Last week proved to have a deep effect on many craft beer fans, casual and hardcore. Two well known and beloved breweries exited the fold known as craft beer. The first blow was dealt early Wednesday morning. Wicked Weed had entered an agreement to sell their operation to AB-InBev. Social media posts came fast, and in many cases, were written by fans who were furious. “How could they do this?” and “Why would they join the evil empire?” These were some of the more polite things written. Many hard core beer fans seemed genuinely hurt by the announcement, some were absolutely beside themselves to think of WW selling out to the ‘Evil Empire.’ As breweries around the country released announcements they would cease to offer Wicked Weed bombers, or pour their beers from their taps ever again, the number of brewers that had planned on pouring at the Funkatorium Festival dwindled in record time. In reading a number of press releases from breweries around the country as to the reasons they would stop serving WW beers, the phrase “core values” was echoed repeatedly. While still fans of the people at Wicked Weed, many brewers felt obligated to share with their legions of fans that they simply could not do business with AB-InBev, a corporation who has been transparent in it’s desire to stifle the growth of craft brewers around the nation. In creating the ‘High End’ portfolio, AB-InBev made Wicked Weed their tenth craft brewery to be enveloped. Will the beer change? Unlikely. Will distribution shift? Undoubtably. A few years ago, a hop shortage threatened the fast growth of many small breweries. Hope growers met this challenge by growing more hops, and this year there is a surplus a hops on the market. Popular hops like Simcoe that were more valuable than gold to some are available in abundance according to many hop producers at this years Craft Brewers Conference. It is often said that true beer fans vote with their wallets, and while WW may feel the wrath of craft beer lovers domestically, the brewery may now see what the rest of the world feels about their plentiful portfolio on sour and funky beers. While they grew incredibly within the U.S. in just a few short years, the rest of the world will most likely be able to get their hands on beers like Pernicious in abundance.
The very next day, Thursday May 4, another shock sent ripples to beer geeks everywhere. Lagunitas sold the remaining 50% of their company to Heineken. The initial investment took place back in 2015, and at that time, there was not a clear plan laid out to purchase the remaining portion of the California powerhouse. For an unknown reason, or multitude reasons, beer loyalists didn’t hurl anger and frustration toward Tony Magee and the team at Lagunitas in nearly the volume they did to the folks at Wicked Weed. Was it the fact Heineken already had 50% of the company? Could it have been that the meteoric growth of the Petaluma based beer maker hinted at a buyout some time ago? Maybe beer loyalists only hate AB InBev and do not harbor the same disdain for other macro brewers. Either way, we have all heard that nothing will change, but deep down we know that is not true. By the pure nature of these deals, distribution channels will expand, there will never be lean times when needing materials, and the volume of production will increase. Those are all benefits of having the backing of a corporation with very deep pockets. I find myself on the fence, not because I consider myself the ‘King of Indecision,’ rather I remember the early days of both breweries. I was fortunate enough to drink Tony’s beers when he was in the small town of Lagunitas, well before the Undercover Shutdown and Chronic hadn’t been changed to protect the uber-uptight TTB. I’ve watched the Petaluma location turn into a circus. Literally. I also vividly recall a trip to Asheville many years ago, finding this bomber of Wicked Weed. Catchy name, I wasn’t even thinking of the historical relevance of the name in regards to brewing history. I tool a chance, and was quite glad I did. In opening a world class beer bar for the beer fans of Boulder and beyond, we had WW whenever we could get our hands on it. A reminder, back in the day it was rare to acquire it West of the Mississippi. The bottom line is that both companies will continue to make exceptional beer, and I will not waver in my complete adulation of the craft beer industry. I made a choice long ago this would be my career. In a career that has spanned more than two decades, things change. For me, my core values are still the same. Time will tell how others feel, but I wish Lagunitas and Wicked Weed the best of luck. Not that they need it, there are too many 0’s on those checks. This will spur many great things, and help motivated, passionate people to continue to push the envelope and open their own places. Places that make great beer, encourage collaboration, and stay true to their core values.