The lager market is sending out some mixed messages. On the face of it, standard lager appears to be the dominant force: Peeterman Artois and Beck's Vier have been launched, to enthusiastic welcomes - yet Miller Beer has been axed, to allow premium stablemate Genuine Draft a clearer run.
"Premium lager is not growing," confirms Nielsen analyst Graham Page. "The mainstream, heavily advertised brands are struggling - though there are exceptions. There are a number of brands, mainly imported and in bottle, doing quite well but from small beginnings. There's no significant growth in the premium sector, and not really any in the standard sector either."
Coors prefers to talk about "mainstream" rather than standard lager, as befits the owner of the market leader, Carling. Its read of the sector is a 6% annual sales increase while premium lager has slipped 1%. That performance, it says, has deteriorated further in the past four weeks.
"Everyday 4% brands are all in growth, with people monitoring their
abv intake as responsible drinking messages from brewers, the government and retailers start to get through to consumers," a spokeswoman says.
"We would expect to see more brands launching in the 4% category, specifically the 4%
category, based on recent trends. We expect this sector will see the fastest growth, albeit from a low base."
success for the 4% movement. "As well as trying to respond to health concerns, there's also the fact that, with higher duty rates, one is trying to move consumers more to 4% than 5% because there's perhaps rather more margin attached, as you're brewing more of it," he says.
"It could be they're generating more cash value than some of the premium ones are. Some of the premiums are also brewed under licence so the margin has to be shared."
Miller's decision to remove its standard lager from the action is perhaps
not surprising, given its 17% volume decline and 12% fall in sales value. It was on course to exit the top 20 at any rate, most likely making way for
such as Vier and perhaps Peeterman. It will be interesting to see what effect Stella's 4% variant has on the market.
Why is lager's performance so disappointing? The view from Coors, no doubt echoed around the trade, is that "volumes were slightly weaker than expected due to the weather and the financial crisis".
It adds: "Extraordinary price increases across all channels were implemented in September due to input cost inflation." The last quarter suffers by comparison to last year, it adds, when the Rugby World Cup helped lift sales. But it expects the fourth quarter to "revert to normal patterns", and is expecting "a stronger end to the year".
Shaun Heyes, Scottish & Newcastle UK's head of customer marketing for the off-trade, offers some upbeat analysis.
"While it is currently a challenging category, there remain opportunities to drive the total lager market with investment in meaningful promotions, innovation and NPD," he insists.
"In particular, S&N UK's investment in Foster's with in-can Scuba and Kronenbourg 1664 with Dynamo Système aims to drive more value into the canned lager sector, which has seen little or no innovation and is all too often presented to consumers as a commodity product rather than a collection of high-profile brands."
Unfortunately for him, neither innovation has so far generated an overall sales increase for either Foster's or Kronenbourg. In fact, there is a chance that Carlsberg will overtake Foster's off-trade sales in the coming year, something that has already happened if Carlsberg Export is added to the equation.
Meanwhile, Heineken is in resurgent mode, and is regarded by some observers as the long-term focus brand for S&N UK - which is
now owned by Heineken. Heyes plays down such speculation, insisting it will have equal billing to Kronenbourg and Foster's.
"Heineken's credentials complement the S&N UK portfolio by enabling us to enter a new sector and broaden our offering to customers," he says. "Heineken is delivering a different proposition to customers and consumers, which means it can happily co-exist with our other brands."
Page at Nielsen is broadly pessimistic about the lager category's short-term prospects, which he says have been made even bleaker by a soggy summer.
"The brewers and grocers have geared up with the expectation that the smoking ban would create some improvement over the summer period, and there wasn't," he says. "Some of the promotions you've got at the moment are a way of shifting some of the stock that came in June and July and didn't get sold."
This year, lager's 1% sales increase looks like an under-achievement. Next year, if conditions get tougher, that kind of performance may well be hailed as a success.
Top 20 lagers
Position Brand % change
1 Stella Artois -3
3 Foster's -2
4 Carlsberg 22
5 Budweiser -11
6 Carlsberg Export
7 Kronenbourg 1664
8 Grolsch -8
9 Beck's 27
10 Tennent's 1
11 Carlsberg Special Brew 2
12 San Miguel 0
13 Tennent's Super
14 Heineken 27
15 Peroni Nastro Azzuro 38
16 Corona 29
17 Miller Genuine Draft 4
18 Holsten Pils 1
19 Cobra 34
20 Miller Beer -12
Source: Nielsen GB off-trade year to Oct 4 2008
Off-trade market value
Week ending Oct 4 2008: £2.77bn
Week ending Oct 6 2007: £2.73bn