Japanese drinks groups seek global depth

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Asahi Group Holdings’ move into Europe shows how eager Japanese drinks groups are to expand beyond a shrinking domestic market.

Asahi, whose acquisitions had focused on the Asia-Pacific region, has bid for four SABMiller companies, including venerable brewers Birra Peroni and Royal Grolsch. The 2.55 billion euro ($2.89 billion) deal would mark the first major Japanese push into European beer.

Sitting atop the domestic market, Asahi has a solid earnings base from which to venture outward. But it, too, is feeling the weight of the demographic and other factors depressing Japanese beer consumption. In volume terms, sales of its flagship Super Dry brew are down by roughly half from their peak. The European acquisition will add some much-needed geographic diversity to its business, with foreign sales expected to rise to nearly a fifth of the total.

Rival Kirin Holdings has led the way in the race to globalize. “We will solidify our position in Asia and Oceania,” President Yoshinori Isozaki says.

Last summer, Kirin made a subsidiary of Myanmar Brewery, the biggest in the Southeast Asian country, bringing it alongside group member Lion, Australia’s top beer company. Kirin also owns a nearly 50% stake in Philippine market leader San Miguel.

In Myanmar, Kirin aims to double sales to 50 billion yen ($445 million) within five years. It will transplant production technology to the local unit to boost efficiency and quality. And it may introduce its mainstay Ichiban Shibori beer to the local market, according to Isozaki.

Suntory Holdings has become the world’s third-biggest distiller through its $16 billion acquisition of Beam in 2014. It is combining sales channels with the U.S. spirits group, seeking growth in exports to North America and other markets. Collaborations that exercise Suntory’s strength in product development, such as canned highballs made with Jim Beam bourbon, are also in the works. Suntory aims to reach 4 trillion yen in global sales, a gain of 50% over the current level, by 2020.

Sapporo Holdings became the first Japanese beer company to enter the Vietnamese market in 2010. It revamped its main local brew last fall and expanded sales nationwide. President Tsutomu Kamijo reports solid progress and says the brewer will keep trying to stir up fresh local demand.

Global consolidation is proceeding apace in the beer industry, as shown by top-ranked Anheuser-Busch InBev’s more than $100 billion bid to acquire No. 2 SABMiller, making overseas expansion all the more important for their smaller Japanese competitors.