AB’s announcement it’ll acquire Asheville, NC’s Wicked Weed struck a chord. Now 10 such announcements in, AB’s learned what to say and what not to say and how to prep founders on the inevitable pushback from members of the craft cognoscenti. But so too have many of those folks figured out how to better communicate their misgivings. So amidst hollers of “sell-out” and promises of boycotts from a relatively small community of super-engaged consumers, more measured responses appeared. Brewers across the US who collaborated with Wicked Weed said they’d stop selling its brands or end planned and in-progress collaboration projects, like Texas’ Jester King, Calif’s Rare Barrel and Colo’s Black Project. In each case, the people behind these brands underlined their respect for Wicked Weed’s people, hoped to remain friends even, but acknowledged that “we don’t feel we are able to to have a business relationship with Wicked Weed because that connection, ultimately, is one with ABInBev,” as Black Project put it.
Publications like Denver’s Westword, the Washington Post and of course the Asheville Citizen-Times reported the backlash, including promises from multiple retailers to sell off all remaining Wicked Weed beer (some heavily discounted) and not buy it again. Quickly, many brewers who had agreed to take part in Wicked Weed’s upcoming Funkatorium Invitational festival of sour beers said that after the deal they’d not attend. At first a trickle of those un-RSVPs came in, then a flood. Tenemu counts 31 of the initial 75 breweries publicized as attending the event that have backed out; Porch Drinking lists over 40. But Wicked Weed founders insisted “it’s not a civil war here,” to Business Insider. “There was a big fight to take market-share from those big guys – the Anheuser-Busch of the world. And I think the exciting thing about beer now is it doesn’t need to be take-down-the-big-guys any more,” co-founder Walt Dickinson said.
Indeed, high-level execs at AB’s High End and leaders of individual partner brewers insist on a shared goal to “elevate beer” and expand craft as a whole. Independent brewers continue to mistrust this, however, even if they still count folks that lead acquired brewers as friends. Memories of many years of duking it out with AB and other big brewers early on clearly die hard for some veteran craft brewers, even if the segment gained 14.5 mil bbls since 2008, while AB and MC lost 25.4 mil bbls combined. Fresher memories of low-low Goose Island and Shock Top keg prices certainly don’t help. While that didn’t upset the craft-price apple cart overall, we’ve heard scattered claims of similar pricing tactics and other “predatory practices” much more recently. That isn’t to say that desires to kickstart beer growth by investing heavily in craft brands are in any way disingenuous. But the rubber meets the road on the street and “let’s get together” simply doesn’t fit into the realities of current craft competition for tap handles and shelf space.
Exacerbating tensions: craft ain’t growing overall, but AB’s acquired brewers are. Craft volume is up just 0.7% YTD thru 4/22 in Nielsen all outlet + convenience off-premise data, which includes not only acquired craft but also Blue Moon, Leinenkugel’s Shandies and Shock Top. It’s up a bit more, +2.3% for 4 wks. That’s less than 173K cases for a thousand or two brewers to share (excluding the thousands that don’t participate in off-premise chain channels). So far, Shock Top declines mean AB still losing a half-share of craft volume YTD, -0.4 share for 4 wks. But that brand losing 1.1 share of craft on its own. Suggests acquired brands gaining 0.7 share of a segment that’s barely growing.
Beyond frustrations with AB’s attempts to acquire share of the craft biz, small indie brewers also increasingly troubled by the co’s attempts to own a bigger chunk of the craft narrative. AB’s push into media goes beyond new October publication, billed as a collaboration with bigtime publisher Conde Nast, beer-focused digital media site and brand consultant Good Beer Hunting and ZX Ventures investment arm of AB’s global disruptive growth unit. AB’s High End unit quietly launched The Beer Necessities around the same time, run by editor Ethan Fixell, who explains relationship with The High End in letter early on. The blog-like property covers more than just AB-owned brands though and its ownership structure apparently wasn’t very clear to all brewery subjects. So Beachwood Brewing issued press release on same day AB announced the Wicked Weed deal explaining that lack of clarity and asking Beer Necessities to remove the post about the brewery.
“Increasingly, the line between independent brewers and craft brands owned by companies like Anheuser-Busch is blurring,” as Business Insider wrote. And fears that AB can use its heft and strength to take share from smaller brewers are not abated by moves that some view as attempts to not just own the market but own the story too. News of these deals clearly still stings many within the craft community, regardless of how many times it’s played out over the last few years. And while a growing number of next-wave observers now decry the fans who decry the supposed “sellouts,” it’s useful to remember that the craft category differentiated itself at least partially as being about more than the beer. “Yes. Breweries are for-profit ventures. Absolutely,” agreed Chi Tribune writer Josh Noel across multiple tweets: “But they sell far more than liquid in a glass. And Anheuser-Busch InBev is buying far more than liquid in a glass. You’re not buying culture at Walgreens. You’re buying toothpaste. You are (usually) buying a culture at a craft brewery just as much as beer.” Indeed, “selling an intangible is what craft beer -- or ‘craft beer’ if you prefer -- excels at.” (Josh, by the way, has forthcoming book about Goose Island and has spent more time than most considering the ins and outs of craft, “craft,” and AB’s investments in it.) Insofar as the buying and selling of both these tangible and intangible assets continues, the sore spots they create seem unlikely to heal as quickly as the news flows.