What is InBev? If you’ve ever downed a Stella Artois, Beck’s, Bass, Boddingtons, Spaten, St. Pauli Girl, Löwenbräu, or Labatt Blue (hopefully not all in one sitting), you’ve tasted an InBev brand. Only SABMiller—with a portfolio including Pilsner Urquell, Peroni, Grolsch, and the Miller family of beers, plus Olde English 800 Malt Liquor—is a larger brewer, at least since February 5 of this year.
According to its website, InBev traces its roots to the birthplace of Stella Artois, a brewery in Lueven, Belgium, that began making beer in 1366. What a difference 642 years make: Stella is now one of about 200 brands of InBev brew distributed so thoroughly across the world that a map of InBev’s coverage looks like a winning position in the board game Risk.
(InBev even produces an Antarctica brand of beer, but alas, it’s from Brazil.)
InBev was born from the 2004 merger of Lueven-based Interbrew (at the time, the number three brewer in the world) and the largest Latin American brewery, AmBev. The flagship brand of AmBev, which was the fifth-largest brewery before its merger with Interbrew, was the Brazilian beer Brahma.
This was only the latest beer-brand consolidation for each company. InBev was formed in 1987 when Belgium’s top two brands—Piedboeuf and Stella—came together; the new company later acquired a number of brands, including Canada’s largest brewer, Labatt, in 1995. AmBev (Companhia de Bebidas das Americas) resulted from the 1999 merger between the Antarctica and Brahma breweries.
That’s enough brand-blending to make one want to reach for a cold one. Little of this mattered to Americans, very few of whom had likely heard of InBev before its proposed purchase of Anheuser-Busch. But unlike in 2002, when South African Breweries acquired Miller Brewing Company and became SABMiller, the protest against the InBev takeover of Anheuser Busch has spilled over from the financial pages and become an almost international issue.
Those against the deal include several elected officials from Missouri and members of grassroots online efforts to block the sale. SaveBudweiser.com directs you to an online petition, while “Concerned Americans” on SaveAB.com declares that InBev threatens Anheuser-Busch’s brand appeal, which “represents the spirit of our country.” It’s uncertain, though, how InBev would specifically dilute the Budweiser brand. On the contrary, at least according to InBev, the merger would actually expand Bud’s image throughout the rest of the world. (Though how this would affect that “other” Bud is unclear.)
Though many in the beer-blogging community have greeted the news with nothing more than a hops-heavy sigh—i.e., neither company’s beers are worth drinking, anyway—others, like Chris O’Brien, author of Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World and blog-tender of Beer Activist, are more alarmed. “So much for having a quintessential ‘American’ beer—or any American beer for that matter, save the 5% or so produced by small, local craft brewers,” he writes, concluding that “InBev really wants to screw American beer drinkers.”
To deliver its message to—and to dispel distrust and fear from—everyone affiliated with Anheuser-Busch brands, InBev launched a website called, optimistically, globalbeerleader.com. Each essay’s message is focused on the Anheuser-Busch employee, wholesaler, or consumer, but the gist is the same:
The power of the combined brand portfolios means “global market leadership” as a whole and a strengthening of each individual brand.
No US breweries will close. (That doesn’t mean that people won’t lose their jobs, however.)
The taste of your Bud Light won’t change.
So is all the commotion much a-brew about nothing? After all, did Ben & Jerry’s ice cream taste any less decadent when it went from hippie-powered success story to a bullet point in the Unilever portfolio in 2000?
What likely makes InBev’s maneuvers such a flashpoint in the States is that it represents the further weakening of a brand even larger than Anheuser-Busch: America itself. Few Americans feel unpatriotic in choosing a Japanese—and more recently, Korean—car over an American competitor. Large chunks of New York City real estate are foreign owned. But with apologies to baseball and apple pie, few brands are more “American” than Budweiser. (In fact, many an article that mentions Budweiser, including this one, calls the beer “quintessentially” American.)
In a world where the US seems to suffer from a poor reputation, both abroad and at home, many citizens may be pleading with the Anheuser-Busch board to not just Save Our Bud, but Save Our Brand.
On June 25, Anheuser-Busch rejected InBev’s US$ 46.3 billion bid, but a hostile takeover attempt is expected. The coming weeks will tell whether Budweiser will remain the King of Beers—or just the latest spoils for the King of Beer Brands.