Beer Town: SweetWater founder on big deal with Canadian cannabis company

SweetWater founder and CEO Freddy Bensch (from left) and VP of Marketing Brian Miesieski are shown with Aphria CEO Irwin D. Simon in the SweetWater taproom.  / Courtesy of SweetWater Brewing Co.
SweetWater founder and CEO Freddy Bensch (from left) and VP of Marketing Brian Miesieski are shown with Aphria CEO Irwin D. Simon in the SweetWater taproom. / Courtesy of SweetWater Brewing Co.

But if the $300 million cash and stock deal was a surprise, the affinity between the two companies seemed perfectly natural.

SweetWater’s portfolio of beers, including its flagship 420 Extra Pale Ale, “aligns with a cannabis lifestyle and provides a scalable platform for expansion into the U.S. and Canada,” is the way Aphria explained it in a press release.

Maybe most important for Atlanta, though, SweetWater’s management team will remain, along with some 125 employees. And founder Freddy Bensch will continue as chief executive officer.

Recently, I met up with Bensch at SweetWater, where we sat down on the patio to talk about how his company became a wholly owned subsidiary of Aphria, and what that will mean for the future.

“It goes back to what we did 24 years ago, naming a beer 420,” Bensch said, referencing slang for marijuana. “I consider myself a visionary in a lot of regards, but to see this actually become a reality is brilliant.”

ExploreBeer and cocktail news
SweetWater's flagship 420 Extra Pale Ale. (Courtesy of SweetWater Brewing Co.)
SweetWater's flagship 420 Extra Pale Ale. (Courtesy of SweetWater Brewing Co.)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Bensch credits Irwin D. Simon, Aphria’s chairman and chief executive officer, with seeing the synergy that could be achieved through the acquisition.

“It allows us to take what we’ve been doing and make it bigger, better, faster,” Bensch said. "The money’s not going to change my life, to be straight-up honest. The most important thing is that I can look in the mirror and say this is a good deal for the business.

“The book opens up and becomes so much more beyond what we’re doing. More importantly, with our employees, nothing changes. Everybody’s jobs are intact and enhanced. Now we’re a brewery that’s part of a cannabis company. People are excited, because the vision is beyond beer now. It’s beer and cannabis and THC and CBD and new facilities.”

Of course, a big part of the ongoing plans for new SweetWater products, such as, say, seltzers with THC, depends on legalization in the U.S. But the brewery is already moving ahead in other areas, including the production of spirits, which are set for release beginning in 2021.

And with Aphria, SweetWater will expand its beer production and distribution to more U.S. states and into Canada.

“To not leverage what Aphria has in Canada right now, from a footprint and brand recognition standpoint, would be a miss,” Bensch said. “Keep in mind, we’re only in 26 states. Now it’s not just building a brewery, it’s building a brewery and what else? And that’s cool, right?”

SweetWater founder and CEO Freddy Bensch. (Courtesy of SweetWater Brewing Co.)
SweetWater founder and CEO Freddy Bensch. (Courtesy of SweetWater Brewing Co.)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Asked about his day-to-day role in the operation of SweetWater, Bensch said it will largely stay the same, “but the horizon is a lot bigger.”

“The effort is to continue to do what SweetWater does well — kick ass and make great beer, and be innovative, and work with our wholesalers, and be real to our consumers,” he said. “But conversely, now I’ve got this other side that’s screaming cannabis. So what does that look like and what’s the next level?

“This is my baby. It’s the only thing I’ve done for my entire adult life. And I care about what happens to my baby. To know that the story goes on in an even cooler fashion is big to me. To sell and that be the end of the story, or just be swallowed up by one of the big guys, would not be cool. But this is beer and weed. And to me, this is the best potential outcome for SweetWater, and for me, and for our employees.”

ExploreIt has been a chaotic year for the metro Atlanta craft beer industry

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.

About the Author

In Other News