New broke last week that Wicked Weed had been
assimilated by the Borg acquired by AB InBev’s High End division. As expected, backlash has been swift and severe. This time, not just among the beer snob crowd though. Several breweries who were collaborating with WW and a good chunk (almost 30 at last report) of the attendees of the Wicked Weed Invitational Beer Festival have immediately cut all ties to the brewery. Don’t feel too bad. I imagine we’ll eventually find out how many zeros were on that check. They’ll be fine.
Personally, I’m very conflicted about this buyout. I can’t really say I’m a huge fan of Wicked Weed’s beer, since I’ve only tried two of their offerings, but I was a fan of the brewery itself. One of the standard bearers for the quickly growing North Carolina craft beer scene, I was planning to visit them on my next trip out East, whenever that may have been. Also, listening to the interviews with Walt on the BN’s Sour Hour, not only did I get excited about what he’s trying to do there, but felt like I got to know him and his crew a little bit. Hence the feeling of deep disappointment and betrayal.
I want to be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone for selling a business when presented with an obscene amount of cash. Talk about love and craft and artisan all you want, but at the end of the day it’s a business. The goal is to make money and support your family and support your community. When 10 Barrel sold for what, at the time, seemed like a ridiculous amount ($10 Million) I thought to myself “Wow… what do you do as a business owner when someone, quite literally, walks in the door with a suitcase full of cash?” Those of us who are not business owners have no idea how we would react to such a situation.
My ire is more directed at InBev, and I think that’s true of a lot of people, even including the initial knee jerk reaction towards the small brewery of “HOW COULD YOU??” AB InBev is working to manipulate the market, using legal, if not quite moral, ways to do it. I see it as a monopoly without being a monopoly. “But your Honor, it’s 27 different companies.. that’s not a monopoly.” It’s not so much that they bought “my favorite brewery” but that they can do so with such ease. They probably spend more than 10 million dollars taking Wal Mart execs out to dinner. 10 Barrel is barely a blip on their balance sheet. But it puts them in Central Oregon plus a pub in Portland. It seems as if they just point and say “I want that one….” In the current climate, it’s just another reminder that money is power. “If you can’t beat them, join them” has become “If you can’t beat them, own them.” You don’t have to work or stand in line if you can just buy your place at the table. Looking at their acquisitions, they are all scattered across the country in pretty strategic locations. California, Oregon, Seattle, Chicago, Georgia, New York, Colorado… and now North Carolina. Adding to the web, adding to the network. Also, taking another step deeper into “craft” by getting into sour beer. They grabbed a barrel program when they got Goose Island, but sour beer is a whole different animal.
The immediate reaction by a lot of people is that they will never buy or drink that beer again, and that’s fine, there are millions of choices. But that can be easier said than done. I’m not a huge fan of 10 Barrel or Elysian, so those are easy to avoid. Golden Road I’ve never had before, and suddenly saw it show up in our local Fred Meyer, and then remembered why it suddenly showed up. This year I did go out and buy some of the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. I don’t know if I will again in the future, but I do think it’s really good. I don’t yet know what I’ll decide about Wicked Weed. I may still try it, just so I can say I had it, and then not have it again. Or I may swear off it. Right now you can’t get it here in Oregon, so it’s not hard to avoid. If they start distributing here, it might be hard to say no, even knowing they are InBev now. I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it.
For now, there’s no immediate choice to make. My next trip to NC won’t be any time soon and they likely won’t start selling WW beer in Oregon for quite some time, if ever. I have time to think and mull on it, but mostly it just sucks. I know full well that the whole “loyalty” gambit that a lot of fans play when a small company sells is mostly bullshit. They don’t owe us a damn thing. Granted there have been cases where a brewery has publicly said “We’ll never sell!” and then they do a few weeks later. That of course is shifty and worthy of scorn. Wicked Weed to my knowledge had not made any statements similar to that, but who knows. They made their choice. Now we make ours.
Beer is a democracy. We vote with our dollars. Do with that what you will.