Chinese Beer Drinkers Reject Heineken’s “Bitter Taste”

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In what should prove a cautionary tale for those hoping to ride the rise of China, Dutch beer giant Heineken International is in full retreat from its operations in the country, the world’s biggest beer market (the U.S., despite its Homer Simpson-esque reputation, is a distant second). The third largest brewer in the world, after Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller, Heineken first entered China in 1988, peaking around 2005, when it had all of Eastern China in its sway, and sold some 200,000 tons of its amber intoxicant to thirsty Chinese punters.

“In 2004, it bought a 21.87% stake in Kingway, which controlled 70% of the market in Shenzhen, and reported a net profit of HK$198 million (US$25.48 million) in what is considered the heyday of Heineken in China,” writes Want China Times.

But by 2006 the company was in trouble, losing market share to both international and local competitors even as Chinese beer consumption increased every year. What went wrong? And what does this mean for the expansion plans of other companies Chinese operations, like those of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut/KFC? Want China Times quotes industry analysts who blame “outdated marketing skills” on the part of Heineken’s Chinese operators, and — more damning — the simple fact that consumers didn’t like the beer’s “bitter taste.”

As anyone who’s ever necked a sweet, malty bottle of Tsingtao — China’s best-known beer brand — with their dumplings can tell you: bitter isn’t what most Chinese want in their fizzy light-alcohol drinks. Beer’s growing popularity in that country is based in part on growing incomes, the adoption of beer as a socially acceptable “light” drink, intense price competition — and maybe, just maybe, the fact that both Chinese and international beer manufacturers stopped using formaldehyde to prevent sedimentation after that practice was exposed by Chinese media in the early 2000s.

The retreat is a rare misstep for Heineken, who successfully operate hundreds of international brands and are currently fighting fierce turf battles with Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller over the emerging markets of Latin America and Asia. But it’s a war all foreign brewers will face in the all-important China market, which reached 450 million hectolitres of consumption last year — double U.S. figures — and is predicted to post growth rates of 5% over the next few years, compared to 2.5% growth rates globally. Local manufacturers are mounting a serious challenge to international brand names, particularly in the lucrative premium beer market, capitalizing on rising Chinese nationalism, huge existing distribution networks, a huge cost advantage, and more canny marketing.

The moral of this tale? Know your local market, and know your local team. Are they on top of their region? Are they keeping on top of the trends? Are they, for example, monitoring the progress of Panda Poo Tea — the very latest trend in Chinese liquid consumption? At $80,000 a kilogram, it’s the world’s most expensive tea, featuring all sorts of health benefits, says its inventor, a Chinese professor at Sinchuan University, as well as “a mature, nutty taste and a very distinctive aroma while it’s brewing.” Pandas eat a lot of bamboo, explains professor An Yashi. “[They] have a very poor digestive system and only absorb about 30 percent of everything they eat. That means their excrement is rich in fibres and nutrients.”

Perhaps Heineken should check out the cost-effectiveness of getting a bear to crap in its brew?