Will a big brewery be the price for A-B’s Modelo deal?

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Rumblings continue around Anheuser-Busch InBev’s planned buyout of Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo, with some saying the price to make the deal to go through might be a very large brewery.

Antitrust newsletter The Capitol Report last week wrote the U.S. Dept. of Justice may force A-B InBev to sell off Modelo’s giant Piedras Negras brewery, to appease its concerns about unfair competition in the wake of the deal.

Capitol Report cited unnamed antitrust attorneys and beer industry sources. And neither the Justice Department nor ABI have been commenting on the $20 billion merger, which is set to close in the first quarter of 2013. But antitrust concerns have dogged the deal since its announcement in June, and were a big reason why A-B handed off U.S. distribution rights for Corona and other Modelo brews to Constellation Brands.

But simply giving up rights to sell beer may not be enough to pass federal muster. A-B would still make the stuff and could, theoretically, influence its price.

Selling off the Piedras Negras brewery — which has enough capacity to fill much of Corona’s U.S. demand and sits just minutes south of the border — would add yet another layer of separation between A-B’s Modelo products and the U.S. market.

It’s unclear who the buyer would be, but the arrangement would resemble DOJ’s orders in 2008, when InBev agreed to sell off rights to its Canadian brand Labatt in the U.S. market in order to acquire A-B.

Selling off the U.S. rights to Modelo — which is the third best-selling brewer in the country with nearly 6 percent of the U.S. beer market — would obviously be a bigger thing. But given ABI’s global ambitions for Corona, analysts say giving up the U.S. market may well be a deal they’re willing to make.

“We do not view this as a deal-breaker,” wrote Bernstein Research analyst Trevor Stirling in a note on the topic.

Meanwhile, the principals in the deal are still sounding an optimistic note. Constellation chief executive Rob Sands was upbeat Monday at a conference held by trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights, saying the process “is going entirely as expected.” When asked if “major concession” – i.e. selling a brewery – would be necessary to close the deal, according to BMI, Sands said: “We don’t anticipate that that will be necessary.”