Hops, England's King Henry VIII once declared, were a "wicked weed" that would ruin beer. About 500 years later, Wicked Weed Brewing Company did just that. Or at least it feels that way based on the intense backlash following the Asheville-based brewery's sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev earlier this month.
The company made the move public on its Instagram on May 3 in a post that has more than 1,300 comments, many of which bash the decision to "sell out" and promise to boycott the brand.
The outrage from consumers is understandable. Since opening in 2012, Wicked Weed has emerged as the crown jewel of the burgeoning independent beer mecca in Asheville. The brewery won over hop heads with signature IPAs like Pernicious, which took home a silver medal at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, and Freak of Nature. But perhaps more notable is what it did for experimental beers. In 2014, Wicked Weed opened the Funkatorium in the "brewery district" of South Slope with 16 sour and farmhouse brews on tap. It's unlike anything else in an area overflowing with craft brewing operations.
"They make really goddamn good beer," COAST Brewery co-owner Jaime Tenny says. "Goose Island [which InBev bought in 2011] is fine; Wicked Weed is not even in the same ballpark. You're talking about really good beers that really changed the market."
Now all of that belongs to InBev, the company that Mt. Pleasant's House of Brews owner Rob Davis says has been "trying to kill craft beer for years."
And fans of Wicked Weed aren't the only ones upset with the sale.
So many breweries pulled out of Wicked Weed's sour beer festival planned for July 8 — including Greenville's Birds Fly South — that they were forced to cancel the event. Bottle shops have vowed not to give any more shelf space to the brewery. In Charlotte, popular craft beer retailer Brawley's Beverage gained attention by promising to unload all its remaining Wicked Weed products and donate 100 percent of the proceeds to Doctors Without Borders. And several operations, like Denver's Black Project, that had agreed to brew collaborations with Wicked Weed, have changed their minds.
- Jonathan Boncek file
In the Charleston area, the fallout doesn't seem to be quite as fierce.
"It's a bummer in the sense that Wicked Weed was a really good representation of craft and being an upstart," Davis said. "But at the same time I'm not going to begrudge anyone for wanting to make a shit load of money."
Westbook Brewing co-owner Edward Westbrook shared a similar sentiment.
"I'm not disappointed in Wicked Weed or anything like that for selling. If anybody wants to sell their business they should sell it to whoever they want to. It's completely up to them, I don't have any judgements in that regard."
While consumers seem angry with the sale itself, Charleston's beer peddlers are more upset with the way in which Wicked Weed messaged the move to the public.
"For them to sell to InBev, who has been trying to kill the craft beer industry for so many years, is a kick in the dick," said Davis. "And then Wicked Weed coming back and just repeating InBev talking points about why this is a good move for them is the ultimate slap in the face."
Those talking points were part of Wicked Weed's Instagram announcement, in which they claimed the sale was done "in order to innovate, push the boundaries, and grow." Westbrook, like Davis, doesn't buy that PR line.
"The only thing that annoys me is it's the same press release that everyone puts out. 'We want to grow the company and do what's best for the employees and everything is going to be exactly the same as it was.' I don't believe almost any of that," Westbrook says. "Just be honest and say, 'some of our investors wanted to cash out and this is the way we decided to go.' I think people would accept that and move on."
Tenny from COAST agrees that Wicked Weed's owners might not be being totally truthful with the public, or themselves.
"History has told with other breweries that have been bought out that things do change," she says. "Employees aren't as happy. They'll fire people. The product does tend to suffer. Historically speaking, the reasons [Wicked Weed] gave have not panned out."
Wicked Weed cashing out, regardless of the motivations, does have a negative impact on the craft beer industry. Much like Heineken-owned Lagunitas, which can now be found in nearly every grocery store cooler for less money per six-pack than local Charleston beers, Wicked Weed will soon be abundant. And cheap.
"It's a long-term play to squeeze independent breweries out of retailer shelf space by using their wholesaler leverage and downward pressure on the price of a 'craft beer' six-pack," Westbrook says. "It makes it more difficult for independent brewers to compete with that for extended periods of time."
"InBev isn't bringing their costs down because their shit is cheaper, they're bringing the cost down because they want to undercut," Davis adds. "So it certainly hurts [craft breweries] that way."
With that in mind, should local retailers carry Wicked Weed once it makes its way to the Lowcountry? Should consumers spend their money on the products?
"There's no way I would bring in all their [products], but I totally want to bring them in and just see," Davis said. "I'm not one of the people where [selling to] InBev is going to make me cut you off. I don't agree with it, but at the same time I want to sell some good beers, and Wicked Weed makes some good beers."
Westbrook is perfectly fine with that approach. "I don't want to tell anyone else how to run their business. So if they want to sell Wicked Weed or Golden Road or Goose Island and those brands sell really well for them and makes them money, then that's exactly what they should do."
"I'm a big proponent of individual rights," Tenny said. "But I do hope, and not just with beer, people realize when they buy something they are voting with their money. With craft beer, I would hope that they continue to support the ones that really are independent and locally owned. Because that's really the only way that we'll continue to be relevant and continue to grow and be able to have a business. If you want your favorite brewery to stay in business, you have to support them."
Consumers and retailers alike are going to have to get used to making these decisions with their dollars, because the trend of mega beer corporations buying up successful craft breweries isn't going away. Westbrook says it's "definitely something we'll see more of."
And for those struggling with how to handle all of this, Davis has some advice.
"Use your wallet the way you want to use it for something you enjoy. There's way more important shit you should be boycotting that's not alcohol related."