Josh Noel

Beer, travel, other things.

Josh Noel is the author of "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business" and writes about travel and beer for the Chicago Tribune.

Happy Anniversary, Wicked Weed

One year ago today, I was casting about for the end of my book. I had the beginning. I had the middle. But I didn't quite have the end. 

Then, to quote myself (as you'll see below): Wicked Weed Brewing happened.

You wouldn't think a story beginning with John Hall launching a brewpub in Chicago in 1988 as a second career would wind up with the sale of a North Carolina brewery in 2017 to the world's largest beer company. But it does, because Goose Island tells a story much bigger than its own. Goose Island tells the story of craft beer — innovation, struggle, wild success and then a complicated crossroad.

The way I chose to tell that story was through the lens of Goose Island and Anheuser-Busch. The first half of "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business" is the story of Goose Island's rise, and its role as one of craft beer's great innovators. It also delves into Anheuser-Busch's difficult relationship with craft beer through the 1990s.

The mid-way point of the book is Goose Island's sale to Anheuser-Busch in 2011, which launched craft beer into a frenzied era of mergers and acquisitions, cries of "sell out" and questions of what it means to be an independently-owned business and to be "craft." Goose Island — the first of what wound up being 10 brewery acquisitions for Anheuser-Busch — was one of the more contentious sales. The last of those 10 wound up being just as contentious: the sale of Wicked Weed.

Announced one year ago Thursday, the deal sparked a new and fierce round of handwringing. It also provided a springboard into the final chapter of the book, which both ties off Goose Island's story and examines how craft beer went from unlikely underdog to grappling with the messiness of the industry's maturation. 

Here's the beginning of that chapter:*

In the spring of 2017, six months to the day after announcing its ninth American craft brewery acquisition — Houston’s Karbach Brewing — Anheuser-Busch announced its tenth American craft brewery acquisition. The Karbach sale had caused only a minor stir. Houston was a relatively undeveloped craft beer market, and though popular locally, Karbach had little broader resonance. The world seemingly had made peace with Anheuser-Busch’s push into craft beer. It was what it was. And it was apparently just about finished. Leadership insisted that it was time to stop buying, time to start executing.

“There’s a limit to how many people I can actually manage and collaborate with,” Felipe Szpigel, president of the High End, told Beer Marketer’s Insights that January. “I’m not saying that we’re not going to have any deal, but we’re pretty much good.”

Four months later, Wicked Weed Brewing happened.

Launched barely four years earlier in the craft beer hotbed of Asheville, North Carolina, Wicked Weed embraced two of the industry’s sizzling trends: robust IPAs and tart, funky wild ales. Two handsome blond brothers, Walt and Luke Dickinson, started the brewery with family friend Ryan Guthy and Guthy’s parents, who had made a fortune selling skin care products via infomercial. The Dickinson brothers were the face of the company, but the Guthys were reported to be majority owners, which allowed Wicked Weed to open with a craft beer bang: seven thousand square feet and seventeen draft handles in the heart of downtown Asheville, next to the coolest rock club in town. It was such a slick start-up that some locals presumed it was part of an existing chain. In less than four years, Wicked Weed opened three more spaces — a taproom dedicated to sour beers, a barrel-aging facility, and a fifty-barrel production brewery. By 2017, it was on pace to produce forty thousand barrels of beer — a whopping 471 percent growth from just two years earlier.

Named for a legendary (and possibly misattributed) quote from King Henry VIII — the hop plant is a “wicked and pernicious weed” — Wicked Weed was equal parts outstanding beer and outstanding branding. The Dickinsons looked the part, they had national buzz, and they collaborated with the industry’s most credible brewers. People liked Wicked Weed because Wicked Weed had the unique ability to make people care — in the beer, in the brand, and in the ethos. And that made its sale to Anheuser-Busch an exacting punch to the gut. It was Goose Island and Elysian all over again. It was a reminder that Big Beer would never stop. It forever had the ability to thrust itself into the heart of craft beer.

Texas’s Jester King Brewery — which specialized in the same sort of sour and wild ales as Wicked Weed — spoke for a stunned industry when it issued a statement hours after the announcement:

This has been a difficult day for us. The news that our great friend Wicked Weed Brewing was acquired by AB In-Bev came as quite a shock. As you might guess, we've been getting a lot of e-mails, media inquiries, and online questions about what we think and what it means for Jester King. 

It's no secret that Wicked Weed has been one of our closest friends in the beer industry. Regardless of what has transpired, we'll always consider the people of Wicked Weed friends, and want the best for them and their families. 

With that said, we have some core principles that define who we are as a brewery, and those principles must not be compromised. One of our core principles is that we do not sell beer from AB In-Bev or its affiliates. We've chosen this stance, not because of the quality of the beer, but because a portion of the money made off of selling it is used to oppose the interests of craft brewers. In Texas, large brewers (and their distributors) routinely oppose law changes that would help small, independent brewers. We choose not to support these large brewers because of their political stances, and in some cases, their economic practices as well. 

Because of this core principle, it pains us to say that we won't be carrying Wicked Weed anymore at Jester King. We think Wicked Weed beer is some of the best in the world. Their talent, techniques, and patience produces some of the most beautiful beer we've ever tasted. That, combined with their great friendship, is what makes this decision so tough for us. But like we said, our core values must be paramount at the end of the day. 

We wish Wicked Weed the best, will deeply miss having their beer at Jester King and working with them on collaborations, and expect them to continue to make fantastic beer. Like we mentioned, they'll always have our friendship and we look forward to the next time we can share a beer together.

The founder of Denver’s Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales, James Howat, followed by saying on his brewery’s website that he was “shocked” by the sale. “We truly believe that ABInBev intends to systematically destroy American craft beer as we know it,” he wrote.

Howat had two collaboration beers with Wicked Weed in process — one at his brewery and one aging in Asheville. He announced that he would no longer lend his brewery’s name to the beer at Wicked Weed, and the one in Denver would be blended into existing beers. Also, Howat said, he would not participate in Wicked Weed’s annual sour and wild beer festival, the Wicked Weed Funkatorium Invitational, scheduled in Asheville two months later.

And on it went. The North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild announced that it was “disheartened to hear of the sale.” A former Wicked Weed employee bought the URL www.wickedweedsoldout.com to post a nine hundred-word screed in which he called Wicked Weed’s founders sellouts three separate times. Bars and beer stores said they were done with the brewery, including several in Denver, where Wicked Weed had begun distributing to marked excitement just ten months earlier. A dozen bars said they would tap their remaining kegs and then be done, just as they had already cut ties with the rest of Anheuser-Busch’s craft portfolio. Even a bar owner in Switzerland aired his disgust, discounting his remaining Wicked Weed bottles to a dollar each. “We will take a loss, but we can absolutely no longer stand behind their products, and we will be happy when we have rid our coolers of their negative spirit,” he wrote, in German, on Facebook.

With its rapid growth and extraordinarily deep financing, Wicked Weed did not need to sell, the Dickinson brothers insisted after the sale. But they were ambitious. And while growing into a dominant regional brand seemed attainable — especially after expanding to eight states and forty thousand barrels of production — Anheuser-Busch offered limitless opportunity. Seeds of the sale were planted at the Great American Beer Festival in 2013, when Felipe Szpigel stopped by Wicked Weed’s table. He liked what he tasted. He traveled to Asheville to look around and to chat with the founders. When the Dickinsons and Guthys began considering a sale in late 2016 to finance growth while reducing their own risk, they already knew Szpigel. Within weeks, the sides were doing due diligence.

For Anheuser-Busch, Wicked Weed was a seamless fit both geographically (finally — a craft presence in the Southeast) and within its portfolio; after buying IPAs, stouts, and lagers, now it had sour and wild ales. The turning point for the Dickinson brothers was a visit to Goose Island the previous fall. They wanted to see life at an Anheuser-Busch acquisition, and the High End urged them to visit Chicago. The Dickinsons spent a day at the brewery, the barrel warehouse, and the taproom.

They liked the beer. They liked the culture. They were impressed by the Fulton Street taproom; it seemed more authentically “craft” than taprooms they’d visited from actual independently owned breweries. They liked that it was built after Anheuser-Busch bought the company. The world’s largest beer company wasn’t afraid to invest in its acquisitions.

The day the sale was announced, as scorn rained down, Szpigel told media that Wicked Weed was “redefining what sophistication in beer can mean,” and that sour ales would be key to the next phase of the High End’s development. The Dickinson brothers, meanwhile, handled their repudiation with relative class — and the hope that none of it would eventually matter.

“I in no way have any issue with the statements they put out,” Walt Dickinson said of Jester King and Black Project, a day after the sale was announced. “They were very respectful and all they did was distance themselves from us from a professional standpoint because of the partner we decided to align with. They have done absolutely nothing wrong and I fully support those statements and understand their reasoning for them. In the end, I hope one day we can break down some of these barriers and we can get back to just looking at beer for what it is, and look at quality instead of who is the subsidiary of who.”

Yet in the coming days, almost every brewery planning to pour beer at the Funkatorium Invitational withdrew. Some did so quite gladly: “They’ve always rubbed me the wrong way, particularly Walt, because he introduces himself to me every time and says, every time, ‘Pleasure to meet you, I’m a big fan of your beers,’” Brad Clark, the founder of Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery in Athens, Ohio, told the Good Beer Hunting website. “A total lack of relevance and compassion and being present.”

The day after the sale was announced, Wicked Weed announced that the festival would go on as planned. But a week later, after 80 percent of scheduled breweries dropped out, it had no choice but to cancel the Funkatorium Invitational. It pledged to stage a new event two months later that never happened.

Again and again, the Dickinsons offered up the standard Anheuser-Busch defense: It’s just beer! Can’t we all just get along? The sooner everyone started thinking about the beer in the glass — rather than how it got in the glass — the better. The world’s largest beer company was counting on it.

When I began working on this book six years ago, at a time that Anheuser-Busch had still only acquired one craft brewery — Goose Island — I had no idea where the story would lead. Hell, Wicked Weed hadn't even brewed its first beer yet. Yet, in 2018, here we are, staring at an industry transformed. 

 The last chapter

The last chapter

*Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out: Goose Island, Anheuser-Busch and How Craft Beer Became Big Business to be published June 1, 2018 by Chicago Review Press. Excerpt © 2017 Josh Noel.