Blog: Chris MercerSABMiller Takes Holy Approach with St Stefanus

Chris Mercer | 27 October 2011

SABMiller's abbey beer, St Stefanus, was officially launched in the UK last night and, while I don't want to trivialise any of the effort involved, it is probably best described as a bit of an experiment.

Van Steenberge's master brewer, Jef Versele, first became aware of SABMiller's interest in his brewery via a Swizterland-based intermediary, who visited him in Ghent, eastern Belgium. The mystery Swiss visitor showed a keen interest in all things Abbey beer. Negotiations followed and SABMiller bagged itself international distribution rights on what is essentially Van Steenberge's Augustijn beer - only it has been renamed St Stefanus outside of Belgium.

It's a curious deal in some ways, but it makes logical sense in others. The swoop for Van Steenberge (although the brewery remains independent) certainly confused a few beer bloggers, along the lines of: 'Multinational Beer Baddie in Genuine Quality Beer Deal Shocker'. 

However, SABMiller does not have a Belgian 'abbey' beer, unlike its two greatest rivals on the world beer circuit. Anheuser-Busch InBev has Leffe and Heineken has Grimbergen. And, everyone knows that craft beers are selling reasonably well in several shrinking, western beer markets.

SABMiller is a little late to this whole abbey beer gig. Still, the group is developing a knack of arriving on a scene in the UK with a slightly holier-than-though approach. It has carefully distributed Peroni Nastro Azzurrro in the UK so as not too garner a lager lout image. St Stefanus, meanwhile, is on very select distribution and, initially, will only be in the on-trade and in bottles. There is a plan for a limited draught launch, I understand.

A natural advantage for SABMiller is that the UK is not as important to the brewer's overall business as it is to, say, A-B InBev. It can, therefore, pick its battles.  

This is all sounds good, but surely such limited scale won't generate much profit? Afterall, SABMiller is not in business for kicks, but rather to make returns for shareholders. Well, the brewer's new UK MD, Gary Haigh, told me that the firm is "planting acorns" by launching St Stefanus so selectively. The brand is not moving the profits dial yet, but it is expected to gain what marketers call 'critical mass' over time.

Versele presented his beer to SABMiller's exec prior to yesterday's launch. It would have been fascinating to see. SABMiller's veteran CEO, Graham Mackay, has been heard to describe many craft brewers as a lifestyle choice, rather than serious business outfits. 

Mackay, though, has a shrewd head for business. The board clearly sees leverage in marketing a niche beer at a time when consumer tastes in developed markets are becoming more and more fragmented. The risk is relatively small, precisely because the volume numbers are low and SABMiller has laid down zero capital by leaving Van Steenberge as an independent business.

How many more tie-ups will we see structured like this, I wonder? It will be interesting to see how St Stefanus develops.     

As for whose abbey beer is the oldest...

Well, firstly, it's all about when the abbey was built rather than when the brewing started. But, on this basis, Grimbergen dates its abbey at 1128, more than 100 years earlier than Leffe and St Stefanus, which date theirs back to a mere 1240 and 1295 respectively. 



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