The Thirsty Beagle: Thirsty Beagle Commentary: Beer Outrage Edition No. 2

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Thirsty Beagle Commentary: Beer Outrage Edition No. 2

Wicked Weed Brewing – the 5-year-old North Carolina beermaker known for its West Coast IPAs and its dedicated sour beer taproom, the Funkatorium – was not the first craft brewer to sell out to Anheuser-Busch.

When Wicked Weed did the deed and the news broke in early May, the macro-brewing behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev already counted the likes of Goose Island, Elysian and 10 Barrel as members of its business arm dedicated to craft brewer acquisitions.

ABI has been making waves – and few friends – in the craft industry by scooping up popular brands to join that business arm, which they call The High End. (It’s worth noting that The High End’s top two labels are Stella Artois and Shock Top – two very decidedly un-craft brands.)

The formula when The High End pulls the trigger has become somewhat predictable: The news is broken with a press release where the now-much-richer craft brewer trots out a series of stale talking points about how they now have access to a vast array of ingredients and resources, and how joining up with ABI will enable them to share their beer with even more people, etc., etc.

The reaction from craft beer enthusiasts to such maneuvering has also become quite formulaic. Add equal parts disgust and indignation, throw in a few condemnations and move on down the road.

In the case of Goose Island, for example, the buyout has not totally steered people away from fervor over the annual release of the popular Bourbon County Stout. The argument there is that, yes, Goose Island may be owned by ABI, but if they’re making Bourbon County – the rich, decadent stout – the same way they always did, we’re still going to clamor to get our hands on it.

Unfortunately for Wicked Weed, their buyout was not met with some tame or muted version of frustration. When news of that buyout was announced, simply put, people lost their s---.

The news sent shock waves through the craft beer community and elicited outrage like we had not seen with any previous ABI shenanigans.

Drinkers and fellow brewers alike lashed out, most notably when dozens of beermakers pulled out of an annual festival organized and hosted by Wicked Weed in protest.

But why the fury?

Wes Alexander, sales and marketing director for Tulsa’s Marshall Brewing and a leading advocate for the growth of craft beer in Oklahoma, said consumers felt “betrayed.”

“Consumers feel a part of independent American breweries,” Alexander said. “In many respects we owe a great deal of gratitude to craft drinkers for growing our businesses organically. With the rapid rise of Wicked Weed, no doubt craft drinkers, pub owners, and retailers all had a hand in rapid growth and expansion. Those same passionate people feel personally betrayed by the brand they helped build.”

Freddy Lamport, who operates Craft & Barrel, an Oklahoma importer and broker for numerous niche craft beer labels, suggested the overt anger over the Wicked Weed buyout stemmed from that brewery’s historically niche status.

“(The) Wicked Weed (buyout) was bad because they are such a niche craft brewery,” Lamport said. “(Anheuser-Busch) goes against craft breweries directly.”

Clearly, the craft-admiring masses felt Wicked Weed sold out to the enemy.

The hurt registered even here in Oklahoma, where Oak & Ore owner Micah Andrews penned a heartfelt blog post about why the move hit so close to home.

“For most folks, Wicked Weed selling out to AB-InBev isn’t big news, but for us, for those of us in the industry or those who support craft beer and call it our own, this news is extraordinarily tough,” Andrews wrote. “…It feels very personal.”

Andrews continued:

“I’ve watched many friends over the years fight and claw to make something for themselves in this industry, almost always starting from nothing. Some of them have grown to be quite successful and make great beer. … That’s due to the effort of a whole lot of people who deeply love what they do and have worked non-stop for a long time.

“And, hey, that’s nice and inspiring and all, but if one business cashes in on their hard work and sells to a big corporation, isn’t that their prerogative as owners? Haven’t they earned that big payout? That’s a hard question to answer succinctly and, honestly, I’m probably not qualified to give the right answers.”

Ahhh, but that is the question at the heart of the matter. Throw all the shock and indignation aside, and can you really begrudge a brewer for grabbing a life-changing, multi-million-dollar payout?

As Andrews wrote, it definitely is a hard question.

Bring the example even closer to home in a hypothetical situation. Let’s take Roughtail Brewing. Brewmaster Tony Tielli (among others) built Roughtail from the ground up, making unapologetic, aggressive beers. Is Roughtail not the epitome of the truly independent little guy, staying true to its creative roots and fighting against odds to make a name for itself?

If ABI came calling and laid a contract worth $3 million, or $5 million, or $10 million on the table, how mad would you be at Roughtail for taking it?

Personally, I’ve seen Tielli sweating at the brewery by himself just so he could keep the lights on – I’d congratulate him for taking the gold.

Would you stop buying Roughtail? Even if you knew Tielli was still in the brewery making it?

Now, I’m not saying people can’t or shouldn’t get fired up when they feel like ABI is muscling in and trying to steal the soul out of craft beer.

But maybe deciding if you should be outraged is not always a clear-cut issue.

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