Good Beer Hunting

A Long, Strange Trip — Wicked Weed is Opening Something in Atlanta, But They Don’t Know What it is Yet

Walt Dickinson in 2016. Photo by Kyle Kastranec.

Walt Dickinson in 2016. Photo by Kyle Kastranec.

“Welcome to the shitshow,” Wicked Weed Brewing co-founder Walt Dickinson says to me as I enter Paris on Ponce from the Atlanta BeltLine. The room is a certifiable mess, and a number of folks are frantically moving things—plants, chairs, etc.—around inside, cutting boards outside, and generally trying to accomplish tasks with obvious haste. Dickinson seems excited by the chaos, though.

“We’re going to somehow open a bar in six hours!”

He was right to be skeptical, but perhaps not because of the buildout itself. In an Instagram Story—Dickinson’s chosen platform for slowly leaking out the news throughout the day—he’ll tell Wicked Weed followers that “we have been shut down because our permits are not, well, let’s say, exactly what they wanted for what we’re doing. We’re coming up with a game plan and will keep you updated. Something’s gonna happen.”

In a text message to me the next morning, Dickinson writes that alcohol law enforcement officials “called our bluff on permits. Hopefully everything will come through next week.”

What are the permits for, exactly? What is this North Carolina-based brewery building in Georgia’s capital? These are great questions. And the guy overseeing this operation doesn’t exactly have answers.

“We kinda snuck this one in under the radar,” Dickinson tells me after we’ve sat down at Three Heart, the coffee shop next door. “I’ve just been in this mode of kinda not talking about what we’re doing lately... It’s easier if I just do things and don’t tell people.”

Paris on Ponce is a 46,000-square-foot, 100-year-old warehouse space with loads of character in the heart of Atlanta that serves as a retail home to “art, antiques, furnishings, and oddities.” Its owner, Skip Engelbrecht, is involved with the restaurant group that runs 8Arm, INK, and Three Heart in his building, as well as East Atlanta late-night spot, Octopus Bar. Dickinson has been following the restaurant group’s work since its nascent days and, to put it bluntly, wants to be involved with it any way he can.

“Hopefully [we can] add some color to the BeltLine, get some more people drinking sour beer,” Dickinson says. Considering that the BeltLine is already a booming, busy part of Atlanta with dozens of popular businesses located along it, this statement comes with some dissonance. But Dickinson definitely believes it. And he believes in this group of ATLiens, too:

“Creative groups need funding and energy to make things happen. Having projects like these gives them momentum. I’m not trying to create anything cool. These guys are cool. If they’ll give me a little of their cool, that’d be awesome.”

Walt Dickinson and Skip Engelbrecht work on the Funkat8rium. Photo by Austin L. Ray.

Walt Dickinson and Skip Engelbrecht work on the Funkat8rium. Photo by Austin L. Ray.

And so, Funkatorium 8—there are no Funkatoriums 2-7, to be clear—is now being stylized as Funkat8rium to use a blend of 8Arm and Wicked Weed branding. It’s the first “Funkatorium food and drink experience” of its kind, and Dickinson says that describing it as “an extended tap takeover is the best way to think about it.” There will be 12 beers on tap, six clean and six sour, along with a mix of vintage kegs, bottles, cider, and other surprises Dickinson isn’t sure about just yet. He isn’t sure about a lot of the details, to be honest.

What’s the duration of the concept? “Oh, I have no clue.” Would he like it to be permanent? Yes, but maybe not at this location. Will it still be here in a month? “I don’t know!” Is he still looking for other spots around Atlanta? Yes. So when he says “it’s easier when I just do things and don’t tell people,” he might be saying that he wants to cultivate a surprise-and-delight sense of spontaneity. But it’s also possible that he’s not giving out many details because he has no idea what’s going to happen. The beer industry isn’t just plug-and-play these days, and many businesses are making deliberate, safe choices to build or expand, and how to connect with drinkers in a sustainable way. This is none of these things. At the moment, at least.

Anheuser Busch InBev, Wicked Weed’s parent company since 2017, says in a statement to GBH that this rather unorthodox project is an ideal example of the autonomy given to their acquisition partners. “They have great ideas that will drive their businesses and they execute them,” says Megan Lagesse, head of communications for AB InBev’s High End division. “The best thing we can do for our craft partners is get out of their way and let them do great things.”

Dickinson is quick to clarify that he’s not interested in doing a brewpub outside of North Carolina. And he doesn’t see value in brewing beer from scratch in Georgia.

“I’m not against it, it’s just that we’ve got four breweries,” he explains. “We make a lot of beer. I have awesome barrel-aging facilities. I think we have all the brewing capacity we need to keep innovating. We’re still doing over 150 brands a year.”

Instead, he says, he’s interested in exploring more food projects like the one he’s doing in Asheville. That project, Cultura, a fine dining food spot with a James-Beard-Award-nominated chef, could open as soon as April.

“Sour beer hits on so many experience notes that you get out of natural wines, or amaros, or cocktails, or whatever,” he says. “It’s a beverage that works its way into the more eclectic beverage life of the modern Millennial.”

Hearing a phrase like “the more eclectic beverage life of the modern Millennial” is enough to make me do a double take, but Dickinson will, in fact, reference Millenials and their buying habits multiple times during our conversation. He says that “going into a place like Atlanta” and doing a concept like this is “about furthering the conversation with sour beer.” And once again, he’s quick to point out that Wicked Weed isn’t the cool part of the equation. What’s cool is the potential that could come from it.

“If I can grow that category, that means that the Jester Kings, the Crooked Staves, the Green Benches, the whoever: they’re gonna have more room for their brands to grow because you have more people drinking things,” he says. “And if they’re gonna drink my beer, they’re definitely gonna graduate up to drinking more indie stuff. That’s just the way a consumer works, especially Millennials. They want a more rich, more meaningful experience.”

It’s a fascinating, self-aware moment: Dickinson fully expects a not-insignificant portion of adventurous beer drinkers to eventually stop drinking his beer once they learn more about the type of beer they’re drinking. He’s positioning Wicked Weed as both high class and low brow simultaneously, and it’s kind of a refreshing take. Similar to other Big Beer gateway brands like Blue Moon, he understands that some of his consumers will eventually learn more and leave him behind.

Of course, not everyone is happy that an AB InBev-funded brewery is Atlanta. Reactions on the city’s local beer subreddit ranged from “I wanna go” to “InBev yawn,” and local brewers expressed a range of emotions to GBH as well. New Realm Brewing, which is located a 10-minute BeltLine stroll from Paris on Ponce, says they plan to hold off on commenting until they “get a little more clarity” on what’s actually happening in the space.

Meanwhile, Three Taverns Craft Brewery founder Brian Purcell says he’s “just glad they have a pop-up at that location.” Purcell learned that Wicked Weed was looking at locations close to the Atlanta BeltLine last year when Dickinson & Co. showed interest in and toured the spot on Atlanta’s Eastside where his Decatur, GA brewery would eventually start building out its second location.

“We were negotiating our lease at the time and that surprising news accelerated our reaching terms and signing,” Purcell says. “The historic Atlanta Dairies is no place for an AB brewery.”

Despite that reaction, Dickinson thinks the acquisition was actually good for the local beer scene in Wicked Weed’s hometown of Asheville. “Obviously, there was some local backlash during the acquisition, pretty standard,” he says. “But what I think it did was allow some room to breathe for some other really great brands like Burial. Zillicoah is crushing it these days. [Editor’s note: They really are crushing it.] There are some really great breweries in Asheville right now.”

Elaborating on what “room to breathe” means, Dickinson says that his brewery’s purchase by AB InBev has helped shift Asheville drinkers toward other local beer makers. “[Those drinkers] saw us as not local, so it shifted some energy from Wicked Weed to them,” Dickinson says. “I can tell you that everybody’s outward perception of what my interactions are within the beer community is much harsher than they are. I can still only count one or two experiences where I’ve had negative interactions with people after the acquisition, where they actually talked to my face in a negative way.”

Of course, Asheville’s beer scene was plenty vibrant before Wicked Weed sold to AB InBev. Wicked Weed certainly added to that vibrancy, but it’s perhaps a stretch to claim that an acquisition improves a local beer market. Even Dickinson himself admitted in a 2016 conversation with GBH that Asheville’s beer market was already thriving three years ago:

“Who’s to say what the epicenter is when you have breweries like Highland, who’ve been here for 20 years, and Oscar Wong—that guy has built craft beer in North Carolina in a lot of ways,” he said. “And you have Sierra and New Belgium and Oskar Blues and guys like that coming into the scene, and then up-and-coming small breweries like Burial.”

In terms of IRI sales, volume has been quite strong for Wicked Weed. The company grew its total sales across grocery, convenience, and other stores 2.5 times over from 2017-2018, with about two-thirds of that selling in its home state of North Carolina. In our conversation, Dickinson mostly avoided answering why he’s pursuing more business outside of the Tar Heel State. Instead, he rambled through a half-response w/r/t his perception of his brewery’s sales in their hometown market.

“They’re good,” he says. “I don’t know where we sit. Asheville’s a very competitive beer market. I think we’re doing fine in Asheville. We’re just happy to have some good partners. We’re chill. We’re still growing. We’re doing our thing. I think that’s probably the best way to say it. We’re fine. It’s not like we’re down or anything. We’re just kind of occupying our place in the community. It is what it is. I don’t really think about how much market share we’re getting.”

Jason Atallah, owner of Asheville bottle shop Bruisin’ Ales, says that his store’s sales of Wicked Weed, once his business’ “top selling brewery by a mile, have fallen off a cliff since 2016.” He admits that his “customer base [skews] pretty heavily toward serious craft beer enthusiasts,” who are the type of shoppers to care most about whether or not a brewery is independent. Atallah also notes that his sales are anecdotal to his small business and that he doesn’t “have the authority to speak on behalf of the whole town.”

While Dickinson seems to have his heart set on Georgia’s capital, it’s far from his only option—or even the only option he’s kicking around in his head right now. “Is it here?” he muses out loud. “Is it Charleston? Is it Miami? Is it New York? Where is it going to be? I think I’m still sorting a lot of that out.”

What he is sure of at the moment, is that Wicked Weed has no plans to expand into new states. Currently focusing on the southeastern stretch of Virginia to Florida, the latter of which will launch later this month, Dickinson says he wants Wicked Weed “to be a southeastern brewery. We don’t want to be a national brewery.” It’s a notion that perhaps contradicts the typical modern wisdom surrounding the world-conquering strategy of Big Beer acquisitions.

“They are really good at big, crazy things,” Dickinson says of Wicked Weed’s parent company, AB InBev. “They are really not good at understanding the way our side of the business works—the way the craft scene works. I think they’re looking to be inspired by what we’re doing. They really give me and my team a huge amount of autonomy to grow our business and create the way we create.”

But he also thinks there are lessons to be learned from AB InBev’s other acquisitions.

“For me, the big line is, ‘How big can we get without compromising the quality?’” Dickinson says. “And I know there’s incremental compromise that happens with scale, but not from production. I think that’s the biggest myth I’ve ever heard.”

He elaborates with an example. “Everybody was like, ‘Ah, Goose’s beers sucked after [AB InBev] bought them,’ and it’s like, ‘Bullshit, dude!’ Yes, their beers didn’t taste as good because they got too big too fast. The beer was dying in warehouses and shit because the scale went crazy. They learned so many hard lessons there. But it wasn’t because the brewers were making bad beer. It’s because you’re drinking a 180-day old IPA that’s been sitting in a warehouse somewhere in the summer in Chicago or whatever. It was never about what the brewers could do.”

In 2016, Dickinson told GBH, “Wicked Weed is not always going to be as cool as it was last year. That’s just the way the market goes. Everybody wants the new hot thing. They want the new guy.” That was before the brewery became the property of Anheuser-Busch InBev. So perhaps a more complicated and interesting question now is, “What does Wicked Weed have to do to be cool in 2019?”

“That’s funny,” he says laughing at the quote. “I mean, I think we’re doing it. I think that we’re just gonna do what we think is cool. That’s why I’m still here—I’m allowed to do that. If they didn’t allow me to keep creating and doing things that I think are cool, I wouldn’t be here. Acquisitions are challenging for anybody. The true test of time is: do the creatives stay on?”

He believes the answer depends on how a parent company treats its members.

“Right now, they’re allowing me to create and do cool stuff,” he says. “Yeah, there are a lot of challenges and red tape and bullshit that’s super annoying for me, but I keep finding ways to do cool stuff.”

Words by Austin L. Ray