Ask Dr Ina Verstl to describe herself and she will unfurl an array of titles and adjectives: storyteller, foreigner, journalist, listener, outsider, world traveller.
Ina, along with co-author Ernst Faltermeier, penned a book about the globalisation of the beer world, narrowing in on the giants of the industry, AB InBev in particular. The book, The Beer Monopoly: How brewers bought and built for world domination, examines beer around the world as well as who owns it, stating that most people don’t actually know who own the beer they drink.
It features an in-depth account of how Belgian company Interbrew grew over two decades to become AB InBev, the world's largest brewing company, by steadily taking over a collection of other large brewing companies.
Ina is well travelled and well educated. Born in one of the world's beer heartlands, Munich, she travelled to England to study before venturing home to complete her thesis. Along the way, she studied economics, philosophy and literature before choosing beer as the topic for her first book.
The choice of topic saw her travel to Adelaide, where, last month, she spoke at the Australian Craft Brewers Conference, outlining her thoughts on the Australian craft beer industry. She believes craft breweries have fragmented drinkers and that the challenge for independent brewers is to continue to come up with something new.
Speaking to The Crafty Pint following her conference, she said her personal journey down this path began upon her returned home.
“There are quite a few women in the brewing industry but I was interested in the product when I returned to live in Munich after my time in the UK," she says. "Munich is famous for beer, their cars and nuclear power and the latter are not for me, so beer it became."
Now living in Berlin, Ina (pictured above) has watched the growth of craft beer in countries such as the UK, Italy, France and the Scandinavian countries – but less so in Germany.
“In Germany it is very niche because the Reinheitsgebot stands in the way of craft brewers bringing out beers with ingredients that are not on the list," she says. "Also, the price for beer in Germany is so low that anyone would struggle to sell beer that is 50 percent more expensive. Craft beer is really quite popular in Scandinavian countries, in Poland and even Russia.”
However, it was Ina’s fascination with AB InBev’s approach to beer that motivated her to investigate globalisation of the brewing industry. What she discovered was one company dominating, not by necessarily making the best beer but by buying out the competition. This method of business she likened to the game of Monopoly, where players buy everything until there is nothing left worth buying.
“Ever since the book has come out, we have had an ideological and material backlash against globalisation because Mr Trump is talking about protectionism and we have had Brexit," says Ina.
"I think globalisation and the liberation of markets have run its course for the foreseeable future. Globalisation in the brewing industry in definitely over because of AB InBev. What other deals can be done will not have any material impact on the standing or status of AB InBev.”
The global giant, which recently entered the market here with Goose Island as its lead brand, has also taken a minority stake in beer rating website RateBeer, a controversial move that has drawn criticism and seen American craft beer pioneers Dogfish Head withdraw its beers from the site. Ina says such an investment seems to confirm there are no properties left worth buying, causing AB InBev to look in a different direction.
“There is nothing meaningful to buy except for craft breweries," she says. "In many municipal markets they are struggling to maintain market share and they can see that the consumer interest is shifting away gradually and only perhaps marginally from mainstream brands so they have to follow the market; that is why they are investing in craft breweries.
"They can’t buy Heineken and they can’t buy Carlsberg; not only do these companies not want to be taken over but there are also anti-trust concerns."
As for the Australian market, she believes there are other challenges ahead.
"The challenge is taxation, because it means that all the craft brewers will struggle in a segment that is best served by the big brewers," she says. "They can produce these fashionable beers at much better margins than craft brewers can do. The brewers are kind of locked in here because they can’t do the higher alcohol beers otherwise they will price themselves out of the market.”
On her travels, Ina has tried and tested many beers from a variety of cultures and has one that stands out – and it's one that's as relevant to the ongoing discussions in the beer world as taxation and globalisation.
Says Ina: “I have one favourite beer and it is always a local beer. Wherever I go, I drink a local beer because I like freshness.”