After years of playing the cold-hearted, uncaring, starch-shirted executive, A-B InBev now is like The Grinch. You could say that going into the business of love, ABI somehow found its heart. Looking to hook up with someone young and sexy, ABI is spreading its love in acquiring craft breweries. There are some areas leading the thoughts about where it may go, but more on that later.
It all started with a shy dance in 2011, when after recognizing its sagging bottom line in beer sales, ABI purchased Goose Island. For years ABI’s business plan was so routine and mundane, the most fun it ever had was rolling out commercials with horses and dogs, as well as the occasional new, tasteless beer.
But then the beer market changed. Bud sales dropped faster than Ronda Rousey and craft beer started eating up that precious shelf space. Business meetings inside ABI bunkers suddenly got very serious and purchasing successful craft breweries became the newest strategy. The idea of course, was to move the Budweiser brands along with their new products and eventually get a stranglehold on distribution.
Ironic isn’t it, that ABI can no longer compete in the very same field in which it is a leader, and instead of being someone that would build it, brew it and sell it, ABI will buy it. While considering more acquisitions, ABI is basically pleading no contest in acknowledging this, only to say, “Move along, nothing to see here.”
As if it found the fountain of youth, ABI’s confidence has skyrocketed over the last two years. After Goose Island, here are its American craft beer conquests:
ABI isn’t interested in stealing a business or a hostile takeover but rather, it is a sweet-talking Romeo that wants to shower the brewery with bouquets of cash. ABI appears smitten with its new loves but don’t let it fool you, it knows not to get emotional. These are totally business deals.
ABI is actively casing the joint, the country that is, looking for its next mark and to understand it is to see where it’s gone, and anticipate where it is going next.
From all accounts though, the brewery sellers are more than pleased with the result, not only because of the money, but also with their increased equipment and easy access to raw materials – mostly hops. And seemingly, ABI is allowing the breweries to continue doing their own thing.
However, not all unions are balloons and carbonation bubbles. For instance, former Elysian brewing co-owner Dick Cantwell originally went along with the buyout (he voted against it but signed on with ABI) but was outraged with the famous ABI “pumpkin peach” hipster beer ad. He promptly resigned from Elysian.
There are a number of requirements but mostly ABI is looking for a brewery that: has experienced success, is in a large market or beer-concentrated area, is able to increase distribution from a central location and has the potential for growth.
Not every discussion with a brewery is a meeting and not every meeting is an offer, and I’m sure ABI met with numerous breweries for each one it’s purchased. It’s good business for it to have had a long list of potential clients, instead of courting just one or two.
For example, Cigar City of Tampa, Fl. confirmed last year that they had met with ABI but later said they were happy to remain independent. Recently there was the same rumor and same denial, however, Cigar City has just announced they are selling a controlling interest to Fireman Capital Partners, a Boston-based equity firm who also owns a majority interest in Oskar Blues, and others.
Note that Cigar City did not actually turn down a deal with AB InBev, in fact, they signed a letter-of-intent to sell but ABI was the one to pass on the deal. As a whole, Florida is not best from a strategy standpoint. So, it appears that ABI recognized that. Cigar City’s new deal makes sense for both parties.
Texas would also seem to be a real possibility with someone like Austin Beerworks, but I would say no to that as well. Austin has a great beer image and there are also the large metro areas of Dallas/Ft. Worth and Houston, but Texas and surrounding states are too large and barren to cart beer across. Beer is heavy and the return on investment isn’t great enough when considering the miles necessary to cover it. Texas is out.
You’ll note from the purchases that ABI now has a presence in the huge beer areas of the country like the Pacific Northwest and Denver, Co. Southern California and the desert states are covered, and Goose Island has blanketed the Midwest. The northeastern U.S. is represented by Blue Point.
The southeastern and eastern part of the country is not yet served by ABI so here are three places that it might go next.
In six short years, the Queen City has gone from zero breweries to being in the midst of a beer renaissance. Charlotte is home to about 20 breweries with many more planned, and there is increased distribution into N.C. from breweries outside the state. The Queen doesn’t necessarily need the King but its influx of money is too tempting for a Charlotte brewery to turn down.
Sure, an obvious choice for ABI might be Asheville, N.C. but what makes the town sexy, also makes it unappealing. Craft beer behemoths Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and New Belgium all have invaded Asheville recently, in order to further their brands east. But Budweiser doesn’t just want to have a seat at the table, nuh-uh, it wants to own the restaurant. It would prefer to stake a claim in its own town and not have to knock knees at the table with other beer brands.
Here’s the thing (something you must always declare when stating your case): it’s not just the brewery it’s after. Distribution is the key and Charlotte’s quick highway access allows it to easily distribute throughout the region. Virginia, D.C. and Atlanta are all in its sight.
A great beer state where their famous motto could be changed to “Virginia Is For ‘Beer’ Lovers”, this is home to breweries that have captured numerous national and international beer medals, including several GABF Best Brewery awards. No doubt about it, Virginia is on a roll.
An outdoor person’s dream come true, several beer trails are set up to show off Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains while allowing you to more intimately appreciate the breweries. The Blue Ridge Beerway, Nelson 151, The Red White and Brew Trail are just a few of the trails that present their beautiful landscape and unique culture. And with their high quality water supply, you understand why over Virginia has grown to over 100 breweries in just a very short time.
Our nation’s capital has a bustling beer vibe with the area enjoying rapid growth. Tipping into northern Virginia also, the D.C. area is becoming one of huge beer energy on the east coast.
Several breweries in the area could catch the eye of ABI, with their growth and number of barrels produced. Distribution from D.C. is easily made to Baltimore, Philadelphia and further south into Virginia and North Carolina.
A new law taking effect in January 2017 will allow Tennessee breweries to raise their ABV ceiling from 6.2% to 10.1%. This is sure to create the next big wave of beer-mania in Nashville and if ABI were to choose The Music City, it would hit this market at the sweet spot of the bow.
Whatever side of the dance floor you are on in this AB InBev tunnel of love tour, the acquisitions will continue to be made, but I really don’t think there is anything to fear from ABI… yet. Until it really ramps up its purchases and ABI becomes the distribution bully it may want to be, I’m not worried that the craft beer world will change drastically enough to effect the brewers or drinkers.
After all, love is in the air.
In which areas of the country do you think ABI could strike next? Please follow me on twitter and we’ll discuss.