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Sound bites

In the week that Interbrew seemed thirsty yet again

The Financial Times gave big play this week to its story on Interbrew's interest in acquiring South African Breweries. The source of the story may have been someone within Interbrew who opposed the idea. Apparently, confidential documents were leaked to British national newspapers, and to the BBC.

When I see such stories, I mentally put myself on standby for a call from one television station or another seeking a comment. This week, I was definitely at the ready. Interbrew is Belgian. Coincidentally, my book The Great Beers of Belgium was on Thursday published in its fourth edition in Britain.

With notable exceptions, most authors find it hard to turn down TV exposure, even though its value is often questionable. The author/expert/interviewee is pursued by the hungry medium as if he or she were a tasty morsel; chewed for the briefest moment to release any nutritious juices; then spat out like an indigestible piece of gristle. This is how sound bites are made.

I am sure they are not as substantial as they used to be. I should know: I cut my own teeth as a text-editor on British tabloids (which could reduce the second coming of Christ to a couple of hundred words). I also worked as a producer in current affairs television, where I did my own share of hunt-bite-spit.

This week's call was from BBC News 24 Television. "Why does Interbrew want SAB?" I was asked. It seemed to want every brewery in the world, I replied. Having looked at mature markets, perhaps it is now concentrating on emerging nations. Interbrew already owns breweries in many Eastern European countries. So does SAB. Were Interbrew to acquire SAB, it would gain absolute dominance in most of those countries. I forgot to mention China, where SAB is very active.

"What about Carling?" I explained that this Canadian beer had been the first to seek world dominance, back in the 1950s and 60s. It remains a big name in Britain, where it is owned for the moment by Interbrew, but makes no great impact in the rest of the world. "Stella?" Flagship beer of Interbrew. Stella is big in Britain and Belgium. "Beck's?" Recently acquired by Interbrew. Beck's is one of the few international-style lagers to be successful in the United States. "How many beers would Interbrew have if it acquired SAB?" I doubt that even Interbrew could answer that question.

Most consumers have never heard of Interbrew, and may be surprised to hear that an "unknown" company seems to be swallowing so many well-known beers. Among its products, the one probably best known to my readers is not a golden lager but the hazy, top-fermenting, wheat beer Hoegaarden.

While Interbrew denies that it intends to bid for SAB, such a takeover would add another jewel to the crown. SAB owns Pilsner Urquell, the world's first golden lager. Whether the Czech Government would allow this is open to question. Interbrew recently became the owner, via Bass, of Prague's biggest brewery, Staropramen. I happened to be at Staropramen last week and some people I met were worrying whether the new owner would wish to modernise the brewery. Its "old-fashioned" open fermenters are thought to contribute to the creamy fullness of the beer.

Interbrew's interest in SAB may not be pursued, but the very idea of a takeover was mocked in the business section of The Independent, the British daily for which I write. I occasionally produce business stories, but more often contribute to the food-and-drink pages in the weekend section. Amusing though this week's comment was, I cannot claim credit or assume blame. The writer did not even call me...

Published: NOV 29, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

- Editorial

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