A few months ago I sat in the carpeted events hall of a Dutch hotel and listened to a series of fascinating talks on European brewing past and present as part of the 2016 European Beer Bloggers and Writers’ Conference. Of all the speakers and subjects, one small part of a single talk stood out and made everyone in the room sit up a little straighter. The person doing the talking at that point was Tim Webb, a man who has been writing about beer since I was a year old and who introduced himself as an agent provocateur of the brewing world, firing out predictions and statements on where the industry was headed based on previous events and what was currently happening in the world at the moment.
His main firebrand point related to the ultimate urban myth (ask your parents) relating to the beer industry – the perceived endgame for its largest player, AB-InBev. The Belgo-Brazilian concern have assets worth $135bn and own many of the commonly-seen beer and cider brands across the world such as Budweiser, Stella Artois, Beck’s, Leffe and so on – enough to stock the fridges of pretty much any bar you care to stumble into. They have done this by acting like one of those fish that are 90% mouth and hide under the seabed; waiting for the right target to appear on the scene and quickly subsuming it into their empire. They even have a newly-announced ‘craft’ lure, in the form of the Pioneer Brewing Company (a shell company holding their collection of captured producers).
The ever on the button Boak and Bailey recently pondered what the dickens they were up to, as ten days ago AB-InBev purchased another one – the Texas concern Karbach Brewing. Everyone’s favourite titanosaur (ABI, not B&B) are a truly fascinating company to follow. It’s so hard to predict what they might be thinking because they are working on multiple fronts and many different levels in this colossal game of Risk they are playing. As they continue to slide small pieces (in their relative terms) across the board into territories where they have yet to craft, there is the bigger picture to try to ponder. But the problem is, we just can’t step far enough back in the room to see it all at once.
CNBC reported yesterday that AB-InBev are peering from the mud at far greater fish with their narrowed eyes. In a move way over the scale of anything that causes craft beer fans to dilute their sours with tears, it seems AB-InBev would very much like to take control of Coca Cola. Now this is exactly the same point that Tim Webb made in the talk back in Amsterdam – and to be fair it has been made before, in fact AB-InBev have kicked the tires of the Atlanta concern already (as well as those of PepsiCo too). So whilst it’s not new news, it still represents a sea-change compared to Four Peaks, Breckenridge and other US breweries that make us tut a little and move on.
One of the remarkable things about the power wielded by AB-InBev is that their movements generate conspiracy theories. Tim went on to muse that the reason why the brewery behemoth are after Coca Cola is not just because of the money-generating sugary liquid that knocks Irn Bru off the top spot in every country but Scotland. The darker act at play is to control the world’s water supply – which if they gain control of Coca Cola would see them own 25% of the fresh water on the planet, according to Tim. Back in the talk he mentioned the specific example of a US State where AB-InBev already let the municipal authorities have access to water as a grace and favour, but with (in his view) potential to monetise this access if and when they see fit. And what state was that? Their new home thanks to Karbach – Texas.
So the theory goes that AB-InBev are looking so far beyond the faux-craft beer movement as to control the essence of life on earth. It’s a great story, which would be improved if their HQ was an island volcano as opposed to a small town in Belgium. But when you grow so big that you can swallow up your greatest competitor (SABMiller, bought for $107bn) then where else do you turn? Unilever? NewsCorp? Cyberdyne Systems? In the past we’ve had plenty of ‘have you heard x are interested in y’ rumours about takeovers and mergers – but when a consistent thread begins to emerge that the largest brewery conglomeration in existence are targeting other global corporations, then maybe we’re not in Kansas anymore (even if AB-InBev don’t own a brewery there. Yet).