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Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst Inc., the Dallas-based owner of the beleaguered G. Heileman Brewing Co. Inc., is finding out there is a big difference between Dr Pepper and Natty Boh.

Just 20 months after it bought the maker of National Bohemian, Colt 45 and dozens of other regional brands, the new owner is facing a critical cash shortage. On Tuesday, Heileman announced it probably would not be able to make interest payments in January on $160 million worth of debt and has hired the Blackstone Group, a New York investment firm, to find a way to dig it out of the hole.

At its Beltway plant in Halethorpe -- the last major brewery in the Baltimore area -- the financial crisis has made itself felt with unprecedented revolving layoffs in summertime for about 50 workers, according to a union official.

It was not supposed to happen this way.

Hicks, Muse, whose Chairman Thomas O. Hicks had helped turn around the fortunes of Dr Pepper, A&W; and Seven-Up during the 1980s, was expected to work the same magic on Heileman, the nation's fifth-largest brewer, which had spent 10 months in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1991.

Instead, the company's market share dropped from 5 to 4.2 percent, a plan to extend various brands into new varieties such as red and ice beer flopped and the top management team was changed three times.

To make matters worse, Heileman was hit with a $35 million increase in aluminum costs in January. And booming sales of AriZona Iced Tea -- which the company makes under contract to Hornell Brewing Co. -- started to slip shortly after the company reopened a plant in Perry, Ga., last year to help handle that production.

By the end of last year, the highly leveraged company had lost $34.7 million on sales of $778 million. For the first six months this year, Heileman lost another $24.5 million on sales of $389 million.

Despite its problems, the company is not planning a trip back to bankruptcy court, according to Monroe L. Lowenkron, Heileman's president and chief executive officer. "Bankruptcy is the furthest thing from my mind right now," he said yesterday.

Mr. Lowenkron also said the company does not anticipate selling its breweries one at a time or having large layoffs at the Halethorpe brewery, which has more than 500 workers. "We're going to do everything we can to avoid it," he said about layoffs.

"The people in Baltimore make quality beer for us. We need to have that continue. If we stop making beer, we're out of the beer business."

Charles H. Stansburge, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 570, which represents about 380 at the plant, also believes that bankruptcy court is not in the cards. "We think they've done the right thing as far as curtailing expenditures and getting involved in contract work," he said.

But management has already raised the possibility of a weeklong shutdown of the plant this fall, Mr. Stansburge said.

While saying he has not heard of such a planned shutdown, Mr. Lowenkron said it is not unusual to close a brewery for inventory adjustments.

Mr. Lowenkron declined to list options open to the company. But even though a merger with another company has been pushed to the sidelines, Mr. Lowenkron says a combination with other beer companies is still a possibility.

"It was always the objective, and will continue to be the objective, to consolidate the second tiers of brewers," he said, citing such brewers as Stroh Brewery Co. of Detroit, Pabst Brewing Co. of Milwaukee and Genesee Brewing Co. of Rochester, N.Y.

But prospective merger partners may just wait until Heileman is forced into bankruptcy to pick it up at a bargain price, according to one industry expert, who asked that his name not be used. "If someone wants to acquire the company, why not acquire it at a bankruptcy?" he said. "There aren't that many people interested."

Besides all its other problems, the company has been saddled from the beginning with an enormous debt, which accounted for $340 million of the $420 million purchase price.

"They're in a situation where they are weaker because of paying too much for the brewery in the first place," said Jerry Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights, an industry trade newsletter.

Heileman -- which specializes in regional brands like Old Style, Rainer, and Henry Weinhard's -- is also on the losing side of the trend toward the consolidation of the beer industry. Heileman's share of the market has been cut in half since 1984 when it was 9 percent.

Anheuser-Busch Cos., Philip Morris Cos.' Miller Brewing Co. and Adolph Coors Co. dominated the beer market with a combined market share of 77 percent in 1994, Mr. Steinman said.

Adding to the competitiveness of the market has been the rise of micro breweries, also known as craft brewers. These small brewers -- which specialize in premium brands -- have gone from being practically nonexistent to 1.3 percent of the beer market.

But this new competition has had little effect on Heileman, outside of sparking more aggressive behavior by the major companies, Mr. Steinman said.

In fact, the rise of the craft brewers has helped Heileman somewhat, since it brews beer under contract for Boston Beer TTC Co., one of the largest craft brewers, known for its Samuel Adams brand. Boston Beer plans to offer stock publicly later this year.

A local craft brewer, Clipper City Brewing Co. LP, is now building a $2 million, 15,075-square-foot brewery just a quarter of mile down the road from Heileman's Halethorpe plant.

"We can smell their kettle," said Hugh J. Sisson, general partner of the partnership.

But he concedes there is no comparison between the size of his brewery -- which is expected to produce 8,500 barrels next year -- and the Heileman operation, which can make 2.3 million barrels.

"We're just a gnat on their back," Mr. Sisson said.

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