My grandfather owned a hardware store in a little town somewhere between Winston-Salem and the Virginia state line. For years his store carried just about anything people in Walnut Cove, North Carolina might want. Yes, “Mr. Boley,” as he was known to townsfolk, sold basic hardware stuff -– nails, hammers, nuts, bolts, washtubs and paint. He sold farming supplies, gardening equipment, vegetable and flower seed. He sold rifles, handguns, ammo and fishing gear. And as time evolved he sold radios, washing machines, TVs, stereos, small kitchen appliances, baseball mitts, model car sets, bicycles – you name it, my grandfather sold it. It was a Wal-Mart concept way, way ahead of its time.
That little store on Main Street sustained a family of seven and sent all five children to some form of college for a period of time — a major accomplishment for any era, but especially in the mid-1900s. Later my uncles worked at the store and took care of their families, too. Two stayed for years. One broke off to get into another line of work. It was a successful but tough business.
The hardware store provided most of what people in the town wanted or needed in those days when trips to Winston-Salem were just too difficult. Mr. Boley could get just about anything given the time, should someone ask. And he would. What my grandfather and uncles provided most was service. Yes, they sold lawnmowers, chain saws and roto-tillers but they also delivered on demand and repaired what they sold when the machinery broke down. They spent the days leading up to Christmas assembling bikes and other items so parents could have them ready on Christmas morning for their kids. They took care of their customers when they were short of cash or under the weather. They specialized in community whether they actually knew it or not.
It’s what a small business is all about. They provided more, much more than just some shiny object at a reduced rate that people would eventually be able to drive 20 miles and find at first one big corporate-owned store or another. Tuttle Hardware had personality. It was a hangout where men told first one tall tale then another. They smoked like industrial chimneys, drank pop and ate nabs. Mr. Boley knew everybody in town and who their kin were. And under my cousin Bill today Tuttle Hardware remains most of those things. It doesn’t sell TVs or stuff like that anymore, but it provides basic hardware goods while still offering service and repairs. It’s still fighting off superstores like Lowes and Wal-Mart for all its worth. It’s there today because Tuttle Hardware has loyal customers. Folks know they can depend on it and its close by.
So given my history and the choice between patronizing a locally owned business and a corporate one I try to choose the former over the latter. That’s not always possible or easy, especially in larger towns and cities. It may cost a little more, might be more difficult to find, but if a locally owned business is providing good competition and a similar product, I’ll do my best to go there first.
Which brings me — finally — to some news that exploded in the beer world this week. Asheville-based Wicked Weed Brewing, a very popular craft brewer in North Carolina, was sold to corporate beer giant ABInBev or Anheuser-Busch InBev. For clarity going forward let’s just call it Budweiser, an entity that was historically the “King of Beers” and the dominant force in the beer market for decades. They’re makers of damned good TV ads, too. Who knew that animated frogs, dogs wearing sunglasses or humongous horses clomping in the snow were images that sold beer in mass quantities? Full confession, I was a loyal Budweiser drinker from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. That’s about the time I decided to drink far fewer beers but concentrate on consuming better ones.
Ultimately, and it took several years and a few memberships in a Beer of the Month Club, I joined the once-growing group of people who became interested in craft beer, something known as the “craft beer movement.” Forget that I seldom join movements, I just like the ability to sample a different brew anytime I decide to have one rather than buying a 12-pack of the same old watered down offerings that used to mainly populate the aisles at the local grocery. It all tasted pretty much the same back then, no matter how much Budweiser liked to tout its beechwood-aging process. On the other hand, all craft beers are a little different depending upon the brewer and its goals. The process usually combines a variety of flavors — some very unusual (read weird). Craft brewing is always an experiment, combining elements of fruit, vegetables, spices, hops, yeast with different variations of techniques, including use of barrels that once held wine, bourbon, rye and tequila. I’m no expert, merely a dabbler.
Consumption is fun, an adventure. More of an experience than simply pounding down the suds to catch a good buzz. It’s like wine tasting, and yet it’s not. For one, I ain’t spitting out my swallow of beer if it tastes great. Like anything else, a lot of the craft products out there are very good. Some of it is pure crap. And a good bit may be popular or not depending upon individual tastes. My palate, for example, still isn’t accustomed to sours. But I also took a little while to warm up to IPAs. Now I enjoy them immensely even if I think far too many are on the market these days.
The best part for me? It’s locally produced — or made nearby. North Carolina has microbreweries that almost number in the hundreds by now. Every community, it seems, has at least one. In my home county of Alamance we have Haw River Farmhouse Ales. In the coming attractions department, we have Burlington Beer Works on tap.
In North Carolina, Asheville is the capital of craft brewing, which makes some sense. It’s one of the state’s culinary strongholds. Great foods met with excellent wines and interesting beers. Wicked Weed is among the leading lights of craft brewing in the state and the South. It has dozens of exceptional beers and among my favorite IPAs, notably Pernicious and Freak of Nature. But the list hardly stops there. Most recently I sampled the Tropicmost Gose, a delightful experience. Thankfully, Company Shops Co-Op in Burlington has offered a good mixture of Wicked Weed brews from Bedeviled to Oblivion and I sampled many if not all. We also visited the Wicked Weed tasting room on a fall trip to Asheville in 2015.
Alas, the bottle of Pernicious in my garage refrigerator is likely to be my last, or among the last. By joining the AB InBev group — a massive number of brewers following the purchase of Anheuser-Busch by InBev a few years ago — it’s impossible to see Wicked Weed as one of the little guys anymore. A lot of craft brewers feel the same way and began to back away from Wicked Weed when the deal was announced last week. Craft brewers are like a family so many felt a sting when Wicked Weed defected to the ranks of corporate brewing. Haw River Farmhouse Ales was among them. This was a statement posted on its Facebook page.
After some discussion the past 24 hours, Haw River Farmhouse Ales has decided to bow out of attending next month’s Wicked Weed Invitational event. It’s a shame, since the original brewery lineup is a stellar one, filled with dozens of folks we respect and admire from around the country and within our state, making great beer and adding layers to something special we all benefit from and enjoy.
But the event now doesn’t line up with our original vision for the brewery and doesn’t meet the criteria we internally set up for choosing the limited number of events during which we’re able to showcase our little brewery, so we’ve no choice but to cancel our plans for attending. We wish the folks at Wicked Weed the very best and appreciate the original invitation, and we hope the event is a successful one for them.
Much of this angst from other craft brewing operations — and fans — stems from the moves made by Budweiser / ABInBev over the past few years. The company wouldn’t be in the craft brewing business at all if it didn’t become a threat to its historic ownership of the beer market in the United States. Anheuser-Busch, for example, would almost certainly be happy to make its beechwood-aged signature product to the exclusion of most everything else but Bud Light or Michelob. It had no interest in making a higher quality beer or a unique one — until it became necessary to do so.
Budweiser / ABInBev most certainly got into the craft beer business to try and corner that market and if it destroys the independent craft beer portion of it in the process, so be it. From a corporate standpoint it makes sense for them. They were the industry leader for decades and couldn’t stand by and watch it slip away. I salute ABInBev’s vision but not its methods.
Wicked Weed will be tucked into a division of ABInBev called High End. It produces Shock Top and Stella Artois. Its portfolio also contains Goose Creek, Elysian and a handful of other one-time craft brewers. According to a story in the News & Observer of Raleigh, the founders of Wicked Weed, brothers Walt and Luke Dickinson firmly believe the sale won’t negatively impact how they operate and will lead to better access to ingredients and wider distribution. In their discussion with others within the High End division, the deals have been pluses for their businesses. They see it as an opportunity to improve and grow.
I certainly hope so, but I have my doubts. Before leaving in late 2017, I worked within the massive hulk of a large corporation. Our news operation was taken over by one large group after another. Each time we were told it would not impact local operations, that we would be able to maintain our autonomy and personality. We would have local control over the decision-making process. None of those things occurred. We became an interchangeable flavorless entity among others in a Borg-like corporate structure. Our office dealt with one directive after another that didn’t exactly fit our market or staff.
For the moment Wicked Weed will operate as usual. Production should go up. Its profile nationally is likely to grow. I also congratulate them on on making the deal.The financial terms were not released but I figure it’s a nice sum. Let’s not forget they’re in the business to make money and succeed at growing the product they work hard to manufacture. It’s the American way. But while I wish them well. I want them to be careful and understand that they are now part of a major corporate entity with certain policies, goals and procedures that over the long term could prove troublesome. Innovation and creativity isn’t what large corporate monoliths do best. The greatness in small and local businesses is the ability to create on the fly and try new things — or immediately put a stop to those ideas that simply go bad or don’t work.
And I also salute the craft brewers who will still be providing the local product and service as they always have. I mentioned earlier that craft brewing was the fastest-growing part of the beer market at one time. That seems to have leveled off as brewers have sprouted like dandelions. We’ll see what the future holds.
But there are still plenty of local brewers out there making a wide variety of beers in new and interesting ways. I still want to sample as many as I can over the next few years. It’s a family thing.