At a Jan. 19 launch party at downtown Johnson City’s Atlantic Ale House taproom, Wicked Weed Brewing filled the taps to celebrate its new distribution arrangement, which landed its signature beers in bars and grocery stores on this side of the mountainous state line.
Though the event was well attended, some beer aficionados were not there. Just as sour as the innovative brews that helped endear the brand in their hearts was the taste still left in their mouths after the small-batch maker they loved sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer.
The global company owns Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois, Labatt and Beck's, to name a few of its hundreds of brands.
Michael Peck, co-owner of downtown Bristol’s Elderbrew brewery and taproom said Wicked Weed’s beer is great, but said he’d never buy it and likened microbreweries offering it in their taprooms to “getting in bed with the devil.”
Makers and drinkers like Peck were shocked when the Asheville brewery’s owners announced the sale to AB InBev last year.
For them, it was a betrayal from someone they trusted, like waking up and finding out their favorite indie band had turned into Smash Mouth.
“Wicked Weed rose to the top, and they garnered a great regional and national reputation,” Peck said. “People were looking to them as being the next big craft brewery. They did it all so fast, then they sold out.”
InBev’s flagship brand in America, Budweiser, has not been friendly to the people who make or drink craft beer.
Two years in a row, Budweiser aired multimillion-dollar Super Bowl ads celebrating the “macro beer” and ridiculing people who “dissect” their beers and “sip their pumpkin peach ale.” The not-so-subtle ads were aired in the midst of AB InBev’s buying spree of some of the country’s most popular small beer brands.
“We have a right to take it a little more personal, being involved in the game, if you will, and we also have a responsibility to elevate the palate and the knowledge of the craft beer people who come in to our taproom are drinking,” Peck said.
He said he understood the business decision Wicked Weed’s stakeholders made, but said he wanted the financial support from his business and his patrons to go to other small brewers, not a multinational corporation that has been openly hostile to his craft.
Jacob Grieb, a partner in the Atlantic Ale House, said he understands the sentiments.
He and his wife, Kelly, also a partner in the business, lived in Asheville before opening the Johnson City watering hole in 2014, and said he made good friends with people who worked at Wicked Weed.
When the AB InBev sale was announced, he said he was “destroyed.”
Now, he said he understands why the decision to sell was made, though he said that doesn’t mean he has to like it. Plus, the beer is still good.
“Our core principal at the Ale House is to showcase local and regional craft beer,” he said. “We wanted to create a venue where everyone felt at home and can converse over a delicious pint. While our decision to serve Wicked Weed was not taken lightly, it became apparent to us that even though they are owned by Inbev they still are ‘regional’ with all their beer being produced in Asheville.”
He added that strict state distribution laws make it difficult to bring in craft beer from adjacent communities. With Wicked Weed’s high quality and unique styles, the brand offers something new to customers, he said.
“Just because you see them on the board doesn’t change who we are,” Grieb said. “We still want to support our local breweries — Johnson City Brewing Co., JRH, Little Animals, Depot Street, etc. — first and foremost.”
Justin Crouch, director of sales for Wicked Weed, has had to answer questions about AB InBev more than a time or two.
He said he completely understands the concerns, but the buyout has allowed the brewery, pub and special selection taproom to invest more in its community and its 240 employees.
“We’ve been able to provide better employee benefits than we had recently, and we’ve been able to hire more people,” he said. “It’s still the founder and the former ownership being very present in the company. The culture hasn’t changed.”
Crouch said investing in increasing the business’ production capacity allowed for the expansion into the Tri-Cities, but said the plans to grow were already in place before the AB InBev buy.
Last October, Wicked Weed hired two sales representatives and a manager to cover Tennessee.
Since then, the brand has added a taproom in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, something Crouch said may have been helped by AB InBev’s clout, and has entered markets in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Clarksville and now the Tri-Cities. By March, local grocery stores should be stocking Wicked Weed.
“Tennessee as a state has really impressed us, and we’re projecting it may be our second-largest state for sales,” he said. “It’s been such a nice welcoming, and we hope to bring more good beers to you.”