Walt Dickinson, above, joined brother Luke and friend Ryan Guthy to start a brewery in a former Asheville hardware store in 2012. Wicked Weed’s success prompted a sale five years later to giant AB InBev. Proving big companies don’t ruin everything is a key goal, he says.
By Page Leggett
When Asheville’s Wicked Weed Brewing opened in 2012, it was the “1,760th-something” craft brewery in the U.S., says co-founder Walt Dickinson. Now, there are about 7,000, creating what he calls a “very grassroots, rough-and-tumble space.” But Wicked Weed has stood out because of its willingness to experiment, its comfortable pub in downtown Asheville and, for better or worse, its May 2017 sale to the world’s biggest brewer.
Anheuser-Busch InBev SA’s purchase caused a national furor among craft-beer purists. The Washington Post cited angry Facebook messages such as: “Your cowardly embrace of the enemy of craft brewing has made my birthday dinner … the last time I will be patronizing your business.”
Big Beer’s pursuit of small brewers presents an inherent Catch-22, says Daniel Hartis, a Charlotte journalist who tracks the beer industry. “People are devoted to a craft-beer brand partly because of its independence. The second they’re acquired, they lose that.”
Not so fast, says Dickinson, who is Wicked Weed’s chief brand officer. “I think craft beer is a style. It’s not defined by if you’re independent or not.” Wicked Weed is following the same processes and still employs most of the same people, he says. “We’ve grown our sales and our footprint, but we’re still the same brand.”
By selling to the maker of Bud Light and dozens of other brands that produce annual revenue topping $55 billion, Wicked Weed technically lost its claim to “craft beer” status. Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit trade group Brewers Association defines craft brewers as having annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less and independent ownership in which less than 25% of equity is held by an alcoholic-beverage company that isn’t a craft brewer. Wicked Weed meets the first qualifier, but not the second. Its production grew from 21,000 barrels in 2016 to 37,500 last year and is projected to expand nearly 50% this year to 55,000 barrels. Distribution in New York started in September, followed by Florida on April 1.
Wicked Weed is one of 10 craft brands that AB InBev has acquired since 2011, when it bought Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co., says Benj Steinman, editor and publisher of Beer Marketer’s Insights, a trade publication. The beverage giant created a stand-alone division that now leads the craft-beer industry in sales.
In the first 60 days after the acquisition, Wicked Weed didn’t lose any employees. “We’ve had a little turnover since, but no mass exodus,” Dickinson says. “Me and Ryan [Guthy], my co-founder, are still running things.” One AB InBev manager, Tim Wolf, has joined as head of operations. “He’s been a great asset since we’ve gotten larger and, as a result, more bureaucratic.”
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The Asheville company’s sale surprised Hartis. “Wicked Weed was a brand that had decent financial backing from the beginning,” he says. Original investor Rick Guthy, who is Ryan’s father, along with his brother Bill Guthy and Greg Renker, are pioneers in the motivational tape and infomercial businesses, helping make self-help guru Tony Robbins and the acne treatment Proactiv household names.
Rick Guthy moved to Asheville in the late ’80s to run Guthy-Renker’s distribution center in nearby Enka. He and his wife, Denise, and son, Ryan, teamed with brothers Luke and Walt Dickinson to form Wicked Weed with an initial $2 million investment, according to the Capital at Play business magazine in Asheville.
“Wicked Weed had built multiple facilities and had a following,” Hartis says. “I could see why Anheuser-Busch would go after them. I didn’t see what Wicked Weed stood to gain — other than increased distribution — from Anheuser-Busch money.”
A lot of money, for one thing. The price tag hasn’t been disclosed, though more than $100 million — possibly much more — changed hands, according to people familiar with the transaction. Representatives from AB InBev declined to comment.
The capital infusion has been a boon to Asheville. Wicked Weed has added 50 jobs since 2017 and uses mostly local contractors for its construction projects. It’s invested in a new R&D program comprised of five researchers led by Sam Bryant, who oversees development of new offerings. “His job is to wake up every day and think of new concepts. … While we’re available to a mass market through chain stores because of AB,” Dickinson says, “we’re still doing super high-end, small-production beers, too.”
Increased distribution has introduced Wicked Weed to a new segment of customers. “If an acquisition is done properly, the soul of the brand stays intact,” Dickinson says. “We’re larger, and there’s more reporting we have to do. But [AB is] very good about letting us lead our company.”
Wicked Weed officials say innovation is key to its success. Its Funkatorium was the East Coast’s first taproom dedicated exclusively to sour beer, which remains a focus. The Session Sour brand unveiled this year includes Passionfruit Lychee Burst, which started selling in January. Watermelon Dragonfruit will be on sale later this spring, followed by Cherry Lime.
The company also plans a summer release of several “spontaneously fermented” beers, referring to mixing ales with wild yeasts rather than cultivated ones. “This is the fruition of four years of planning and hard work,” says Andrew Zinn, head of sour production. “These beers will be very much about a sense of place, using all locally malted barley and raw wheat, all grown in the Southeast.”
Then there’s Cultura, the upscale restaurant that will open later this year next to the Funkatorium in the South Slope brewery district. The partnership includes James Beard-nominated chef Jacob Sessoms, founder of Asheville’s beloved Table. “Cultura will push the leading edge like the Funkatorium did,” Dickinson says. “The space is going to be elegant and beautiful.”
Some craft-beer geeks may have sworn off Wicked Weed. But it’s going to be hard to keep foodies away from what’s likely to be one of the hottest new restaurants in a food- and drink-obsessed town. Asheville draws plenty of out-of-towners who don’t know or care that Wicked Weed is no longer locally owned, Hartis says.
Dickinson knows there’s a segment of beer drinkers he may have lost forever. “There will always be people looking for the next smallest, most elite thing,” he says. “There’s this perception that big companies ruin everything they touch. My goal is to prove those people wrong.” ■