World beer is proving more than a flash in the pan

12 May, 2016

The UK’s fascination with imported beer is nothing new but it definitely feels like it’s moved into a whole new phase in the past couple of years.

The market has traditionally been dominated by straight-down-the-line 5% abv lagers, either those produced by the big multinational brewers or bigger brands from other producers brought in by smaller importers. In odd cases, such as the fiercely independent Czech brand Budweiser Budvar, things have been kept in house with a dedicated sales company.

But a resurgence of interest in Belgium’s sour beers, the rise of US craft brewing and a new band of explorative importers seeking out ales and dark beers from as far away as Japan, New Zealand and Australia has brought about a fundamental shift in what we mean when we talk about world beer.

Take a look at the top independent beer shop shelves and you might see Heat Series Oaked Chipotle Ale from America’s Flying Dog rubbing shoulders with Magic 3.5 Pineapple Gose from Omnipollo in Sweden and Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout from Japan.

 At the volume end in convenience and multiples, the imported beer category is still all about lager, and there’s no sign of the wheels coming off that bandwagon just yet either.

Nielsen data for the year to January 2016 puts world lagers ahead by 11.6% over the course of a year in a market where premium lager as a whole rose just 0.6% and the category identified by Heineken as “classic lager” – but historically described as standard or mainstream lager -– fell 8.8%.

The growth in world lager was largely at the expense of both the other lager categories and the higher prices offered by brands that have relatively recently arrived on UK shores – as opposed to long-time players in the market such as Stella Artois and Carlsberg that have become assimilated as mainstream beer brands in their own right – offer the industry a potential way of mitigating the damage inflicted by long-term beer volume declines and tumbling margins.

The average price per litre of world lager over the year was £2.86 against £2.17 for premium lager and £2.47 for lager overall.

In recent years, Peroni has been one of the main drivers of that extra margin, but the sale of the brand to Asahi of Japan in the fallout from last year’s AB-Inbev/SAB Miller deal sees it enter a transitional phase in the UK, which could leave room for other big players to move into.

Heineken could be a main beneficiary with a host of brands with world beer credentials in its armoury, including Sagres, Moretti, Sol and Tiger.

Much of Heineken’s focus in the coming months is on an off-trade relaunch for Amstel, with which it has been having some success in the on-trade.

The beer has an abv of 4.1%, which gives it a clear USP against the main Heineken brand, and the hope is that it will achieve off-trade pricing in line with mass market 5%-ish abv beer such as Stella Artois and Kronenbourg 1664. In doing so it will be pitching in similar territory to AB-Inbev’s Beck’s Vier and Stella 4% launches of 2006 and 2008.

Amstel is being relaunched in green glass bottles with a £3.3 million ad campaign that will seek to target an audience of 4 million men in their late 20s and early 30s.

Heineken premium brands director David Lette says: “The design reflects the brand’s modern, premium positioning and will encourage shoppers to trade up to premium lager by reinforcing the taste credentials of the beer inside.”

Heineken is also looking to take its Desperados tequila beer into craft can territory with the introduction of a 25cl single pack and six-pack of 33cl cans.

With so-called world beer already on a roll, and a major football tournament just weeks away, there’s arguably never been a better time for retailers to get behind the category.

The presence of Albania in the tournament puts the kibosh on the idea of promoting beer from every competing nation, but the availability of such a wide range of imported beers in the UK means shops can have a pretty good go at most of the rest, no matter how obscure.

Love Drinks imports Einstök from Iceland, the tournament’s other debutante. Its range comprises White Ale, Arctic Pale Ale, Toasted Porter and Doppelbock, brewed by Baldur Karason, the first Icelander to study the famous brewing course at Heriot Watt University, a fact made less remarkable in the context of the country having a ban on full-strength beer until 1989.

Further up the football food chain, Italy has emerged as a craft beer force, with Birradamare among the latest entrants in a deal with speciality importer World Beers. It launched the pilsner-style Na Biretta Chiara and an IPA-inspired Dammenipa last year and has added La Zia, an aromatic ale made with rosemary and artichoke, and Na Biretta Rossa, a malty brew inspired by German bock beers.

World Beers managing director Peter Karsten says: “The phone hasn’t stop ringing since we launched pre-Christmas, so it was important to move quickly and bolster the range. With a huge summer ahead with the Euros and Olympics, we’re confident the brand has everything to be one of the big success stories of 2016.”

Midlands-based Purity Brewing imports Veltins lager from Germany and managing director Paul Halsey believes more famous brewing countries will benefit from consumers’ desire to seek out quirky and esoteric beers.

“German and Belgian beers are being supported by people being more engaged in beer in general and being encouraged to look back as well as forward when it comes to brands and style,” he says.

“Premium imported lagers still have a key role in the off-trade and traditional European pilsners will always have their place.”

But he adds: “We think this summer there will be a lot of new craft lagers and kolsch style lagers. IPAs still dominate when it comes to craft ales and sour beers seem to be holding consumer interest.”   

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