It’s stirring in Bierland! Beer is en vogue, breweries pop up like mushrooms in a wet autumn, many restaurants now boast a beer menu – and yet it’s stirring in Bierland! America now has over 4,000 breweries, The Netherlands has more than Belgium – and yet it’s stirring in Bierland! AB-Inbev makes a bid for SAB-Miller, Heineken buys 50% of Lagunitas and Duvel Moortgat invests in Brouwerij ’t IJ – it’s stirring in Bierland!
It’s mainly consumer emotions, the aficionados who discovered there’s more than lager recently, who have difficulty deciding what to make of these investments and take-overs. Many aficionados and – mostly – self-proclaimed experts seem to enjoy portraying big breweries who focus on pilseners as ruthless moneymaking machines, putting out only tasteless and soulless beer, who will take every opportunity to buy, then squeeze, then delete the tasteful and creative beers of their smaller counterparts. These emotions are very understandable as all of the big breweries of today have grown to their size this way – but do consider the fact it was mainly other pilsner breweries they bought and made disappear, withering away lager diversity. Other breweries disappeared because their beers weren’t consumed anymore, the consumer simply preferred the consistent quality of pilsener.
The average consumer has great difficulty feeling equal sympathy for and connection with a big brewery as for a small one and they have the same issue with bakers and butchers. Brewery ’t IJ’s likeability is so much bigger than Heineken’s – for example you know who the brewer is, and better, chances are he’s having a beer next to you in their taproom. Although laws of statistics prove you have a bigger chance ending up next to a Heineken brewer, you wouldn’t know who he is, and how would you recognize him? Roel Wagemans has spectacles and a roguish smile; a Heineken brewer is an anonymous process operator in a white lab coat and facemask, usually checking computer screens and occasionally pushing a button – at best.
Even Duvel Moortgat is growing to an uncomfortable size: buying De Koninck, Boulevard, La Chouffe and Firestone Walker as if they’re shopping for groceries and now they seem to be buying Brewery ‘t IJ. Many consumers fear it will inevitably result in their favorite beers deteriorating, but I tend to fear no more. I find it actually increases the general quality of product and usually leads to wider availability of these ‘small’ brands.
My employer seems to be a nursery for Duvel Moortgat, by the way. Bier&cO brought De Koninck to The Netherlands in 1985 and a few years later some hundreds of kegs of ‘Bollekes beer’ were tapped weekly. In the same year it brought the first big bottles of La Chouffe in, soon followed by kegs of ‘Gnome beer’. These breweries grew to be respected and loved in The Netherlands, on a hand with Bier&cO. Both breweries are now owned by Duvel Moortgat: De Koninck has been modernized dramatically, which was desperately needed, but the former owners couldn’t cough up the cash. Today, the ‘Bolleke’ tastes better again than some years ago. La Chouffe already met the highest quality standards but has grown substantially since the take-over. Whoever believes either of these beers tastes less than some years is simply in denial – and both beers are still respected and loved.
So now Patrick Hendrikse and Bart Obertop have sold part of their shares to Michel Moortgat, emotions fly as never before. As both of them stated Duvel is actually still a family business, and they feel comfortable with that. Surely their wallets are overflowing right now – but can you blame them for that? I guess that’s what they started out for: no-one starts a brewery from philanthropy; it pays your bills and feeds a lot of hungry mouths. So, when the Ben & Jerry question comes you have to be mad to refuse. Bier&cO has been a loyal sales and distribution partner for Brewery ‘t IJ from the beginning, and also when the brewery was facing tough challenges Bier&cO never lost faith. Whatever was not sold in the tap room was largely sold via Bier&cO and together we’ve grown substantially over the past years.
We all worked hard for it, and now some fruit is ripe for harvest. When a company like Duvel Moortgat recognizes quality and potential of Brewery ‘t IJ so that it invests in it, I consider that a compliment for my employer: see, we were right all along! And yes, I am proud the company I work for has a ‘nose’ for good beer and its breweries – no competitor comes even close. I couldn’t be much more proud, actually – cheers to Patrick, Bart and Michel.
On your shoulders, you beer loving yet demanding consumer you are, it is to keep an eye out on quality. The moment you start doubting it walk away, knowing you have the biggest gun in your hand: your spending power, to which producers will eventually have to listen. And even when you decide to stop drinking certain brands because of emotions, you’ve every right to do so, however unfair it may be. I doubt it will stop breweries buying each other. I would almost call upon you to do me and those brewers you praised when they were small a favor: judge by your palate, not with your emotions.