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Thursday, September 08, 2016

Belgian Family Brewers Needs to Update Their Member List

Bosteels down.

I am generally sanguine about the creative destruction in the beer industry that leads to acquisitions and buy-outs--but this sent a pang through my heart:
Anheuser-Busch InBev reportedly has agreed to buy Belgian brewer Bosteels, maker of Tripel Karmeliet, Kwak and other specialty beers. A-B InBev, also based in Belgium, agreed to buy Bosteels from the family that founded the brewery over 200 years ago, according to TheStreet. Financial terms weren't disclosed but Belgian news sources estimate the deal's value at 200 million euros ($225.4 million), according to the report. Antoine Bosteels will continue to run the brewery as part of A-B InBev's craft and specialty division. 
It wasn't surprising. A week ago, reports surfaced that Heineken and Duvel Moortgat were also in the hunt. The brewery makes three pretty impressive beers, and represented a prize to any brewery. Tripel Karmeliet sells very well and has a (largely bogus) connection to an old Carmelite monastery that Bosteels has long trumpeted. Kwak has long been one of the most famous Belgian brands, thanks partly to its funny glass. And Deus is perhaps the most well-known champagne-style Belgian beer. All three of these can reach different markets and have wholly distinctive personalities, and that must have been quite alluring to the perspective buyers. The price tag looks pretty high for a brewery that makes just 120,000 barrels, but consider the per-bottle price these beers command, and it makes more sense. ABI should be able to do with these brands what they've done with Leffe and Hoegaarden and make them super-premium international brands. Look for them at a grocery store near you.

I will say this: ABI's international craft-brewery division (called, unironically, the Global Disruption Group), is acquiring some primo breweries. Last year they picked up Camden Town, and earlier this year they snatched up Birra Del Borgo--two of the crown jewels in their respective countries. Jerome Pellaud heads up the team that acquires these breweries, and he's doing an impressive job--particularly since there was a bidding war here.

For Belgium, where fewer and fewer venerable family brands survive, this must be considered a pretty hard blow. But $225m is a lot of Benjamins, and it would be hard for any family to turn their back on a pile of cash that large. As Vonnegut would have said, "and so it goes..."


  1. This sounds quite sad but maybe from a strictly consumer perspective it can be a good thing if it increases availability?

  2. As I eluded to on the Twitter, I don't think much of the Karmeliet: hot and sweet, just simply rough compared to other tripels. Like a tripel of last resort for me.

    And Kwak...a gimmick beer if ever there was one in Belgium IMO. It's OK, drinkable, and I've ordered it in a pinch (like, in Bamberg). The Deus, that I've never bothered with, as I don't care about champagne-yeast Belgobier, which also sounds gimmicky enough.

    Given all that, my take is, much better that ABInBev occupy themselves taking over this outfit than one making better quality traditional beer. How many breweries are there in Belgium? If they take over one every year or two, we'll still be fine for a long time.

    Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll take over Van Honsebrouck next (Kasteel, St. Louis), though their Brigand is quite decent.

    But Camden Town...a crown jewel in England? Nah.

  3. Kat, I'm not sure availability is the metric I'd use to measure this deal.

    Nick, your argument seems to be: "I don't admire these beers, so who cares if a family brewery that's only 15 years younger than the US vanishes?" I don't find that particularly convincing personally.

    I could be wrong, but my sense was that Camden Town was one of the top ten or twenty craft breweries in the UK in terms of brand strength and market juice. I could easily be wrong, but I base it in part on the fact that when Mark Dredge visited Portland, CT was one of the beers he brought for me to try. Plus blogger love and so on.

  4. Pang through my heart as well (contra Nick, I love Tripel Karmeliet!), but if your description of the deal is accurate, the family did what it wanted to do. So maybe in this case we should remember that the brewery part of the family brewery lives on, and the family rep still runs it.

    And before we romanticize "family brewery," maybe we should recall that Anheuser Busch was a family brewery for the vast majority of its existence, and might be still if Busch III didn't make the decision to take it public.

  5. But that's true every time a family brewer sells to a large conglomerate. A brewery of course can always sell, and that's the creative destruction of business. It does not follow that customers have to like it.

    AB was not a private, family-owned company. It was a minority owned public corporation that was sold over the complaints of the home town and family owners. Entirely different situation.

  6. AB was a private family-owned company until it went public in the 1980s. Busch III made the decision to go public because he wanted to expand more quickly than it then was able to, and the decision eventually backfired because he didn't foresee another company acquiring AB down the road. Had it remained a private company, it could not have been sold against the family's and the home town's wishes.