SABMiller's CEO, Graham Mackay, has stoked the fire of speculation by forecasting more consolidation in the beer sector, but has he also hinted that Foster's Group is asking for too much money?

Mackay, who took the podium at the Consumer Analyst Group Europe's annual conference yesterday (29 March), increasingly looks to have the easy confidence of a man who, while not untouchable, feels able to speak a little more freely in what is likely to be, with all due respect, the twilight years of his career.

For several minutes, he held court on mergers and acquisitions in the brewing sector. More consolidation in the global brewing industry is probable, he said, both in terms of bolt-on acquisitions and larger-scale deals.    

"There will be bolt-on acquisitions still to come," he said, adding that "we and others will continue to pursue those".  

Although Mackay was careful not to mention names, it is barely a secret that SABMiller has had a look at the beer arm of Foster's Group and the African beer business of France's Castel over the last 12 months. 

With that in mind, it was interesting that he chose to drop a couple of gentle reminders on barriers to acquisitions, even for a top industry player with the money to buy.

"There are very few beer players with an open share register," said Mackay. Many independent beer companies, including Grupo Modelo and, of course, Castel's African beer unit, BGI, remain in family hands. "It depends what the families want and when they want it," he added.

Potential targets, Mackay argued, have increased their price expectations. "They want higher prices and it generally makes the transactions less attractive," he said. In another snippet, Mackay added that, in terms of consolidation in brewing, "cross-country scale synergies are very weak", while "in-country scale synergies are very strong".

Several analysts here at CAGE have expressed caution on SABMiller's interest in Foster's beer unit, Carlton & United Breweries. There is greater certainty about the brewer's desire for Castel's BGI, described by one analyst as a case of "when not if".

Of course, anyone looking for a definitive answer on the level of SABMiller's interest in Foster's et al was going to come away disappointed from Mackay's presentation. But, his comments are worth bearing in mind, particularly in light of Foster's impending beer and wine demerger.