There was a great disturbance in the craft beer universe a month ago. In the latest of a series of purchases by big beer, Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, NC was purchased by AB-InBev. This had reverberations far beyond North Carolina where Wicked Weed was seen as the leading light of the state’s craft beer by many.
Luckily for me, I had the Cicerone exam to study for and recover from which afforded me the opportunity to organize my thoughts and opinions on the sale. I did read the writing and opinions of others and can say much of what I read was cogent and interesting even when I may have disagreed with the writer’s conclusions. However, too much of the writing degenerated into the, “I’m more CRAFT then you” didactic that is part of too much online discourse. Too many craft supporters take the position that if you don’t agree with every point they’re making you are at best a big beer apologist or at worst a sellout like Wicked Weed.
That line of writing, discourse, and thinking is boring to read. More importantly, at a time when craft beer is at a very important flexion point in its existence, it bogs the conversation down into needless finger pointing, keeping the conversation from moving forward into, “What do we do next?”
What do I think of the sale?
I am of two minds when it comes to the Wicked Weed sale or the sale of any other craft brewery to big beer. First, is my business mind. It tells me that neither I nor anyone else should presume to tell another person how to run their business.
While there are nebulous obligations to the craft beer collective and concrete obligations to the affected employees, in the end, the owner/brewer of the brewery must do right by the rest of the ownership group/investors. You invest in a fledgling company or start up because you believe you will see a return on that investment at some point. From a business perspective, this current moment in craft beer is a good time to sell a brewery. The number of new breweries popping up is beginning to create greater and greater competition, that hurts future growth and current margins of breweries. Cashing in may be the best advice for many breweries and their investors.
Also, in all honesty, if you are not an investor or a member of the ownership group of a brewery, you have no real idea what the original business plan promised potential investors and you have no idea what the other internal machinations lead a brewery to sell to AB or other big beer company. You cannot attack someone who starts a business, builds it into a successful national brand, and then sells that business for a profit. In almost any other business sector that is applauded.
Second is my small business/buy local/craft beer mind. There are national coffee chains close to my apartment with slightly cheaper coffee and tea, however, I walk to a locally owned place a little farther away that has more personality and keeps my dollars in the community and appreciates my business.
So, while my business (i.e. intellectual) mind understands these decisions and accepts them, this second mind, while not angered is disappointed and saddened. I am disappointed that we are losing a successful locally owned business to a conglomerate that treats beer like any other factory-made commodity. I am saddened by the fact that much of the Wicked Weed beer you buy in 3 years will be a hollow facsimile of the Wicked Weed beer you can buy today.
This second mind knows that craft brewing is a creative endeavor and respects and honors the work it takes to make it creatively and financially. The second mind believes that craft beer is about more than money. It is a business and everyone wants to succeed, but as Greg Koch, founder of Stone Brewing, put it in this article, craft beer is more of a foot race then a hockey match. Each craft brewer is running their own race pushing themselves and by extension everyone else by doing their own thing their own way to the best of their abilities. Big beer treats beer as a zero-sum game where you win or die. That point of view is not only antithetical to my personal beliefs, it stands in stark opposition to the founding principles of craft beer.
No craft brewer gets into brewing to make money. The hours are long and there is no guarantee the yeast will create the beer you want or expect. Brewers do this because they love that part of the challenge and they love how brewing allows them to express themselves. This separates them from their investors who may not have the same almost romantic vision of brewing and expect to make money from this venture.
We must accept both realities as part of craft beers future to ensure its continued growth.
Back to Wicked Weed. I understand the sale, but I don’t like it. Sometimes the money they offer is too great to turn down. This sale like almost all the others before it is understandable and defensible on a business and intellectual level as individual business decisions. They are, however, against everything the craft beer ethos espouses.
Where are we right now?
First, big beer companies are going to continue buying craft breweries. That is part of a long-term strategy that will not change and is exacerbated by a business environment that makes some craft brewers ripe for buying.
Second, we know that capital investment in new and existing breweries is increasing as the segment matures as a business. Many of these investors no longer just want to say they own part of a brewery to be cool but want to turn their investment into a profit.
Third, the almost exponential growth we saw in the last few years in the number of craft brewers is leading to equally exponential growth in competition for tap handles and shelf space among craft brewers. The larger, regionally focused craft brewers are beginning to get squeezed out of the marketplace not necessarily by big beer and their many tentacles but by the mass of extremely localized small breweries that they inspired. Many of those larger brewers have been faced with flat if not negative growth in the last year. That is why this business environment breeds these sales. For some breweries selling means recouping an investment now when that may not be possible in a few years’ time.
What do we do?
The first thing to do as a craft beer fan is to start simple and start local. Let your love of craft beer inform your buying decisions of what and where you buy. If you have local breweries near you, frequent them. Buy their beer, their growlers, and their swag. If you go to a local brewery and their beer isn’t as good as you had hoped, don’t frag them on social media. Send a personal email or letter to the owner/brewer expressing your concerns in a thoughtful and respectful manner. We must be the ones who control craft beer. Not the faceless conglomerates who could just as easily be selling ball bearings rather than beer.
Another thing you can do is join your state brewer’s guild or the Brewers Association as an affiliate member. Most state guilds have this option to raise funds and create a group of supporters and volunteers. For as many issues as you may have with some of the day to day decisions the Brewers Association and state guilds make, they are organizations whose expressed reason for existence is to support and promote independent craft brewers. Give money, get a t-shirt, get newsletters, and get discounts at members taprooms for stuff you wanted to buy anyway.
Finally, bloggers, writers, and podcasters should try to be more Thomas Jefferson than Thomas Paine. In every revolution, there is a time for rhetoricians to spit hot fire from the blog post or podcast microphone. However, there is also a point when that loses its effectiveness. You need equally iron-willed and no less committed people who will create and implement the ideas and theories that make the revolution’s goals self-sustaining. Too often, online discussion about craft beer ends up with everyone talking in circles, saying nothing, and going nowhere. However, for craft beer to continue to move forward through this time of growth and upheaval, we all need to step off the hamster wheel of online discourse and offer something thoughtful and new.
I don’t think big beer is evil, much in the same way I don’t think Hurricane Katrina was evil. However, there are two things. First, many of their business practices and the actions their distributors perpetrate in their name are detestable and contemptible and are rooted in the fundamental belief that this is a zero-sum proposition. Every time we hear those stories we should challenge big beer in ways large and small. Second, AB will turn Wicked Weed into another one of its stable of beers with just a little twist to make it stand out in its sea of mediocrity and that is what is maybe the saddest part. What Wicked Weed could have become will never be.