Anheuser-Busch InBev Acquires Minority Stake in RateBeer...in 2016

Austin Ray

Through its so-called “global disruptive growth group” ZX Ventures, Anheuser-Busch InBev has acquired a minority stake in RateBeer, one of the most popular and reputable beer ratings and resource websites in the world.
 
But the deal isn’t exactly new. In fact, it closed this past October following eight months of talks. It went unannounced, however—to both the public and RateBeer stakeholders—because the two sides wanted to get “points on the board” to prove the value of the partnership without the “disruption” of making it public. Today, though, AB InBev confirmed to GBH that it has, in fact, invested in the website.
 
Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Speaking with GBH, though, ZX Ventures says that aligning with RateBeer enables it to gather a deeper and “more global” understanding of the beer industry at large.

“It’s really insight,” says Samantha Roth, ZX spokesperson. “It’s insights into consumer trends. It’s a better understanding of the beer consumer, and the beer markets globally. That’s really going to help us kind of keep our finger on the pulse.”
 
Guilherme Lebelson (ABI’s VP of E-Commerce), speaking about the larger goals and mission of ZX, focused on the growth of the beer category overall, which relies on an engaged and dedicated consumer for beer. ABI has seen the category slightly, but continuously, decline over the years, and because of their size and diversity of offerings, a category loss affects them like an S&P-focused mutual fund in the stock market—it roughly follows the macro trends despite any particular wins and losses. 
 
To that extent, ABI sees the battle as beer vs. wine vs. spirits, or what they call “share of throat.” These entries and investments into the digital beer experience going forward are about ensuring there’s an engaged beer consumer in the future that ABI is already developing. Raising the level of the “beer experience for the consumer” is a phrase Lebelson mentioned multiple times. 
 
RateBeer Executive Director Joe Tucker articulates the competitive advantage for ZX perhaps even more directly.
 
“There are many components to this,” Tucker says. “Of course, availability is a big one. We’ll be in a better place to put some of those things together [with] ZX. Availability, recommendation, how beers get from here to there, thinking about consumers globally, what works in certain markets. There are a number of a variety of problems that are involved in getting people the right beer in a way that fits their lifestyle.”
 
To that end, this investment into the digital, app, and e-commerce delivery space globally follows AB Inbev’s opportunistic approach to the value chain in general. Where they’re legally allowed, they own distribution companies. And increasingly, they’re investing in hospitality and direct-to-consumer models with their suite of craft acquisitions globally. In this same way, the digital and delivery investments, being largely made in countries with different—or no—three-tier laws, is giving them a major first-mover advantage in a potential future for beer experiences. 
 
GBH first caught wind of the investment this past March while researching an unrelated story about data in the beer industry. Through some LinkedIn sleuthing, we came across a detail in a ZX product manager’s profile suggesting he was involved in the “merge with ratebeer.”
 
After agreeing to a phone interview initially in March, Tucker declined to confirm on the status of things, but offered an uneasy laugh when informed of our LinkedIn discovery. On the phone today, however, it was confirmed that Tucker was unaware of that merging activity being conducted through a separate technology acquisition in Brazil called beHoppy.
 
Tech Lead Leduar Staniscia (whose LinkedIn profile was the impetus for us to begin reporting in March) described his role as “acting as CEO of beHoppy (mobile social beer network),” which stacks up as a sort of Untappd competitor enabling beer rankings and recommendations among consumers. Staniscia had been a ZX Ventures Lead since October of 2015 according to his LinkedIn page. In August 2016, he posted on his Instagram a photo of the ZX Ventures’ ZXlerator Demo Day without comment, but he did tag Gustavo Fino, the lead for Zé Delivery at the time, ZX Ventures’ beer delivery service, which also heavily promotes AB InBev brands. The two projects seem to imply an increasingly broad platform play tying together e-commerce and consumer data in the beer world.
 
Catching up now that the deal is on the record, Tucker explains he agreed to partner with the world’s largest beer company, in part, because his website had been struggling to “keep pace with technology and keep pace with the growth of the community.”
 
“What was attractive about ZX for us was you had people in beer, people enthusiastic about beer,” Tucker explains. “There was a tech savvy part to ZX that I really liked. There’s stability. And I think that made the choice.”
 
Although this is AB InBev’s first web buy, the global beer giant has been expanding its presence online of late. This past January, ZX Ventures became an investor in a Conde Nast publication called October, described as “a digital publication focused on beer with an editorial perspective that speaks to a new generation of beer drinkers.” [Disclosure: GBH owner and founder Michael Kiser serves as executive editor of October employed through Conde Nast.] Prior to that, ZX also invested in Northern Brewer, the leading e-commerce homebrewing supply platform that’s now promoting recipes from AB’s High End brands like Goose Island and Elysian.
 
Those sites, however, launched with disclosures, their respective alignments with AB InBev clearly outlined on the websites themselves. The RateBeer deal is different. Not only was it not announced to the public, Tucker wasn’t able to “discuss names” with the site’s key stakeholders, as mentioned above, which includes API partners who rely on RateBeer data, but also share data with RateBeer.
 
“We were able to discuss it in general terms, so they knew it was happening” Tucker says. “The way I described it to them, to stakeholders, admins on the site, top raters and whatnot, it was a ‘big investor.’”
 
As far as RateBeer goes and what this means for the website’s future, the company echoed a sentiment well familiar with anyone who pays attention to AB InBev’s activity in the U.S. craft brewing space: for the end consumer, nothing is going to change.
 
“RateBeer is acting independently,” Tucker says. “We’ve always acted independently. The value of our scores is based on our independence. We’ll continue to operate in the same way.”
 
In addition to the data and site, RateBeer also produces one of the most sought-after awards ceremonies and festivals in the world, honoring the best beers and breweries according to its massive user base. Earlier this year, Tucker confirmed that user base was shifting globally with London now being its most active user community, along with increasingly active countries like Poland.
 
When asked how his relationship with AB InBev factors into his ability to produce this festival, he concluded that the awards would still continue to be generated like they always have, based on user ratings. But as for the festival, he planned on reaching out to breweries he knows well to “gauge sentiment.” In the wake of the Wicked Weed fallout, and the cancelled festival that followed, he’s prepared.
 
“I’m aware of the climate,” Tucker says.

[Update: Shortly after our story published, Tucker issued a statement to the RateBeer community.]
 
—Dave Eisenberg