The Boulevard Buyout - Some Perspective

Hello, Beer World! I'd like to introduce myself as your friendly local beer philosopher and historian. Woah, wait, that sounds like a lot to live up to. Lets try that again. I'd like to introduce myself as that guy at the end of the bar trying to explain to random strangers why beer is way more important everyone thinks! I do at least have a few qualifications to lend some credibility to my rants. I've been homebrewing for a little over 6 years now and for the last couple of months I've had the honor of brewing part time down at Green Room. I'm also a BJCP Recognized Judge and try to judge as many of the homebrew competitions in town as I can. Other than that, I just really like beer--brewing beer, drinking beer, reading about beer, and talking about beer. So let's chat!

The sale of Boulevard has dominated the local and national brewing headlines for the last week. It's a contentious and polarizing issue that I'm sure you all, understandably, have a pretty strong opinion about. So for my first post on the KC Beer Blog, I thought, "What better way to make half of the beer lovers in Kansas City hate me than to give my opinion on the buyout!" In all seriousness though, I hopefully won't alienate too many of our dear beer friends with my writing. Like in most things, I take a pretty pragmatic view on the sale and have been trying to get a little more perspective on the issue over the weekend, rather than just putting out a disappointing reactionary article.

I had been hearing whispers of a possible sale of Boulevard for a while before the actual news. Even so, the announcement came as quite a shock. At first, the news of the merger obviously conjured up visions of the A-B takeover by InBev. It's happening again! Boulevard was being bought out by the Belgians! The 2nd largest brewer in Belgium, at that! These first panicked thoughts running through my mind were quickly dispelled after some breathing exercises and Tank 7. The largest Belgian brewery is InBev, producer of something north of 350 million barrels of beer per year, compared to Duvel Moortgat's paltry 800,000 barrels per year. Yes, this makes Duvel Belgium's second largest brewery, with a whopping 0.2% of InBev's production.

Seeing Duvel for what it is, rather than labeling it as the devilish takeover artist is really pretty easy. I would guess that if I asked any of you for your opinion on Duvel, it would be one of high praise. Lots of us cut our drinking teeth on fine imports like Duvel, boisterously claiming them superior to any American beer. Then we discovered American craft beer, and kind of forgot about imports, but hey, that's a whole different story. Duvel has been a family owned brewery for the last 142 years--they're now into the fourth generation of Moortgat's to run the business. Their flagship brew is literally the archetype of the Belgian Golden Strong style.

You can look at Duvel from a different perspective though--American beer is the future, European the past. I don't know of many stalwart bastions in traditional brewing countries that don't recognize this yet. (At least not within the brewing industry--local pride and historical precedent are still hard things for some proud people to let go of.) This lack of innovation in most old European breweries is shown off in Duvel's lack of ability to brew and market great new beers. Their latest offering is essentially a cherry alco-pop, marketed to be served over ice. (Will we be seeing bro's fruitesse over icing each other soon?) And then there's the entire concept of one of Duvel Moortgat's other illustrious brands, Vedett. Extra Rice makes their beer extra good, or so they say. These types of drinks may be big sellers, but do little to advance the state of brewing or to further Duvel's commitment to strive for perfection. Contrast this to Boulevard's latest few offerings--big winners with craft beer newbies and salty old drinkers alike. Is it this innovation that Duvel is trying to capture in buying American breweries?

Why come up with new brewing ideas when you can just buy them?
The question now is how this will impact the company and Kansas City. At least things look good if we let history be our guide. It seems that in all of the high profile craft brewery buyouts, the breweries have seen little negative change. Quite the contrary, it seems that most buyouts have led to brewery expansions and better availability for the consumer, with little sacrifice of quality. I really doubt that we'll see much change in the long run and I imagine the cash infusion will accelerate the ongoing and future brewery expansions. Duvel also seems much more the partner than anything, being the little brother to Boulevard in terms of their American presence.

Even though Boulevard will have more access to other foreign and domestic markets now, Kansas City is still Boulevard's biggest market by a wide margin. It will be in Duvel's best interest to keep Boulevard just as locally involved as it always has been. And barring any significant change, I can't buy into the argument that Boulevard will be any less "local" even if their owner's aren't. I imagine that five or ten years from now, they will still be sponsoring our sports teams, providing direct and indirect employment for hundreds of Kansas Citians, donating to local charities, and helping us stay green with Ripple Glass. And of course the most important aspect of drinking local in terms of the actual beer is its freshness. Our access to delicious fresh Boulevard will never change.

It will be an interesting time for the Kansas City craft beer community going forward. We're in uncharted waters now. I'm excited to see how it all plays out, and am hoping for the best. At least we all have a number of great backups in town if Boulevard gets eaten alive by zombie bean counters from Europe. Maybe this move benefits the other micro and nano breweries in the region more than anyone by sending more business their way--indirectly helping more new breweries to open? Now that the smoke has cleared and the panic has died down, I'd like to hear the thoughts of the drinking millions out there. Let me know what you think about the sale. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Too busy trying to find some foeder beer on tap to care?

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