The king of beer mergers

Will patriotic Americans stand by while a foreign brewery chugs down red-white-and-blue Budweiser? Or will they say, good riddance!

Published June 12, 2008 2:14PM (EDT)

Here's a challenge for any enterprising reporters who really want to put John McCain and Barack Obama on the "free trade" spot. Ask the candidates how they feel about the hostile takeover bid made for Anheuser-Busch Wednesday by InBev, a Brazilian-Belgian brewery conglomerate. Could John McCain, for example, really stand aside and cheer as control of Budweiser passed overseas?

To some Americans, this foreign invasion is far more significant than any attempt to wrest control of American ports or railroads. This is a struggle for America's very essence! Budweiser is iconic. Missouri's politicians are up in arms, and at, more than 31,000 patriotic Americans have already signed a petition opposing the merger.

To understand the full significance of what's at stake, let's hand the microphone to John Hopkins, a columnist for the Telegraph in Alton, Ill., a town just north of St. Louis, where Anheuser-Busch is headquartered.

A-B is so much more than just a hometown company. It is a symbol to the world of the best of the brewer's art, a pride that goes back centuries, born in Europe and refined in America. It is the Clydesdales, the Dalmatians and the fire wagon, all hailing the arrival of the King of Beers. It is salary and benefits to over 6,000 area employees, supporting in turn the stores, the malls, the banks and the other bastions of the local economy. It is a first class, civic minded, corporate neighbor, always standing ready to lend a helping hand, contributing over $12 million to local charities last year.

Bit by bit, piece by piece, the heritage that we hold as common is disappearing. The legacy that we share as Americans is not only in the history we learn, but in the products we make, the companies that feed and give the dignity of work to our people, in the pride of jobs expertly done. When this vanishes, a piece of our collective soul goes with it. For the generations to follow, we need to preserve that which binds, that which distinguishes, that which marks us as not just citizens of the world, but as holders of the American spirit. We commit violence to history if it can later be said that the legacy passed down to us was not conquered, was not stolen, but sold. We must fight to keep the Eagle flying.

How the World Works admits -- a little part of me dies inside every time the founders (or descendants of the founders) of a company are forced to bow to the wishes of their shareholders and sell out to outside buyers. This bothers me just as much when no evil foreign influence is involved (e.g., Microsoft's efforts to buy Yahoo) as when America's collective soul is at risk. And given InBev's reputation as a tight-fisted penny-pincher, one can definitely make a case that jobs are at risk if InBev succeeds in its bid. (Of course, the jobs argument never seems to carry much sway when, say, a ruthless New York-based private equity fund is swooping in to buy a beleaguered domestically based company.)

But hold on just a minute.

The best of the brewer's art?

The heritage that we hold as common?

We must fight to keep the Eagle flying?

I know these are dangerous waters in which to tread, and that I will soon be pilloried as a coastal elitist beer snob, but I must be true to my own deeply held beliefs. Anheuser-Busch, the controller of half the U.S. beer market, symbolizes everything that is wrong with America. With special emphasis on the foul stain upon the brewer's tradition that goes by the name Bud Light. Great-tasting? Have we all gone mad?

For true beer-lovers across the world, Budweiser is a joke. It's embarrassing. Since when does America mean watered-down pablum, forced down the throats of an unthinking populace by sheer power of mass-marketing muscle? Since when does America stand for homogenized, lowest-common-denominator swill? Michelob? Busch? These are not the names of American patriots -- these are signposts of the triumph of a particular strain of capitalism in which true identity and taste are sacrificed in the service of gaining greater market share.

If we're looking for real American icons that represent the grandest traditions of our Founding Fathers, who threw off foreign rule so they could stand independent and seek their own destiny, we have to search elsewhere than in the realm of giant conglomerates with humongous Super Bowl advertising budgets. I'm talking home brewers, microbreweries, and those brave, privately owned breweries that have yet to sell out to the false dream of "going public" -- and all the betrayal of brewer freedom that such slavery to the market implies.

In other words, give me Sierra Nevada, or give me death.

The King of Beers. Pfft. Let the Brazilian-Belgians have it. American eagles deserve stronger stuff.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Beer Globalization How The World Works