding 17 options, all made in-house. Instead of offering passable pub food, they brought in Cardiff Creasey, the chef from the Red Stag Grill in Biltmore Village."

In joining the globe’s pre-eminent beer company’s “High End” division, Wicked Weed strengthens a roster that already boasts a number of powerhouse craft brands, including Goose Island, 10 Barrel, Devils Backbone, Elysian, and more. For AB InBev, Wicked Weed is its 10th overall acquisition and its first of 2017. It most recently bought Karbach Brewing of Houston, Texas this past November.
For AB InBev, Wicked Weed’s appeal is obvious. In addition to having solidified roots in Asheville (a city bustling with both small local breweries and major expansion players like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium alike), the company also boasts a renowned sour lineup. And sours are positioned to play a key evolutionary role in the High End portfolio, according to Felipe Szpigel, the division’s president.

“Sours are the next phase of development,” he tells GBH. Craft consumers start at “Lager then [go to] IPA, then a bigger a IPA. Then they’re looking for that something with complexity. I think sours [could fill that role.]” To that end, a secondary, or perhaps tertiary push for Goose Island has been Sofie, the slightly tart, orange-y farmhouse ale leading the vintage lineup. Wicked Weed, however, has built most of their identity around sour.

The real volume, at least in the near term, will likely come from one of Wicked Weed’s hoppy ales, like Pernicious IPA or Lieutenant DANK IPA, just like the other High-End brands such as Elysian’s Space Dust IPA and Goose IPA. 

In light of the news, though, there has been the predictable backlash from fans, who took to social media to call into question the company’s motivations to sell. More than that, though, the partnership seems to have touched a deeper nerve within the industry itself, as other brewers are using the announcement to take a philosophical—if not outright political—stand.

Most notably, Jester King—the renowned farmhouse brewery in Austin, Texas—published a statement calling this a “difficult day,” adding it would no longer sell Wicked Weed products.

“We have some core principles that define who we are as a brewery, and those principles must not be compromised. One of our core principles is that we do not sell beer from AB InBev or its affiliates,” wrote founder Jeffrey Stuffings. “Because of this core principle, it pains us to say that we won’t be carrying Wicked Weed anymore at Jester King. We think Wicked Weed beer is some of the best in the world. Their talent, techniques, and patience produces some of the most beautiful beer we’ve ever tasted. That, combined with their great friendship, is what makes this decision so tough for us.”

Asked about this, Wicked Weed’s Walt Dickinson was effusive in his praise for Jester King, saying the company has created “one of the greatest brands in the history of the craft space,” and that he hopes to maintain a friendly relationship with the team there.

“The decision we made is completely against their ethics and what they believe in and I respect that,” he tells GBH. “At the end of the day, this is a business we’re all very passionate about.

Meanwhile, at this moment there are reportedly hoards of Wicked Weed kegs waiting to be tapped at BrewDog bars in the UK for tap takeovers. BrewDog, of course, is a company known more for ditching what they call “sellout” breweries from their menus than adding them. Ironically, Wicked Weed was served at BrewDog’s AGM meeting last month when they announced they were selling off 22% of their company to TSG Partners. The cognitive dissonance has reached new levels of insufferable for craft diehards. 

Jester King wasn’t the only one to speak out, either. The North Carolina Brewers Guild released a statement saying it was “disheartened” by the news, though it wishes the company well.

“Since our primary mission is to represent our state’s independent craft brewers, Wicked Weed can no longer be a voting member of the NC Craft Brewers Guild,” wrote Margo Knight Metzger, the guild’s executive director. “However we sincerely hope they will continue to work alongside us as an affiliate member of our guild as we strive to make North Carolina a nationwide leader in craft brewing.”

The reverberations of this news will be felt into the future, too, as a number of breweries have told GBH that, in light of the acquisition news, they plan to withdraw from attending this summer’s Funkatorium Invitational. The annual sour and barrel-aged beer festival is hosted by Wicked Weed with VIP passes going for $250, a hefty ticket that, according to a video post on Wicked Weed’s Facebook page, includes a selection of Walt’s favorite beers from the fest and the chance to drink them in private with him and the team.

Asked why he was pulling out of the festival, Jackie O’s founder Brad Clark explains:

“It was pretty simple. They’ve always rubbed me the wrong way, particularly Walt, because he introduces himself to me every time and says, every time, 'Pleasure to meet you, I’m a big fan of your beers.' A total lack of relevance and compassion and being present.”

When asked why he would attend in the first place, Clark went on to say “mainly because there are some other great brewers there I enjoy hanging out with. Most of the reasons I do fests and collabs are not about the event and the beer, they're about the takeaway from it. Process stuff, business practices, or general market analysis and things of that nature. That’s usually why I’m going. But it’s a good way to show some of your product as well.”

As for Wicked Weed, the company says it respects and understands the high emotions surrounding these types of deals, but hopes people can set aside their differences in the name of good beer.

“We’re not selling arms here, we're feeding people beer,” Walt says. “I hope at the end of the day we can break down some of these walls here.”

To that end, the company is looking ahead. Asked what about the future most excites them, Walt is quick with a joke:

“For me, it’s the Clydesdales.”

—Dave Eisenberg + Michael Kiser