A-B InBev and I

The Politics of Beer by | Mar 2009 | Issue #26

Beer begins with barley and water—the rest is mostly politics

I do not yet consider myself an old man. I have four daughters, but only one has reached an age at which I would forgive her for making me a grandfather. Rather, I am at that time in life when looking back is as much fun as looking forward.

The first piece I wrote about Belgian beer was in 1977, a rambling and disjointed account of an afternoon getting drunk on strange, bottled ales in an Amsterdam café. In June this year, the sixth edition of my illustrated, 360-page book, Good Beer Guide to Belgium, appears.

The journey has been interesting, not least for the way it has paralleled for 40 years the fortunes of Belgium’s largest brewer. Until recently, we seemed joined at the hip.

I was entering puberty in the late ’60s, thin as a rake, when the richest brewing families in Belgium decided to grow their inestimable fortunes further by deleting as many of their rivals as they could afford. While I was bathing in new experiences like alcohol, women, travel and clever cooking, they were absorbing and closing the likes of Wielemans, Safir and Lamot, household names in the history of Belgian brewing.

The experiences helped us grow and establish ourselves on different stages.

In 1988, I began a career and got married. That same year, the massively expanded Artois brewery in Leuven, and the equally engorged Piedboeuf brewery of Liège, decided the best way to overcome their rivalry would be to merge and become Interbrew.

The next 15 years were spent good-naturedly scrambling over friends and colleagues to get to pole position. In their case, the North Atlantic beer market; in mine, the day job. (Promoting quality beer has been a spare-time activity for me—another similarity shared.)

Time moves on, and just before I wrote the fifth edition of GBG to Belgium, my frankly corpulent frame had found itself a seat on the board at work. Interbrew, meanwhile, merged with a little-known South American outfit called AmBev to form InBev. Since that time, I have seen my business, waistline and children all grow impressively, as I watched InBev muscle its way into virtually every emerging beer market on the planet, from the Baltic to Beijing. “My, you’ve changed,” say old friends.

One problem with global and personal expansion is that each is based on an optimistic set of assumptions that perpetual growth is both realistic and beneficial. The year 2009 seems to be proving, to the global economy at least, that these assumptions are as suspect as they were ever implausible.

Last year, InBev stalked and neutralized Anheuser-Busch, creators of Bud, the saddest epitome of the American dream. In doing so, they became by far the largest purveyors of cheap intoxicants on the planet. And I nearly bought a Jaguar XK8.

But I changed my mind. I reasoned that I need an extension to my length less than I need a reduction in my girth, so invested instead in a tough, new, lightweight bicycle—Californian, of course. My life no longer mirrored that of my nemesis.

I feel better already, looking forward to getting smaller and better. With luck, I have several decades of independent living left, and although I know that the future will one day bring obsolescence, decay and demise, when called to go, I hope I will have left something worthwhile behind.

Does my corporate alter ego understand its inevitably similar fate equally well? Does it consider its legacy? Probably not. This is a company that cannot tell leadership from dominance.

I would mistrust advice from them, and doubtless they would return the compliment, but if accepted, it would be this: A-B InBev needs to find its inner cyclist. Business it can do; it is the brewing bit that needs attention.