Fresh details of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s acquisition strategy have emerged with news that the multinational company this year started a community for its breweries to facilitate information-sharing and ease access to ingredients. The community is called Agora, according to members of the group.
The Belgian multinational A-B InBev, whose takeover of SABMiller is expected to be completed on Monday, has spent the past few years acquiring breweries across the globe, particularly in the U.S., where it has bought seven since early 2014. Agora currently has 30 members, with breweries from the U.S., U.K., Italy, Belgium, Brazil and elsewhere.
Agora meets regularly, and the most recent gathering took place at A-B InBev’s global headquarters in Leuven, Belgium, last week. Many of the breweries involved then traveled to Birra Del Borgo’s I Giorni dell’IPA festival in Italy on Oct. 1. Among those in Italy were Goose Island Beer Co., Four Peaks Brewing Co., Breckenridge Brewery, Golden Road Brewing, Blue Point Brewing Co., Camden Town Brewery, Bosteels Brewery and more.
Agora has been under development since January, with the first meeting taking place in May at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia. A hop workshop was held in July at Elk Mountain Farm, A-B InBev’s hop farm in Idaho. Last week’s events in Belgium focused on yeast and fermentation. Members also have access to an internal communication system. “It’s a noticeboard where we can share experiences, like how we worked with the fruit in [Camden Town’s] Strawberry Hells [Forever],” says Camden Town founder Jasper Cuppaidge. “It’s about sharing best practice.”
The news comes after criticism of A-B InBev in a much-shared blog post by Jacob McKean of Modern Times Beer in San Diego, which was posted on Sept. 6. Responding to an article which made a number of claims about the benefits of being bought out by a multinational, McKean wrote that the actual goal of A-B InBev’s acquisition strategy is “to destroy craft beer from within by operating acquired breweries as zombie brands that wreak havoc in the marketplace.” The company does this, McKean writes, by selling beer so cheaply that independent breweries cannot compete.
With the unveiling of Agora, its members seem to offer a counterpoint to McKean’s claims, by demonstrating how A-B InBev is working with breweries to improve on their current offering rather than turning them into “zombie brands.”
“Agora is really directed at how not to fuck it all up,” says Cuppaidge, who sold Camden Town to A-B InBev last December for a reported £85m (or approximately $107 million). “It’s about: how do we keep doing that? How do we use the best parts of [A-B InBev] to keep things going as they are?” Cuppaidge added that he expected one of Agora’s meetings next year to be held at Camden Town’s new brewery, which is currently being built in the northern suburbs of London.
Named after the ancient Greek meeting place, Agora provides many of the benefits that brewers take for granted but which are presumably no longer available for those breweries that have been bought by A-B InBev. In terms of structure, it appears to be a more close-knit version of the Brewers Association: there’s access to experienced brewers who work for the parent company; advice from fellow small breweries; regular seminars and the opportunity to arrange collaboration brews (Camden Town has already collaborated with Elysian Brewing Co. and Birra Del Borgo); and chances to experience life at another brewery. “It’s an incredible network of people. I’ve never felt more at home,” says Cuppaidge.
Last week’s events in Italy were the first public outing for Agora, with breweries splitting into teams for a friendly brewing competition. That was followed by the festival in the afternoon, with local breweries such as Opperbacco and Maiella also invited. I Giorni dell’IPA has been running for a number of years but this was the first since Birra Del Borgo was bought by A-B InBev in April.
Birra Del Borgo, founded by Leonardo Di Vincenzo in 2005, has suffered some adverse reaction due to its sale. A partnership with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery ended in May: the breweries had previously collaborated on a beer called Etrusca while Dogfish Head brewed Del Borgo’s pilsner, My Antonia, for distribution in the U.S.
Cuppaidge has also taken some criticism (“Has Camden Town ruined craft beer for everyone?” was the headline on an article in The Guardian following the sale) but he insists he has been delighted with how things have gone since the Camden Town sale in December. “It’s better than I expected it would be,” he says. “I think everyone is so scared about big companies, but it hasn’t been like that. It’s a great sharing of knowledge—they’re learning from us, it’s inspiring their workforce too.”
Will Hawkes is the author of the forthcoming Liquid Education: Beer, a guide to the constantly evolving world of malt and hops.