GUATEMALA CITY — The centerpiece of Cerveceria Centro Americana’s headquarters and brewery here is a chapel constructed in 1946, when it still held an absolute monopoly on the Guatemalan beer market.
The company claims the well-preserved chapel is open to the public, but the front door is conspicuously covered in heavy brown fabric and visitors are turned away by private guards with shotguns.
This is where Guatemala brews Gallo (pronounced GAI-yo, meaning “rooster”) — a pale lager with a mean rooster crowing on its label.
For many in this impoverished Central American country, beer was Gallo, and Gallo was beer. That was until 2003, when the Cerveceria’s more than a century-old monopoly was broken by AmBev, the Brazilian division of what’s now beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev.
That’s when the country’s beer labels began to get a bit more plentiful, and prices a whole lot cheaper. An all-out price war had begun.
But since losing its monopoly, Cerveceria Centro Americana seems to have lost its mojo. It’s hobbled by a family feud and lacks a clear strategy. Now the Guatemalan brewer risks getting absorbed by AB InBev, the world’s largest beer company with about a fifth of the global market.
Guatemala’s company would be the latest acquisition by the brewing behemoth that keeps growing.
A 1999 merger of Brazilian breweries created Companhia de Bebidas das Americas (now AmBev), which then set out for beverage markets across the Americas. Along the way, in 2004, it merged with Belgium’s Interbrew. Together they formed InBev, and they conquered.
InBev acquired Bud maker Anheuser-Busch in 2008, and a controlling share of the Dominican Republic’s Cerveceria Nacional Dominicana in 2012. In June, it purchased the Mexico’s Corona maker Grupo Modelo. Its profits keep rising.
Now analysts predict a $100-billion mega merger between the world’s two largest producers, AB InBev and SABMiller, Reuters reported.
Here in Guatemala, it still has a proud little nation’s rooster to contend with.
This may hurt the locals, but some US and European travelers to Guatemala tell GlobalPost they prefer AmBev’s Brahva beer or imports occasionally available in ex-pat bars (sometimes Heineken and Brooklyn Lager). They say Gallo lacks body and can have a bitter aftertaste.
Yet “Gallo is the best beer” or “Gallo is our beer” are the replies of many Guatemalans when asked which brew’s their favorite.
The Cerveceria is counting on that homegrown loyalty.
In the past, the family owned company could bully would-be competitors. That’s unworkable against an opponent of AmBev’s size.
Now the Cerveceria sustains brand recognition partly by boasting sentimental and cultural bonds with drinkers through slogans such as “We believe, we trust and we invest in Guatemala” and “Nothing like Guatemala, nothing like our beer Gallo.”
“I like Gallo. Growing up, it was Gallo,” Edgar Lopez, owner of the Sunshine Grill in La Antigua Guatemala, said. “I always wanted a pizza place with beer on tap, and Gallo is the only beer on tap in Guatemala.”
It also helps that the Cerveceria pays for Sunshine Grill’s signage, cable bill, beer mats, refrigeration and cleaning — thanks to an understanding that gives the national brewer an informal sort of exclusivity for its products there.
Still, in other areas AmBev’s playing tough in the price war.
A Shell station across the street from the Cerveceria headquarters sells cans of Brahva — the competition — for 4 quetzals (about 51 US cents), while the national brewer’s bottom-rung Dorada Ice costs 6 quetzals (76 cents).
Last year, during Holy Week, both companies had special promotions — cans of beer were only 1 quetzal (13 cents). That surely hit the bottom line for the Cerveceria much harder than it did for AmBev.
AmBev’s market capitalization is over $113 billion, more than twice Guatemala’s annual gross domestic product.
While the Cerveceria’s financial information is undisclosed, as it has been privately owned since its foundation by the powerful Castillo business family, the company is probably considerably smaller than the entire Guatemalan economy.
“The pricing difference is part of a 10-year strategy of gaining market share against Gallo,” said JPMorgan’s Latin America food and beverage analyst, Alan Alanis.
The Cerveceria still controls the vast majority of the Guatemalan beer market — 84.5 percent by its accounting, or around 70 percent according to Alanis. A 30 percent loss of market share in 10 years would be nothing to be ignored.
According to the JPMorgan analyst, AmBev’s strategy for destroying Gallo’s monopoly is simple: “If we can enter monopolies, even with just a very small share, we can disrupt the market and maybe enough for the owners to sell the business.”
The multinational giant has already effectively employed this tactic in Peru and the Dominican Republic. Experts say it may succeed again in Guatemala. That is, if the Cerveceria doesn’t implode first.
The Castillos include some 2,000 people, and many minority shareholders do not receive significant payouts from the company. In 2003, two cousins left to begin AmBev distribution in Guatemala through the Central America Beverage Corp, or CABCORP. This defection ignited a family feud that provided AmBev with its first opening into Guatemala's drink market.
“This battle begins. Castillo starts pushing more money into sponsoring, and a few years later they’re in this huge price battle,” recounted a well-known Guatemalan businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of past dealings with the Castillo family. “The Castillos can’t hold out. They don’t have the strength that AmBev has.”
Alanis believes the Cerveceria has likely been losing money because of AmBev’s ability to leverage the capacity of PepsiCo's Guatemalan distributor, CABCORP.
A person close to the Castillo family recalled complaints by family members that “they are in the red with beer because of the drop in prices,” and are currently relying on funds from other Castillo-owned enterprises such as the high-protein drink Incaparina.
“It’s a small country, it is pretty feudal, and what you have is a fight for a market,” the family friend said.
A Cerveceria spokesman denied that the company was losing money by citing higher volume sales in the last quarter, yet higher sales of a money-losing product could actually indicate accelerating financial losses. Nevertheless, the company says the past year has been its most profitable since 1999.
In October AmBev announced a $100 million investment in its Guatemalan infrastructure over the next three years.
AmBev has offered to purchase the Cerveceria at least twice and has been rebuffed each time. While the Cerveceria claims that the family unanimously decided not to sell, that unanimity is increasingly being questioned. Observers expect minority shareholders will eventually defect and sell to AmBev. Once one person sells, the fear is the majority of small shareholders will follow and the Cerveceria will be swiftly swallowed up.
To combat this, after AmBev’s most recent offer, the Cerveceria changed its bylaws so that shareholders now must go before the board of trustees if they want to sell.
“Eventually someone will break and start selling,” the family friend said, “but there’s enormous pressure not to sell to other family members.”
The Guatemalan brewer’s leadership is “panicking because it’s a large family and many of them are not receiving much [money] now.”
In old family businesses like the Cerveceria, “there are patriarchs in the family who are very powerful and don’t want change to happen,” Rob Lachenauer, partner and CEO at Bayan Family Business Advisors, said. However, these patriarchs are “typically ... very susceptible to small changes” in family dynamics or the structure of the company. “Those who are looked down upon are usually the first to defect.”
Despite the warning signs, the national brewery continues to present a face of gilded era profligacy.
The lobby of the headquarters is carved from a forest of hardwoods embossed with brass. Decorations include a massive pastoral painting of Guatemala’s volcano-flanked Lake Atitlan and grandiose marble chandeliers adorned with winged chariots. Massive, mustachioed bronze busts of the Castillo brothers who founded the brewery look sternly down on all visitors.
“We do live in the Middle Ages here,” the family friend succinctly described Guatemalan business culture.
For aging fiefs like the Cerveceria, often “it’s not about the money ... sometimes it’s about the identity,” Lachenauer said.
Other times, it’s simply about winning.
If the Castillo family can hold together, perhaps they may be willing to sacrifice the company to the memory of a bygone gilded era. And at the company gates, armed guards will continue to protect an empty, immaculate church.
Journalist Benjamin Reeves tweets at @ReevesBenjamin.