ASHEVILLE – Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev announced Wednesday it will purchase Wicked Weed Brewing, with the innovative brewery joining The High End, a business unit focused on craft and import brands.
The High End, established in 2015, includes brands such as Stella Artois and Shock Top, along with craft partners Goose Island, Blue Point, 10 Barrel, Elysian, Golden Road, Virtue Cider, Four Peaks, Breckenridge Brewery, Devils Backbone, SpikedSeltzer and Karbach Brewing Co.
Wicked Weed, founded in Asheville in 2012 by Walt and Luke Dickinson and Ryan, Rick and Denise Guthy, has created nearly 600 different beers since it opened almost five years ago. The owners said Wednesday they anticipated the 1,000-beer mark might come relatively quickly.
But they said not to expect major changes at the brewery with the pending acquisition.
"These guys did not buy us to squash us and blow all of our brands out and change who we are," said Walt Dickinson, 35-year-old head blender and co-founder of Wicked Weed. "They bought us because they believe in who we are, and I think consumers are going to find that in time, as well."
Wicked Weed owns and operates four facilities in Asheville: the original downtown brewpub, which produces more than 150 beers a year; the Funkatorium, the first dedicated sour beer taproom and barrel house on the East Coast; a 50-barrel production brewery in Candler; and the Funk House and company headquarters, a brewhouse and training facility in Arden.
Walt Dickinson asserted Wicked Weed would continue to retain a large measure of autonomy when the sale to the beverage giant is finalized.
"That was probably the most key part of that decision," he said, noting that there was interest from other potential partners. "This to us was a decision we made to move the company forward, because we thought it would be the best thing for the people and the brand."
He emphasized that the purchase would not affect Wicked Weed's creative freedom. "This brand's all about pushing the limits and innovation, and I think we've kind of blown the doors open, as far as how many brands you can actually produce and get it to the market successfully," he said.
Co-owner Ryan Guthy, 31, who also heads up the brewery's sales, said that while the brand's distribution footprint will expand, brand imaging is not likely to change, with in-house artists and label-creation teams still working to create Wicked Weed's whimsical packaging.
"This partnership is going to allow us to have the tools and the resources and the ability to scale up as we continue to grow," he said.
Walt Dickinson added that new product lines are imminent, with a 30,000-square-foot expansion coming to the brewery's Candler outpost and a 10,000-square-foot climate-controlled barrel house for the sour barrel-aging program.
Meanwhile, he said the brewery's reputation for pushing the envelope would remain intact.
"I think what brought us together are the amazing things these founders and their team have accomplished so far," added Felipe Szpigel, president of The High End division.
He said his company's key objective was to amplify, not water down, independent breweries such as Wicked Weed. "We believe that Wicked Weed is reinventing what craft beer can mean for consumers," he said.
Szpigel said the acquisition represented an acknowledgment that consumer tastes were changing and expanding, and helped round out the company's portfolio.
That's as the craft beer movement explodes. When Wicked Weed applied for its permits less than five years ago, there were fewer than 2,000 breweries operating in the country. At the end of this year, there should be more than 6,000.
That's part of the reason The High End works to acquire breweries with certain standards of innovation — to set itself apart in an increasingly crowded market.
Szpigel nodded specifically to Chicago's Goose Island Brewery, an InBev acquisition with a renowned barrel-aging program. "Adding Wicked Weed, with their focus on their barrel-aged and sour program, we don't have anyone in our family that has that as an ingrained part of their objective and vision," he said.
Wicked Weed opened less than five years ago with 65 employees, and now has close to 215 employees among its four locations. "With this partnership, we see more opportunities to grow with the company," Guthy said. "I can confidently say there will be more jobs in Asheville through this partnership."
"I think everyone out there needs to understand that we're still an Asheville brewery, we're still founders who are from Asheville and are going to be there every day," Walt Dickinson added. "The majority of our employees are from Asheville or moved here and are creating families here."
But the longtime Asheville-based owners said they expected some backlash from the local community, even as they emphasized nothing would change.
"We understand that things like this can be scary for people who have invested themselves in Wicked Weed and the brand that we've created," said Walt Dickinson. "But we're here to assure them nothing's going to change. This is just a point where we can say anything's possible now, and we're going to continue to surprise people and get them thinking differently about beer."
Julie Atallah, co-owner of Bruisin’ Ales, a craft-beer bottle shop in downtown Asheville, said customer reaction to the sale of Wicked Weed to InBev is likely to have a trickle-down effect on shops such as hers.
Wicked Weed, she said, is her store’s top-selling brand, and she suspects Bruisin’ Ales is not alone.
“People won't stop buying Wicked Weed entirely, but with immediate calls for boycott, we do expect to see a drop in sales, short term,” she said.
With Wicked Weed’s products slated to enjoy wider distribution in supermarkets and other outlets, Atallah wondered whether long-term sales in her smaller, independent shop would be impacted, especially as she noted calls in the community for boycotting the brewery.
Social media backlash to the announcement was immediate and less than flattering among the beer community, she said. “As this shows, craft beer drinkers are very passionate, very loyal, and very vocal about independence. The only thing to do now is sit back and wait to see how people will respond beyond the initial, emotional reaction to today's news. I think it's safe to say this took everyone by surprise."
“The flip side is we could also see a sales increase of other Asheville-area craft breweries,” she noted.
Kendra Penland, executive director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, remained positive about Wicked Weed's acquisition.
"We hope all of our ABA members are able to achieve all to which they aspire, and we congratulate Wicked Weed," she said. "They are good folks, and we wish them every success."
The North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild in a statement said it was disheartened to learn of the sale and that Wicked Weed would no longer be a voting member.
"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 guild said in its statement.
Luke Dickinson, 32, said locals should not expect to see any changes at any of the brewery's facilities.
He said any changes the public might see would be changes the brewery would plan, with or without AB InBev. "You've seen how we love to continually create new amazing seating areas and bottle shops, and we'll continue to invest in our downtown locations and make them better and better for the fans."
Anheuser-Busch's partnership with Wicked Weed is subject to regulatory approval. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, including the price of the sale.
The Citizen Times