Chinese beer: under pressure as economy slows amid competition

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Some believe there is nothing finer than swigging barely-chilled Yanjing beer straight from the bottle, sat on a stool on a Beijing side street, eating skewers of barbecued mutton of questionable origin.

Not all Chinese consumers agree. Sales of Yanjing, along with those of other domestic brewers, are under pressure as the economy slows and foreign brands make inroads.

Beer sales in China dropped 8 per cent by volume in the first half of 2015 from a year earlier, a fall that was blamed on the state of the economy but also unseasonable weather.

Sales are likely to return to moderate growth, but the industry trends of more consolidation and more attempts to shift upmarket to protect margins are likely to continue, according to FT Confidential Research, a research service from the Financial Times.

Yanjing faces a greater challenge than market leader Tsingtao. According to a recent FT Confidential Research survey of 1,000 beer drinkers across the country, Yanjing was the fifth most popular brand, cited by 15.9 per cent of respondents as one of the two beer brands that they most often purchase. It was well behind Tsingtao, which was cited by 57 per cent of respondents.

Yanjing isn’t helped by its limited geographic reach: it’s a Beijing stalwart, deriving 25 per cent of its sales from the capital, though the company is trying to expand its presence by targeting rural areas.

But Yanjing is also a popular beer with low income groups in a market of changing and increasingly sophisticated tastes. It lags behind rivals offering more mid-priced to premium beer to offset falling margins. Tsingtao’s peach beer comes in a shocking pink can aimed at a female audience, while Yanjing’s Party beer promises to “put you in a happy state of mind”.

The demand for better beer is certainly there: the FTCR survey found that 58 per cent of respondents usually pay more than Rmb6 ($0.95) for a 330ml bottle of suds, a level considered mid-range and above by brewers.


But even market leaders Tsingtao and CR Snow, whose mid-priced and premium beer sales account for 40 per cent and 45 per cent of total sales, face a challenge from the rapid growth of imported brands. Domestic beer volume sales may have fallen in the first half but those of imported beer rose 63 per cent, continuing the rapid growth of recent years as import costs tumble and China’s army of nightclubbers multiplies.

Imports account for just 1 per cent of total overall consumption but they are likely to continue growing at a rapid clip. Domestic beer sales growth may return to the low single digits should the forces blamed for this year’s falls prove temporary, but domestic brands will come under increasing pressure from these imports.

Industry woes are also likely to keep driving consolidation. Tsingtao is buying Suntory’s share in an eastern China joint venture to try to turn around sales there after they fell 15.2 per cent in the first half.

AB InBev’s purchase of SABMiller may prove the exception: SABMiller owns a 49 per cent stake in CR Snow and the tie-up would result in combined market share of around 40 per cent. That’s likely to be a six-pack too many for Beijing’s antitrust regulators.