Alcohol free Hoegaarden?

Brewing behemoth AB-InBev have been in the news a fair bit recently – probably understandable given they control 25% of the world’s beer (in terms of market share). At the end of last month they purchased Goose Island for a shade under $39m, dipping a gold-encrusted toe in the formerly unsullied craft beer waters. At the start of this month there were rumours of merger talks between themselves and SABMiller – although as expected it came to nothing. The latest piece of news concerns another of their brands – the newly announced alcohol free Hoegaarden 0.0.

This snippet came from the recently held AB-InBev shareholders meeting, and was reported by the Brussels desk of the Wall Street Journal, and then in turn by Stateside blogs such as Beervana (as admittedly I’m not up to speed with the Wall St Journal these days). On the face of it, plenty of large European brands have 0% versions – I don’t know if brands like Bitburger Drive, Becks Blue or Jever Fun make it over to the States, but giving drinkers a ‘sin alcohol’ version is commonplace on the continent.

So why does Hoegaarden 0.0 just seem wrong? Well, firstly there’s the fact that it was announced by the parent comapny at a shareholders meeting. Fair enough, Hoegaarden have been owned by AB-InBev (in their various guises) since their money helped Pierre Celis rebuild after a fire in the mid-1980’s, prior to the official takeover. Brands need to develop in these modern times, but the core attraction of Hoegaarden is the history – otherwise production would have been shunted up the road to Jupille by now. It’s all become just a bit too corporate.

The second reason is along the same lines, what with the contention that brands owned by AB-InBev never seem to taste quite like they once did – something that clearly concerned Goose Island fans last month. Being such an enormous company means that decisions have to be taken – on methods of production, restructuring, and ingredients. What exactly will the new alcohol-free Hoegaarden taste like? The members of the WSJ Brussels desk got hold of some – “akin to a watered-down lemon Fanta. OK — refreshing even — if you know what you’re getting.” was one verdict (although in fairness other tasters did say it was decent enough). There’s only one was to know of course, we’ll have to try and get hold of some for a tasting.

The final reason this kind of sticks in the craw is the timing. The meeting of the shareholders necessitated the announcement, but coming only two weeks after Pierre Celis’s death there’s something of the insensitive about it. Fair enough, it’s only an alcohol-free version of Hoegaarden – it’s not as if they are ceasing production or anything – but those who allege the drip-drip watering down of once great brands now owned by enormous, uncaring conglomerates have something else to point at. AB-InBev CEO Carlos Brito summed up the announcement by stating “you want a portfolio [of drinks] that allows consumers to stay within your franchise.” Indeed.

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