Judas, Benedict Arnold, Wicked Weed?

Yesterday, Wicked Weed Brewing agreed to be acquired by AB InBev, the parent company of Budweiser, Stella Artois, et al. and the largest beer company globally by a monstrous margin. Of all the craft brewing buyouts, this has made the most headlines since Ballast Point’s billion dollar deal, but has arguably sent more shockwaves throughout the craft beer community.  When Ballast Point sold, the biggest surprise to everyone was the number associated with the deal. They had been expanding so rapidly that the idea of them selling out was not entirely unfathomable. But for Wicked Weed, which I venture a good portion of you have never tried, it feels different.

Wicked Weed became popular in the brewing boomtown of Asheville, NC for doing a lot of styles well, and more recently have been a craft beer darling for their outstanding sour beers. Last year, I sang the praises of Red Angel and Angel of Darkness from my visit to the Firestone Walker Invitational. So when the news broke that they agreed to sell, it felt like losing one of the good guys. Breweries, especially sour breweries, were quick to react. Jester King, The Rare Barrel, and Black Project quickly released statements canceling collaboration beers with Wicked Weed and/or dropping out of Wicked Weed’s own invitational beer festival. Additionally, the two breweries closest to my heart, Beachwood and Modern Times, both reiterated what it means when a conglomerate gobbles up another craft brand: AB InBev is trying to fill all available “craft” beer shelves with breweries in their portfolio by any means necessary. And, as best they can, they want to do this without the consumer noticing. Increased production by Elysian, or Golden Road, or Wicked Weed ends with less independently-owned beer available.

I love a brewery with a solid backbone. @beachwoodbbq @beachwoodbrewing

Independent breweries, especially the ones that fight tooth and nail against the nefarious practices the big guys use, are small businesses that support local jobs and economies. When they succeed, the money stays in local communities. When they are acquired, the money (in this case) goes to Belgium, Brazil, St. Louis, and wherever else AB InBev has headquarters. Wicked Weed seemed like one of those small businesses, and yesterday, it let a lot of folks down–drinkers and brewers alike. It’s not illegal to sell your business for a profit–in fact, it’s one of the things many people in this country dream about. However, when that sale violates an ethical boundary many of your peers aren’t willing to cross because it would negatively affect the group as a whole, you have to be willing to live with the decision.

Beer geeks will know about this sale and, hopefully, vote with their wallet to avoid Wicked Weed in the future. Casual craft beer drinkers might not, which is exactly how AB InBev wants it. If you know better, I urge you to inform your friends which company really owns the beer they want to buy next time you’re at a bar or bottle shop. I’ve stopped (as much as I can reasonably help it) buying beer from Golden Road, Ballast Point, 10 Barrel, and Lagunitas. And after today’s second kidney punch news that Heineken is buying the remaining 50% of Lagunitas, that’s not about to change. Stay informed, and stay vigilant!

Note: I previously stated that I intended to continue to drink Ballast Point when I wrote about their acquisition. With more knowledge, this is no longer my position or my practice.

Brew More to Drink Better

The inspiration for my creation

As I write this, a five gallon batch of beer is bubbling away in contented fermentation in my closet. It’s a West Coast IPA with Simcoe and Amarillo hops done in the style of Alpine’s Duet, the beer that originally sold me on the brewery over half a decade ago. I don’t homebrew all that often, maybe two or three times a year, but I feel myself becoming a more astute drinker each time I do. Homebrewing not only teaches the steps involved in crafting a beer, it familiarizes me with ingredients as individual components. I’ve said before that an understanding of the brewing process can deepen your appreciation for beer, but actually doing invites the hands-on knowledge that can’t be obtained otherwise.

Not Mosaic, but a similarly great hop

Oftentimes, you’ll hear someone tout the aroma of a hop-forward beer, indicating which hop variety contributes to this particularly pleasing scent. While it’s possible that beer has a clean and an unassuming malt profile with unobtrusive yeast, chances are the finished product doesn’t smell like hops and hops alone. Brewing, even every once in awhile, allows you to evaluate these ingredients individually, so when someone offers you a Mosaic-hopped IPA, you know what Mosaic hops should smell like in their natural (or pelletized) state. Then, the next time you sniff that IPA, you’ll be able to notice how the hops actually build on the subtle sweetness of Canadian two-row or Maris Otter malts or that some of the fruit aromas come from the yeast instead. Of course, the critical drinker could buy these ingredients from a homebrew shop for educational purposes without the intention of brewing with them, but where would the fun be in that?

Furthermore, homebrewing reminds you that brewing isn’t easy and can hopefully keep the egos of hypercritical beer geeks in check when they realize that the pale ale they brewed not only doesn’t hold a candle to Hill Farmstead’s offerings, it probably isn’t as good as the local brewery’s Cascade-hopped pale ale they just gave three stars to on Untappd. When we get used to having really good beer, it’s nice to have some humility and recognize the extraordinary effort taken to reach the quality we now enjoy.

Beer, Politics, and Business

The constitutional amendment most celebrated by brewers tends to be the 21st, which repealed the 18th, which enacted Prohibition. The 21st Amendment is so beloved, we have a brewery named for it and (non-bank observed) holidays celebrating it. It’s pretty important in the world of alcohol.  Lately, it seems like another amendment has taken the spotlight in my eyes–the first, but we’ll get back to that.

When you’re at a bar, you don’t talk about religion or politics, right? What about if you’re on Facebook? What if you own the bar? Okay, so it’s not a bar in question, but in the past week or so, I’ve seen responses from two California breweries pop up on my Facebook feed that seem to cross this de facto taboo.

First, Twelve Rounds Brewery of Sacramento became embroiled in controversy when its owner, Daniel Murphy, posted “I am disgusted at all of the people and politicians that supported this anti-Trump event,” to his personal Facebook page during the worldwide women’s marches January 21. There are two important things to remember in this case: 1. He posted it to his private page and 2. It’s the internet; nothing is private. According to this Sacramento Bee article, the post was viewable by Friends and Friends of Friends, which in the craft beer community is pretty much everybody. Scrolling through the comment section where spelling prowess and generous use of the Caps Lock key seem inversely related, I noticed that there was a healthy mix of people vowing never to patronize the brewery again and others who pledged to redouble their support efforts and bring their friends down for a pint. While it’s probably too early to tell long-term, it seems Murphy’s political postings have negatively affected business, since the brewery’s Facebook page has publicly apologized and asked for forgiveness and some investors have backed out.

A little over a week and several disheartening Executive Orders later, the founder and CEO of Modern Times, Jacob McKean, posted this message to all of their social media accounts:

”I condemn the President’s attacks on immigrants and refugees with the force of 1,000 supervolcanoes. I would not be here & Modern Times would not exist if the world had closed its doors to people fleeing anti-semitism & persecution abroad; it would be hypocritical to remain silent now. To our employees, peers, friends, & fans who have immigrated to the U.S. or sought refuge here: We love you, we stand with you, & we will do everything we can to defend you.”

                              Liquid Tolerance

He sent a diametrically opposite message than Murphy, who had previously stated (again, in semi-private Facebook posts): “All Muslims want us dead. Outlaw Islam and get them out of our Country now!” McKean got a bit of backlash and some unsolicited business advice ranging from, and I’m paraphrasing,  “shut up and make beer” to “keep your business and your politics separate if you don’t want to alienate half of your customers.” While I see the logic behind comments like the second one, I commend Mr. McKean for taking a public stand.

Even though I disagree with Murphy’s statements and applaud McKean’s, it’s worth noting a few key differences. At the most basic level, the first is a message of disgust and anger (while uncovered posts from earlier demonstrate Murphy’s Islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia, none of which are actual phobias but rather bigoted ideologies), and the second is one of inclusiveness and love. McKean wisely chose his words to condemn the action, not the man behind them, so as not to be accused of hypocrisy in a post about spreading love. It’s crucial to remember that the first post was semi-private and not intended to be seen, and the owner and brewery both had to do some serious backpedaling and public apologizing to save face, while the second was a willful press release that understood the repercussions of posting something not all customers would agree with.

In an environment where not making waves is the safest option, it’s refreshing to see a business show some moral fiber, as Modern Times has done. Brewing is an art, and what is art without passion? Without a strong point of view? The risks an artist is willing to take in his or her personal life ultimately appear in the art itself and Modern Times’ beer is anything but by the books. In any industry where competition can be overwhelming, this type of authenticity stands out–and to me, that’s exactly what defines Modern Times as a brand. Side note: if you think I’m being hypocritical by calling one of these statements a passionate risk and not the other, perhaps you’re forgetting the forethought that went into one and the willful ignorance and damage-control string of apologies associated with the other.

This brings me to my main point of contention, which is with the people who claim that Twelve Rounds and Daniel Murphy are being unfairly attacked for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. Freedom of speech is not, nor has it ever been, the right to say whatever you want without consequence.  With respect to this issue, the amendment simply states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. That’s it. You can say racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, or xenophobic things and Congress can’t imprison you. Luckily, the craft beer community is less forgiving.