King of Beers? Only in America

Saturday, July 5, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:30 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

BRUSSELS — As a beer drinker of long practice, I’ve understood for quite a while that Budweiser is not, in fact, the king of beers.

Still, it has come as something of a shock to discover in the recent international battle of corporate giants that Anheuser Busch isn’t even the king of beer makers. The real ruler of the beer realm, it turns out, is InBev, a bizarre union of Belgian and Brazilian brewers. Although the Brazilians run it, the headquarters is here, in Belgium, in what is otherwise known as the capital of the European Union.

That means, I suppose, that the queen of beers is actually Stella Artois, InBev’s biggest seller in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

My unflagging pursuit of truth and good beer brought me to the capital of the beer kingdom, an ancient city that prides itself on three delicacies — beer, chocolate and fried potatoes. (They don’t call them French fries here, for some reason, but they do use the French word, “frites.”) I left Brussels with a full belly and a positive outlook.

It’s certainly clear from reading the Post-Dispatch that the good burghers of St. Louis regard the proposed takeover of its iconic industry as, in the words of a Columbia correspondent, an alien invasion. Corporate managers, editorialists, even U.S. senators are doing their best to fend off the raiders. As a patriotic Missourian, I wish them well.

As a beer drinker, I’m not so sure. A prolonged visit to Europe reminds that there’s a world of beers superior in taste to the Anheuser Busch products that dominate the coolers back home. Even the Busch partner, Modelo, makes a beer I prefer to Bud. I’m not talking about the inexplicably popular Corona but Modelo Negra.

In Britain, the choices are marvelous. My fridge currently, and temporarily, holds bottles of Abbot Ale, Spitfire, Old Speckled Hen and the one I enjoyed appropriately on my birthday, Old Peculier.

Belgium has even more — hundreds of brands, I’m told. I don’t know that they’re all InBev products, but they’re in the same linage. In just a short visit, and remaining ambulatory at all times, I tried Maes, Chimay, Leffe and Hoegarten. Good luck finding those at HyVee.

I don’t deny for a minute that it would be a blow to the civic pride of St. Louis if the Cardinals found themselves playing in InBev Stadium. I don’t believe for a minute the protestations of the suitors that they’ll leave local management untouched and local largesse undiminished. That’s not the way corporate takeovers work.

But it would be nice to see on Missouri shelves some of the Belgian brews with deeper color and richer flavor than the deposed king and his equally pallid offspring. That could be a rare benefit of globalization.

It’s true, of course, that better beers are brewed already in St. Louis, Kansas City and in the heart of Columbia. So maybe the beer drinker’s preferred option is neither Busch nor Belgium.

I have to say, though, that when Schnuck’s stocks Grimbergen Brune, I’ll grab it.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ellis Smith July 5, 2008 | 12:11 p.m.

A buyout wouldn't work anyway.

If Missourians can't correctly pronounce "Versailles," how will they be able to order a Stella Artois brew at their favorite bar or restaurant?

"Gimme a Stella Ar-toys!"

(Report Comment)
Andrew Hansen July 6, 2008 | 6:50 a.m.

"I tried Maes, Chimay, Leffe and Hoegarten. Good luck finding those at HyVee."

Well, I bought two of those (Chimay and Hoegaarten) routinely at HyVee before I moved from Columbia a year ago.

Even at an average-joe grocery store you are likely to find Stella Artois, Hoegaarten, Duval, trappist ales, and lambic beers these days.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz July 7, 2008 | 1:24 a.m.

I'd rather drink a Budweiser than Stella Artois; I was most disappointed after hearing Simon Rose talk it up on KFRU and then find it on tap at the Blue Fugue. If that's the best InBev can offer the domestic beer market, they can keep it.

Anyone who thinks it will be business as usual if InBev's acquisition is successful must not be aware that InBev is borrowing billions of dollars to finance the purchase. Doesn't sound like the best of long-term business decisions to me.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 7, 2008 | 9:24 a.m.

John's point about financing is pertinent. What is "good" or "bad" in beer and ale is largely a matter of individual taste.

I am in a state of shock after learning that Killian's Irish Red is now brewed in Golden, Colorado.

(Report Comment)

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