Thursday, October 17, 2013

Flowers, Candlelight, Long Walks on the Beach, Movies with Happy Endings.

Duvel Moortgat is not a brewery. Not exactly. Not anymore. It is an international company that takes control of regional ale breweries. It has a strategy. Duvel is "determined to occupy a leading position as a niche player in the profitable segments of speciality beers and premium brands, both in Belgium and in priority export markets."

And you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Is there?

At the end of the day what matters (to you, or so you say) is how much you enjoy their products. They are producers. We are consumers. We fulfill our roles. Even if we don't assign scores to our beer, we assign a certain amount of our money to it. That shows up as a number. That number is higher than the one that refers to how much Duvel Moortgat spent on making, marketing and sending it somewhere. The difference is called a margin. And at the end of the day that's what matters (to Duvel Moortgat).

Romantic, isn't it?

I'll be straight with you: The news about Duvel taking over Boulevard disturbs me. I'm a belgophile who happens to be from Missouri. I'm a Missourian who happens to write about Belgian beer. I grew up with Boulevard. I've also watched what Duvel has done in Belgium (and consumed more than my share of their products). They've bought regional ale breweries. They might have saved a couple, but they also turned Achouffe into Achouffe (Duvel Moortgat). They turned Liefmans into Liefmans (Duvel Moortgat). De Koninck (Duvel Moortgat). Ommegang (Duvel Moortgat).

And now my home state brewery--a favorite, if I'm honest--will be Boulevard (Duvel Moortgat). Another link in a strategy to become "a niche player in the profitable segments of speciality beers and premium brands."

I have not read a single article about this purchase yet. Not one. I promise to do so after I publish this post. Someone sent me a link. I didn't click on it. I saw a couple of tweets. Still haven't clicked. I wanted to record my thoughts--why not here?--before wading into the inevitable bullshit. I reckon it will be thick. No, don't tell me. Is there stuff in there about how this is a natural fit? About how, hey, the brewmaster is Belgian too? About how Duvel Moortgat can take Boulevard products national or international? About how Duvel Moortgat prioritizes quality and lets regional breweries pretty much do their thing?

And do you believe it?

Here is my opinion: It depends. De Koninck seems more or less the same to me, so far. Achouffe does not. Liefmans now sells something called "Fruitesse" and suggests that we serve it on the rocks. The flagship Duvel beer has, er, flagged, but the Tripel Hop is interesting in a way that is not especially original these days--but still, interesting.

Here is what we write in the next Good Beer Guide Belgium: "In its various plants DM now packages more than 800,000 hectolitres of beer per year, ensuring that none makes a bad beer but less active in their pursuit of of the memorable."

I'm not sure that's 100% correct though. Fruitesse might just be a bad beer. La Chouffe, while decent and cleaner than it used to be in bottles, can be an boozy-hot coriander-spiked mess on draft. Memorable? Sure. But that's my opinion, opinions are like assholes, and so am I.

Boulevard, though. Will I still reach for my stand-by Pale Ale when I head home for the holidays? Probably. Eventually. But I will be annoyed. I will wonder when things will change, for change must come eventually--and how often do bigger beer companies improve the breweries they acquire? In the American experience, not often. In the Belgian experience, not often. People saying that they will not change does not make it so.

But Boulevard will still make mostly good beers. A few may be great. And, like I say, there's nothing wrong with any of this, mind you. It's just not very romantic. I happen to like romance, especially when it swirls around beers with which I've long nurtured a relationship.

Also, just in case this matters to you, it's not "craft." Not exactly. Not anymore.

10 comments:

  1. I can tell you about what happened here with Bernard, one of my favourite breweries. 10 years ago, or so, DM bought a 50% stake in Bernard. The head honcho of the company, and still part owner, Standa Bernard was quoted saying that the operation brought in a much needed influx of cash that was used, among other things, to modernise part of the brewery.

    As far as it is known, DM has not meddled with the production and, apparently, not much with the management, either. When I visited the brewery a couple of years ago, I didn't see any sign of DM having anything to do with the brewery anywhere, not even in the offices (I interviewed Mr Bernard). The only exception was the brewery shop that sold Duvel.

    It's never black or white, corporate takeovers like this always come in many shades of grey (though, hopefully, not 50).

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  2. No, I do not believe the sky to be falling, Joe. Duvel saved De Koninck, let's be honest, and probably did the same for Liefmans, notwithstanding that horrible fruit beer. I think, based on a handful of experiences, that La Chouffe is actually a better beer than it was when the brewery was independent. (Had some pretty seriously coriandered versions back in the day.)

    If Ommegang is the template, then I think Boulevard is pretty well set, all things considered.

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  3. Not calling it a disaster by any stretch. Just getting sentimental. I guess I like my independent breweries to be independent.

    La Chouffe is more consistent than before, I'll give it that. Less fun though.

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  4. I was born in KC and live in KC and have been drinking Boulevard since the early 1990s. Of course there has been an uproar of sorts from the "I only drink local beer" or "I only drink 'Merican beer" crowd. John McDonald was looking for a transition plan for his company which a lot of entreprenuers need to do if family members aren't going to take over. In a NY Times article he said he had been trying to find an investor or partner the past few years and finally went to Duvel. He made the best decision for him, his family and the long-term success of his business in Kansas City. Sure I would love to have local ownership of Boulevard, but I wouldn't want the brewery sold to someone who runs it into the ground. So I'll continue to enjoy my locally produced Boulevard beer. All the while I will be thankful for John's vision and decision to put the brewery into the trusted hands of Duvel.

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  5. Please excuse one more comment from me, but I can't help but add that at the end of the day margins matter to Independent "craft" breweries just as much as Duvel. Margins pay the employees, utilities, suppliers and rent. Margins are what you show to your bank or potential investors to get more working capital or long-term loans to invest in equipment to continue making great beer. Margins are what you are interested in your company continuing to earn when you are looking at an exit strategy. Few people think margins are sexy (except financial types like me) and you can't get sentimental about them, but they are what makes the world go around....that and great beer. Cheers!

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  6. Michael, thanks for all your comments. They seem so overwhelmingly sensible that I feel compelled to play devil's advocate.

    Boulevard is locally produced, for now. Duvel has been known to move its beers around its various plants in Belgium, especially depending on packaging needs. Are you sure those Smokestack beers won't be brewed and bottled in New York state, ever? (and would it matter if they were?)

    Also: I like margins. They keep businesses of all sizes going. Breweries are businesses. I like breweries. But there is also a question of emphasis. People bang their heads trying to come up with a legalistic definition of "craft" when it is--if it is anything--a slippery, subjective scale of degree. A spectrum, and a matter of perspective. One side emphasizes beer of character and expects that the margins will come. The beer is the ends, the margin the means.

    Somewhere toward the other end, that gets flipped around.

    There is nothing morally wrong with either end. Even if there were, I'm not a moralist. I'm a hedonist. In my experience the more fun and interesting stuff tends to come from one end -- which is not to say the other end is incapable of making good beer. It's just that one side is more nimble than the other.

    (Incidentally, where I currently live, Duvel and La Chouffe are two of the very best beers you can buy, and I happily plonk down $5 a bottle for them. But there are days when I might kill a man if I thought he had a Boulevard Pale Ale on his person.)

    Or maybe it's become fashionable for people to say that "craft" is meaningless, so I have to be contrarian.

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  7. I guess I trust that Duvel will operate Boulevard as hands off as they appear to have with Ommegang. I am hoping with John McDonald on the Duvel Board that he can keep pushing for local production of all of the Boulevard Brands. Wishful thinking perhaps. At the end of the day it was John's right to sell his company to whomever he chooses and I think he had KC's interest in mind when he did so. Overall though I see the long-term success of Boulevard as the most important thing to Kansas City however they achieve that. I don't mind the contrarian though....at least you can engage in an intelligent discussion about this which isn't always the case in some public forums.

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  8. As long as this deal has NO AFFECT on Boulevard's recipes and bottle-conditioning, I will be happy enough. Chances are, something will change, however minor, and we won't have the same character in their. No other American brewer has succeeded with their bottle-conditioning on such a large scale as Boulevard (don't get me started on Ommegang :)

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  9. So far I too agree that Duvel Moortgat has done a lot of good saving some breweries that might have gone the way of the Dodo without them. I for one am trying to get their brands into my home province where the beer selection is woefully slim

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