Friday, 13 June 2008
So Inbev have made their bid to buy Anheuser-Busch - $46.3 billion.
Boy, is this one difficult.
If you'd asked my view on this five years ago I would be whooping for joy. Back then, Inbev was still a big old brute, but it styled itself as 'the world's local brewer' and was the best of a bad bunch among the multinational brewing corporations. With its Belgian heritage and its acquisition of Bass, it did at least offer an alternative to characterless lagers. Most beer bloggers may turn their noses up at Leffe and Hoegaarden, but that's because you know the delights of Westmalle, Orval, maybe even Westverleteren. If the only choice was between the Inbev brands and Bud, you'd hand the Belgians your money every time.
That was then. Since Interbrew's merger with AmBev, the South Americans have taken the reins. Their number one global priority is Brahma, resplendent and sun-struck in its curvy, clear glass bottle. Bass - once the greatest beer the world has ever seen - is being subjected to a slow, wretched, undignified demise. When I worked with Interbrew they may have been a big corporation, but there were people who worked there because they were passionate about beer - even if that passion was frustrated. These guys have now been moved on, replaced by career marketers who believe beer can be sold by the same formulae and tick boxes as any other grocery brand. If they win in their bid for A-B, they will become even bigger, even more faceless and passionless, even less interested in beer itself.
So does that mean you say, as Roger Protz did recently, "Better the devil you know?" Hands off A-B?
I'm sorry, but no. Never. My last book, Three Sheets to the Wind, had to be read very carefully by libel lawyers before publication because of what I said about A-B in there, so I must choose my words carefully. The main reason I love the beer world is that beer attracts top people. It is the most sociable drink in the world and people who tend to spend most of their time around beer are decent, straightforward, unpretentious and above all, kind. Not A-B. In my humble opinion, based on having read detailed histories of the Busch family, they don't just see other brewers as competitors - they seem to actively resent anyone else who has the audacity to brew beer, and desire to see them crushed. Most people know about their legal vendetta against Budvar - from whom they stole the Budweiser name. They also went to court to have Belgium's wondeful Bush beer change its name to Scaldis, just because Bush sounded a bit like Busch. The brewer that churns out 93 million barrels of lager a year said that Dubuisson - who brew 21,000 barrels a year of a golden ale that weighs in at 12% ABV - was a threat to their business. You may well think "What mean-spirited bastards". I couldn't possibly comment. I've also heard unsubstantiated anecdotal stories of extraordinarily aggressive sale tactics, bordering on threatening. These activities go against everything that beer is about.
I know that business is business. I know that both Inbev and A-B are facing stagnating markets, with commodifying brands. I know it's a good strategic fit because Inbev is weak in North America and China, where A-B is strong. There are plenty of arguments why this is a good move from Inbev's point of view, and the markets are responding favourably.
But if there's any argument as to how the drinker benefits from this is in any way, I've yet to hear it.