American giants set agenda
Published:  27 August, 2008

The US brewing industry presents two very different faces to the world's export markets . On the one hand are the multinational corporations with international brands, increasingly using licensed brewing to keep a brake on costs. On the other is the craft brewing movement, parachuting a few pallets of increasingly diverse brews into select international markets.

The latter ha s given US beer some extra credibility in world markets in the past few years, but the former still account for the real volume. US Treasury figures show a drop of 4 per cent in US beer exports in 2006, to 3.8 million barrels. Exports have dropped 18 per cent since 2000, though this doesn't necessarily reflect a fall in sales of US-origin brands, as brewers increasingly switch to in-market brewing in countries where brands are achieving a level of maturity.

Global leader

At the top of the tree sits Anheuser-Busch with Budweiser, one of a handful of truly global beer brands. The company claims to have sold 22.7 million barrels of its beers on international markets in 2006, and has more than doubled its barrelage from owned operations, exports and licensed brewing in the past five years.

Despite the branding challenges posed in some markets by the long-running legal battles with the Czech Budweiser Budvar brand, Budweiser performs strongly in many of the countries in which it is sold.

Bud's brand personality differs between markets: in Canada it's a mass-market product, but in Russia the brand is sold as Bud to high-end restaurants and bars in a licensing deal with Heineken Russia.

It outsells every other beer brand in Canada, even though it's produced under a licensing agreement with InBev's Labatt, and has the Canadian brand and Stella Artois as stablemates . Sales of Bud Light - actually the world's biggest beer brand on the back of US domestic sales - were up 38 per cent in Canada in 2006. A-B's largest export market is Mexico, where Bud Light and Budweiser are distributed through Modelo, in which A-B has a 50 per cent equity stake.

Like rival brewing giant SAB-Miller, A -B has been keen to establish a presence in China, where it invested in the Tsingtao brewery as long ago as 1993. It now has 14 of its 15 overseas company-owned brewing operations in China (the other is in London). China is also home to eight of A-B's 24 overseas field offices, and has a network of 200 independent wholesalers, many of which stock Budweiser as a beer exclusive in their portfolio.

India represents the most significant new market for Budweiser. Crown Beers India - A-B's joint venture with Crown International - began local brewing of Budweiser in the south and west of the country in July. Stephen Burrows, chief executive and president of A-B's Asia-Pacific operations says: "As the Indian beer market continues to experience tremendous growth, our goal is to make Budweiser the leading brand in the premium category." The plan is to expand distribution outside its current footprint of hotels, stores and bars in Andhra Pradesh and Mumbai.

Selling the American brand

The UK is the largest European market for A -B, and Budweiser's US background remains key to its marketing strategy, despite the fact the brand has long been brewed in the UK. Vicki Kipling, UK marketing director for A -B Europe, says: "It is important we focus on communicating our core brand attributes of quality, style and American heritage to achieve stand-out ."

While Budweiser is targeted at 18 to 34-year-old men, sister brand Michelob is aimed at older 25s to 45s, and with a much narrower profile. Kipling says: "They are professional city workers employed in the legal and financial sectors. They are willing to spend more on a brand that complements their lifestyle."

Michelob returned to US brewing, an original all-malt recipe and its iconic tear-shaped bottle in the UK earlier this year. "We are positioning it as an aspirational brand," says Kipling. "It's our Rolls-Royce."

Fierce competition

With its US heritage recognised in the second part of the company name, SAB-Miller is only just behind A-B in the world brewing stakes, but increasingly less visible as an American company. With more than 200 brands in its portfolio, its strategic focus is more about strong local and regional brands than as a global big hitter.

But there are international pockets of Miller brand strength. A new half-litre bottle has driven sales of Miller Genuine Draft in Russia, resulting in growth of 21 per cent for the brand in the group's last financial year. MGD is also experiencing strong growth in SAB's home market, South Africa, while a 2006 relaunch in Panama has given SAB's presence in the premium beer segment a significant lift.

Molson Coors was formed in February 2005 in a US$3.4 billion merger between the Colorado-based brewer and Canada's Molson. Coors Light is the second biggest brand after Budweiser in the Canadian market, with a claimed share of 11 per cent, ahead of Molson Canadian, which is on just 8 per cent in its home market.

Outside Canada, principal export markets for Coors are Mexico and the Caribbean. Coors is market leader in Puerto Rico, but that market contributes less than 5 per cent of the Coors half of the union's total sales, emphasising the importance of domestic sales to the group.

Molson Coors chief executive Leo Kiely says he'd like to redress the balance: "We will strengthen our export markets . Although we maintain the leading share of the Puerto Rico beer market, the economic environment remains challenging there."

Molson Coors' UK subsidiary contributes 25 per cent of the group's sales, but was hit by poor weather and higher interest rates in Europe this year. The company also has an "emerging" business in Asia, which is managed through the UK subsidiary. The fledgling Japanese business is focused on the Zima and Coors brands, while Coors Light is the lead brand in China, where product for both markets is contract-brewed. The small remaining Asian volume is exported from the US.

Honing craft brewing's niche

While the recently-announced link with SAB-Miller in the US market will strengthen its mainstream presence there , the launch of the above-premium AC Golden Brewing offshoot indicates that Molson Coors believes there's much to learn from the craft brewing movement. This expansion of Molson Coors' presence in speciality beer is being viewed by many as a fundamental shift in emphasis.

The brewer's interest in the sector has been prompted in part by the increasing market strength of US craft beer producers, who saw volume sales increase by a further 11 per cent in the first half of 2007. Sales in US supermarkets were up by 17.4 per cent, higher than any other alcoholic beverage category.

Brewers Association director Paul Gatza says: "The 1,400 small, independent and traditional craft brewers in the US have hit their stride. They are making some of the world's best beers and the marketplace is responding."

But craft brews remain niche in export markets. Coors would have no problem with capacity, but whether it wants to use its new-found presence in the US niche beer market for export purposes remains to be seen. In its UK subsidiary it has the perfect vehicle to road-test smaller brands , but until it does, the US brewing presence in export markets remains a story of two extremes.


=== Canada: exports fall ===

The Canadian brewing industry's family silver has fallen into foreign hands in recent years, leaving the country struggling in export markets. A little over a decade ago it was very different, with Labatt and Molson both taking a progressive approach to overseas sales. Labatt even had its own sales and marketing company to cover the UK market, such was the presence of its taps in the nation's pubs.

It arguably all started to go wrong when Canada got caught up in the ice beer craze. What was billed as a revolutionary brewing process quickly became a phenomenon before melting into a passing fad.

When Interbrew - as it then was - took over Labatt, the Canadian brand's number was up as an international presence. InBev's acquisition of Labatt has been followed by the merger of Molson with the US brewer Coors, and by Sleeman falling into the hands of Sapporo of Japan.

For InBev, the international focus now falls on its core brands of Stella Artois, Leffe, Beck's and Brahma, leaving Labatt to play the role of a local hero brand in Canada. The focus is on building sales of imported European brands inside Canada and the US rather than exports of Canadian brands around the world. Sales of Stella Artois (Belgian) in Canada rose by 17 per cent in 2006.

The proportion of Canada's production that went for export fell between 2001 and 2005 from 18.3 per cent to 15.3 per cent. Even sales to the US market took a knock, down 12 per cent in the same period to just over 3.5 million hl.

Perhaps as a result of the Molson-Coors merger, sales to the US picked up by 8.5 per cent in 2006, though even that deal hasn't sparked a renaissance for Molson in other world markets.


=== Canada's exposure in the UK ===

Coors Light is the main export brand for Molson Coors across Europe and Asia. Coors' UK subsidiary - which oversees Asia too - notably doesn't list Molson, even though it has a portfolio of imports from around the world, including Palm from Belgium, Zatec from the Czech Republic and Kasteel Cru from France.

Of the three internationally-owned Canadian brewers, only Sleeman is relatively active in the UK with a niche presence for its Honey Brown lager, IPA and Fine Porter brands through importer Specialist Brand Development. Adin Wener, SBD director of sales for the on-trade, says it is aiming the IPA at traditional real ale pubs.

"Some great real ale pubs already sell imported beers in keg and there's a big interest in North American IPAs," says Wener. "In a year's time, if we had 100 taps in bars, we'd be satisfied with that. We're not competing with the big boys."

Michael Cook, director of imported beer at Pierhead Purchasing, the UK importer of Moosehead from Canada's largest independent brewer, says the brand is looking for similar niche markets. "When it first came to the UK with Whitbread in the late 1980s they wrecked it by making it fairly cheap," says Cook. "It's got a lot of heritage and credibility and we're trying to get that back."

He adds: "The Canadians did mess around a bit. Labatt had Blue, dropped it for Ice, and then brought Blue back again. Molson was in the UK intermittently and then taken off the market. No Canadian brewer has ever really made a concerted effort."

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