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Anheuser-Busch snags big imported beer deal

In another move to expand beyond sluggish times for its mass-market domestic beers, Anheuser-Busch said Thursday that it has snared the rights to a stable of some of InBev’s top-shelf imported suds including Stella Artois, Beck’s and Bass Pale Ale.

Starting in February 1, 2007, Anheuser-Busch will import those brands, and a few others, and also do their sales, promotion and distribution in the United States. Altogether, the InBev (BE:000379310: news, chart, profile) brands had volumes of about 1.5 million barrels last year.

InBev’s Canadian beers, like Labatt Blue and Labatt Blue Light are not included in the deal, terms of which were not disclosed.

"This agreement gives us highly-valued brands that appeal to beer drinkers looking for sophisticated imports in their beer choices," said August Busch IV, chief executive officer of the St. Louis-based company, in the announcement. "We live in a world with diverse cultures and lifestyles, and this provides additional variety for our consumers."

Chart of BUD

He added that pact is "consistent with our stated strategy of enhancing our participation in the U.S. high-end beer segment."

The company has little choice: Growth has been virtually nonexistent in domestic beer over the last few years as American drinkers spurn labels like Budweiser, Miller and Coors in favor of craft beers, imports and other forms of beverage alcohol, most notably distilled spirits.

And it isn’t a bad deal for InBev either. The Brussels- based brewer — now the world’s largest — gets access to Anheuser-Busch’s powerhouse distribution system, something that could further grow the already hot brands.

News of the deal was first reported in trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights Thursday afternoon, ahead of the official announcement. "We view this as clearly positive news," wrote Marc Greenberg of Deutsche Bank in a note to investors after the initial report. The "InBev portfolio represents high-end exposure in the growing import segment of the market, and would be a significant complement to [A-B’s] existing portfolio and core domestic brands."

More important, though "such a deal would allay investor concerns about [the company’s] seriousness in building out the high-end of its portfolio, and its longterm ability to maintain exclusivity of the distributor network, as distributors are increasingly demanding greater access to the growing and higher-margin import segment," Greenberg said.

Shares of A-B ended the day up nearly 2% at $47.51.

William Spain

MarketWatch - 2 December 2006
 
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