Wicked Weed Co-Founder Walt Dickinson on the Backlash Following His Sale to AB-InBev

This week’s Anheuser-Busch acquisition of Asheville’s Wicked Weed Brewing has sent shockwaves through the craft beer industry. It’s hardly the first acquisition that has caused outcry, but this one was felt a little harder than most due to Wicked Weed’s ardent fan base and the company’s intimate connections within the niche beer community. Many one-time friends and collaborators have publicly distanced themselves from Wicked Weed as a result of the acquisition, saying their values and morals simply don’t align with those of AB-InBev and its craft division The High End, which now includes a collection of ten breweries.

Last night we spoke with Wicked Weed co-founder Walt Dickinson about the decision to sell to AB, what it means for the future of the brewery, and, more pressingly, whether the Funkatorium Invitational festival slated for July will go on as planned.

Dickinson was energetic, chatty, and overall in high spirits, starting off the conversation by joking, “Apparently people are upset a little bit. I guess we like to shake things up.” Here’s the rest of what he had to say.

What have the last 24 hours been like?

It’s been one of the most intense and memorable experiences of my life. I think anytime anybody goes through something like this there’s a lot of challenges, and when you have those moments you either step up to the plate or you collapse. And I feel strongly that everyone in this company is stepping up to the plate.

We’re growing, and that’s exciting. It’s also really galvanized our community. Having a moment like this really helps to bring the team together. This is very much about protecting the Wicked Weed family here, and it’s been a great moment for that.

Obviously there have been some harsh things said and things done by people we really respect in the industry, and close friends, and that definitely hurts a little. But I feel like at the end of the day the friendships that we really care about are still there, and I hope over time we [can] win everybody back by showing them we’re the same company, doing the same things.

What’s the mood in-house at Wicked Weed right now?

As of right now, we have not lost one employee. I feel confident that all of our brewers, all of our key team members, and all of our pub staff will stay on. What the future brings — this is a very emotional time. Change is hard. We all are very passionate here at Wicked Weed. The folks here, they live this company. They eat, sleep, and breath it. The people around them are their family, so anytime there’s change, that’s scary.

But I’ll say the best thing that’s come out of this is that everybody’s come out and said, “Hey, we believe in you, we believe in [the other co-founders] Luke [Dickinson] and Rick and Ryan and Denise [Guthy]. And you guys have led us, and we’ve never questioned where you’ve led us. And you’ve always made good decisions that have always worked out.” So we’re going to lead you into the fray right now and see how it goes. They believe in us and we believe in them. And we believe in The High End, and they’re going to support us and get us to where we need to be. We’re excited about the future.

I knew this storm was coming. We’ve got a good ship and a good crew and we’re going to hunker down and ride the storm out. Then we’ll come out and see what’s broken and then start looking toward the future. And hopefully that means there’s a lot of white space in front of us, and we’re excited about that.

Asheville, in particular, is known as a “support-local” town. How do you think this acquisition is going to change how the local community views Wicked Weed?

I think Wicked Weed has been a very positive thing for Asheville. We’re the second-largest tourist destination in town — we draw over 750,000 visitors every year to our pub. That’s a lot of volume for hotels and restaurants and boutiques. That’s a good thing, and I don’t think that’s going to change. I don’t think the beer scene here is going to change.

We’re very involved in the community as far as working with local charities. It’s been a big part of our company. Rick and Denise have been involved in philanthropy in the city for over 30 years now, and we’re very engaged with a lot of the nonprofits we support.

So for us, this is a move not to take Asheville out of Wicked Weed, but it’s to make Wicked Weed more a part of Asheville — to be able to have more resources, to create more jobs, and have a bigger impact on the community that we love. So I think in the end this is going to be a great thing for our city.

Are there going to be some locals who aren’t super happy about our decision? Absolutely. But those people, like all of our passionate fans throughout the country, if they weren’t upset about this, that would mean they didn’t care. And that would hurt me more than them being upset. I think over time, we’re going to win them back because we’re the same people, the same brewers, and we’re not going anywhere. We’re just going to be a better version of ourselves in the future.

I’ve talked to a lot of brewers over the last couple of days who were planning to participate in the Funkatorium Invitational. And now almost all of them have backed out. Are you still going forward with the festival?

Yeah absolutely. The festival is about the beers we produce and it’s about the people who come to it, and celebrating mixed culture fermentation and sour beer. It’s an art form and a piece of the craft space that I obviously am a big part of and believe in. And it was about bringing all of those people together, bringing all of my friends together, so that we can celebrate the craft that we have, form friendships, talk about the future, talk about new techniques, talk about how consumers are looking at the beer we’re producing, and how we can communicate better with them.

But in the end, it’s not about Wicked Weed. It’s not about AB-InBev. It’s about raising money for charity, the Eblen-Kimmel Charities, that does a lot of good helping the less fortunate in this community. Feeding and clothing and making sure they can keep the lights on in the winter. And 100 percent of the profits of the festival go to that. That’s the point of this thing — taking care of the people in our community is the most important thing for this company.

So we’re going to make this festival happen no matter what. I hope that a lot of my friends in the industry can see past these moments and see past AB, and see past our decision. And we can celebrate a moment when we can just all come together and be okay being friends and talk about our lives and what we’re doing and raise a lot of money for a really good cause.

There will be a delay in ticket sales. We obviously can’t put them on sale this Saturday while the list is shaking out, but we’ve reached out and communicated to the majority of brewers and I’ve sent emails to every single one of them. And you know, we can get upset about stuff but it’s just beer. Friendships and community are more important. If they don’t want to come to the festival because they don’t feel like it’s a good brand decision, we understand. We’ve reached out and told them we’d love to give them a couple of free tickets and have them here, come hang out with the community that’s here, and support each other and have a good time.

[In a Facebook post last night, the brewery announced ticket sales will be pushed back two weeks to May 20, and they will release an updated list of participating breweries soon. Those who bought limited locals-only tickets before the ABI acquisition was announced can request a refund if they no longer wish to attend the festival.]

What lead you guys to decide to sell in the first place?

Since we started, we’ve grown 100 percent a year. You know, starting with a brewpub, and then in year two we built the Funkatorium, in year three built our production facility, and in year four built the funk house, our headquarters here in south Asheville. That’s a lot of growth, and it was challenging and really exciting, and we’ve been able to have an impact on not only our community but the craft beer space as a whole. And we’ve challenged the way people look at beer as a beverage, to break down some of those walls between beer and wine and spirits.

So at this point, it’s not 2007 — it’s 2017, and the market looks a lot different than when we started. There were 1,500 breweries when we started four years ago, and this year there will be over 6,000. So that’s a really big change, and the space is growing and vibrant, but what the future looks like? Everybody’s growing really quickly, too, so we had to make some decisions as to how we were going to grow — what was the best way to keep the brand intact to make sure the vision stayed intact and to make sure the family that built it will continue to thrive.

So we saw that taking a strategic partner could be part of that. We looked at a lot of different options. There was a lot of interest in the company, but we never really sought anyone out. We didn’t have a firm shopping us around or anything like that.

But you know for me it was a hard decision to choose AB because of their history. But what I came to realize through spending more time with Felipe [Szpigel, head of AB’s The High End] and his team, and some of the other craft partners, is that they’re a very different company now than they were when they didn’t understand what craft was. These are guys who really believe in us. They’re going to support our vision. They’re not going to force us to grow faster than we need. If we choose to outsource Pernicious [Wicked Weed’s flagship IPA] to their facilities — which are very capable of producing it at the same quality as we could’ve produced it at, say, Sierra Nevada or New Belgium, because we’re not talking about any different equipment or size — you know, that’s a choice we’ll make. They’re not going to force us to grow if we don’t want to. They’re really going to incubate this brand we have and help us get to the next level.

I’m really excited about the partnership. There are a lot of mixed feelings about this on our team. But at the end of the day, we’re all on board, our staff’s all on board, and the future’s going to be really interesting for Wicked Weed. In the end, I think we have an opportunity to challenge the supply chain, how wholesalers treat craft breweries and how the beer is handled. We also are going to have new options for innovating and creating new pathways by taking market share from wine and spirits. And I think that’s something I want people to remember — that’s a lot of what we’re doing here at Wicked Weed. We’re growing the market, we’re not stealing it from other people. The beers we make here are very different than the drivers in a lot of these other portfolios. We’re not Goose Island — the beers we make speak to a totally different audience, and I think that’s directly taking share from wine and spirits a lot of the time, and that’s our goal. We want to grow the category, we can to grow the space, and I think that’s going to be a good thing for craft beer as a whole.

How will the acquisition affect Wicked Weed’s distribution and production?

We’ve worked really hard with our wholesalers to pick the right partners. We feel really good about the partners we have, we’re going to continue supporting them. Obviously, as we go forward, we’re part of the AB network now. We’re already in a lot of AB houses, but at the end of the day, if you look at a lot of the others in The High End portfolio, many of them are not aligned with AB when it comes to distribution. So we’re going to pick the best wholesalers that we can for our brand and support them.

As far as growth, for this year we’re going to stay on track for 40,000 barrels that we’re already producing. What 2018 looks like is a different story. But again this is all them supporting our vision and giving us the resources to grow at the pace that we decide. And that’s an exciting thing for us.

Wicked Weed has always been limited by access to raw materials. Pernicious, and Napoleon Complex, and Freak of Nature, and Lt. Dank — those are all really hop-forward beers, using upwards of four pounds per barrel of hops. And those are hard to get your hands on, and that’s why they’re great and why they’ve won medals. So for us, having hops no longer being a limited factor of growth is exciting for us. As far as what the growth looks like, we’re still determining that.

Have you been surprised by how intense some of the backlash has been so far?

We’re not naive. This isn’t the first time somebody’s been acquired. I do know that with Wicked Weed, this is a little bit more of a shock to the system because of the kind of passionate consumers we have. But I hope in the end they’ll all realize we’re the same people. We’re still here, we’re still leading this company, we’re still producing the same beers. If they didn’t get upset, it would mean they didn’t care, and that would hurt a lot more than if nobody was saying anything.

I understand the backlash. I recognize it. And our goal over the next few years is to win those guys back and show them we’re the same people but we’re doing a better job at what we do. I want everyone to realize that these are good people working hard to make great beer, and that’s not going to change. That’s why we made this choice, that even though a lot of people might not agree with it, The High End is a really big partner for craft beer.