To listen to some of my beer snob friends talk, Belgium invaded Kansas this month. Figuratively, of course—the Belgians have not been serious aggressors since the times of Julius Caesar, and even then they were better known for superior waffle technology. Last week, however, we bar patrons learned that Duvel Moortgat, an iconic Belgian beer company, is purchasing Boulevard Wheat, the mothership of Midwestern craft beer.
As per usual, many otherwise decent flag-waving Americans are grumbling about this development. Foreigners are buying up our beer companies! What’s next, purchasing our sovereign debt? This knee-jerk reaction happens every time something seen as “American” is procured by someone with a funny accent.
It may surprise some to learn that Budweiser and Bud Light, ever-present staples of Super Bowl advertisements, are actually owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a multinational corporation based in—now this is ominous—Belgium. One might infer that a massive European company which produces beverages such as Stella Artois and Hoegaarden would somehow fundamentally alter the quintessential American beer; perhaps even render it palatable. Yet, Budweiser remains solidly foul-tasting and inexpensive, just as when an American-owned company brewed it. That someone who speaks Flemish is receiving stock options from Bud Light doesn’t negate the fact that the beverage is produced in the United States by American workers to an American market (ergo, American).
Miller, another company which technically makes “beer,” is based in Wisconsin. Yet it is owned by SABMiller, a South African company. Coors is headquartered in Colorado but owned by Canadians. Pabst beer is owned by Americans yet produced by South African-owned breweries, then consumed by hipsters.
You probably know that Corona is a Mexican beverage, but did you know that Anheuser-Busch InBev owns half its stock? Or that my friend Jeremy (an American) consumes more Corona per year than the entire country of Mexico? Is Corona then Mexican, Belgian or American? Who can truly answer this question? (Not Jeremy, that’s for sure.) In an age of global commerce, defining any one company by nationality is difficult.
The global nature of beer companies is a positive development. Commerce brings people together, almost as well as beer does. When you combine trade with hops, you get a lot of interesting ideas and cross-national friendships and “multinational hangovers,” which are like regular hangovers, except more pretentious. What’s more, countries that do business with each other tend to avoid bombing one another. I was not particularly concerned about the prospects of declaring war on Belgium any time soon, but our pilsner exchange with the Europeans makes it that much less likely.
I think many people are disappointed not that Belgian interlopers have concerned themselves with Boulevard, but bemoan the idea that a quality craft brewer would sell out to a huge company. Personally, I would like nothing more than for Boulevard to gain a stalwart distributor and become so prolific it can muscle out Bud Light. It’s also worth noting that Boulevard’s chief executive, John McDonald, was in the market to sell his brewery, so it’s by no means a corporate takeover. No employees are expected to lose their jobs; presumably more will be added, as a capital infusion from abroad allows further expansion.
To qualify as craft beer, a beverage must be independently owned and make less than two million gallons of beer per year. They also usually adhere to specific European brewing techniques (“Belgian,” for instance). This definition contrasts with microbreweries, which make no more than 15,000 barrels of beer per year, most of which preemptively explode in my garage.
Even if Boulevard no longer qualifies as craft beer qua being independently owned, we are not lacking in the field. Just since 2011, the amount of craft breweries in the United States has increased from 1,900 to 2,300. Perhaps the only positive side effect of our persistent 2 percent annual economic “growth” is that we all drink a lot more and have apparently, as a country, developed a reasonable palate in the throes of our national stupor. High-quality local beverages have become so popular that they are effectively propping up the economy of Portland, Ore., which would otherwise consist entirely of artists selling paintings to one another.
Duvel Moortgat’s purchase of Boulevard Brewery means a European company bringing money into the United States. It will create jobs. More importantly, it will create more beer.
This is an unquestioningly good development.