Disheartened by Wicked Weed’s decision to sell to Anheuser-Busch InBev, a growing number of breweries have decided to pull out of the Funkatorium Invitational, the company’s annual sour and barrel-aged beer festival. It’s a matter of principle, the defecting breweries say, as they’re unwilling to collaborate or otherwise align with the world’s largest beer company or, to the detriment of Wicked Weed, any of its subsidiaries.
Slated for July, the festival, now in its fourth year, was initially projected to feature more than 70 breweries from around—and outside—the country, though that number seems to be shrinking quickly. Reached by GBH, Wicked Weed says the festival is still on and it expects it to be the best one yet. A statement perhaps more full of hope than perspective.
WHY IT MATTERS
As we reported yesterday, more than the predictable backlash from fans, the Wicked Weed news seemed to inspire a uniquely forceful rebuke from independent brewers. Yes, in the past, independent brewers have voiced disappointment when another sells to a global brewing conglomerate. Oddly though, with Wicked Weed, the more noteworthy reactions—like Jester King’s elegiac statement detailing why the company would no longer carry Wicked Weed products—carried a tinge of personal hurt. And that hurt can be seen in the Funkatorium Invitational roster, as more than a dozen breweries have said they plan to drop from the bill.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but by press time, GBH was able to confirm that Jester King, Sante Adairius, Jackie O’s, Fonta Flora, The Rare Barrel, Almanac, Creature Comforts, Springdale, Three Taverns, and Black Project have all backed out. Meanwhile, Men’s Journal reports that at least eight others have dropped, though GBH could not confirm as of press time.
In response, Wicked Weed co-founder Walt Dickinson has sent a letter to the festival roster, which was obtained by GBH, saying he respects and understands anyone’s decisions and individual motivations.
“At the end of the day, the friendships that we have made with all of you is much more important than our business relationships going forward and we understand if you need to distance yourselves from our brand,” he writes. “Having said that, our vision for the Funkatorium Invitational has always been to create a safe space to bring together the best minds in sour beer that are pushing the boundaries of what this style can be. I am asking that you consider continuing to be a part of this festival,” noting 100% of the proceeds will be donated to the Asheville-based Eblen Charities.
Speaking with GBH, Dickinson says the company would be open to refilling the open spots with new breweries, but that capacity is limited. He also says that the whole ordeal has been unpleasant for the company, especially so soon after its most momentous benchmark.
“It definitely hurts a little bit to see it getting kind of dinged right now, but I hope in the end people see the bigger picture,” he says. “There are a lot of things out there that are more important than beer and more important than how we feel about each other.”
As for the companies dropping, each seems to have its own reasoning. For some, the decision clearly transcended the simple politics of craft and corporate beer. Rather, some brewers found themselves waging difficult internal battles about compromising their own business philosophies in order to support real life friends—as in, the human beings behind the brands.
Todd Boera founded Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton, North Carolina back in 2014, just an hour from where Wicked Weed opened in Asheville two years prior.
“We’re very close to the Asheville brewing scene and have been friends with the folks at Wicked Weed for a very long time, before they were even Wicked Weed,” he tells GBH. “It kind of weighs heavy, making these decisions… Unfortunately, we kind of have to set friendships aside and set the kind of human aspect aside.”
Jester King, The Rare Barrel, and Black Project all put forth similar sentiments in their respective statements. But for others, the decision was less about balancing sentimentality and business philosophy and more about evaluating politics against practicality.
“We made about 1,300 barrels last year, so we pick and choose the festivals we participate in very carefully,” says Adair Paterno, co-founder of Sante Adairius in California. “And we generally choose not to participate in festivals where big beer is the sponsor, or promoter, or if they’re going to benefit from it.”
Adds Chris Herron, CEO and co-founder of Creature Comforts, “Generally the decision was simply that we did not feel comfortable participating in an event that would generate value for [AB InBev].”
Trillium Brewing Company co-founder Esther Tetreault feels similarly. “I emailed Walt this morning to let him know that Trillium would be withdrawing from the fest,” she tells GBH. “As a business owner, I personally respect his right to make decisions for his business that are best for his family, employees, and long-term goals. As a small craft brewer, though, I make the same decisions about the partnerships we make, and JC and I won't support big beer. Walt was completely understanding of our choice.”
The whole ordeal might even give way to an entirely separate festival, too. Springdale, the new sour venture launched by Massachusetts’ Jack’s Abby, wrote in its own statement that it was in the process of reaching out to other holdouts to see about coordinating a sour fest up north that same weekend.
“So we could share their awesome beer and support each other’s independence,” they wrote.
All of which is to say: it’s clear the sale of Wicked Weed has sent uniquely resonant shockwaves throughout the industry. While these breeds of acquisition are typically met with a bit of eulogizing, by and large, brewers generally respond by taking the opportunity to trumpet their own independence. With Wicked Weed, though, it seemed people were too crestfallen to bother peacocking. Jesse Friedman, founder of Almanac, another brewery reversing its decision to attend, has a guess why.
“I think [Wicked Weed] really represents a kind of craft beer darling in a lot of ways,” he says. “We would sort of describe this as losing one of the cool kids.”