Big Beer Goes Overseas

Molson Coors (NYSE: TAP  ) , one of the world's largest brewing conglomerates, is late to the party. The bash in this case is foreign expansion, a necessary activity for any global brewer that wants to compete and grow. Molson Coors recently announced that it agreed to buy Europe-based StarBev -- too bad the company's big rivals got to this shindig years ago. The new acquisition is a good and logical move, but he who comes late to the party does not usually go home with the favors.

Wine is fine, thanks
The company's longtime rivals have years of international consolidation behind them. InBev acquired Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD  ) in 2008, and Miller Brewing was bought out by South African Breweries in 2002 to form SABMiller (OTC: SBMRY.PK).

Foreign expansion is necessary because the domestic market is shrinking and splintering. Americans who drink booze prefer beer significantly less than they used to. In fact, beer is barely more popular than wine these days, whereas in 1992 the hops led the grapes 47% to 27% in a survey of alcohol-quaffing adults.

Compounding this is the rise of craft breweries. Those Americans who remain dedicated beer drinkers now have more choice than ever, and often that choice includes beers made by local breweries. More often than not, these brews are richer, tastier, and just plain better than the watery, mass-produced offerings of a Molson Coors or Anheuser-Busch.

So no one is growing too wealthy selling to the domestic market. Molson Coors saw North American sales flat in 2011, as did Anheuser-Busch InBev. This continent hasn't quite provided the "High Life" for SABMiller, either; in the six months ended last September, its sales here fell by 1.2%.

Finding the right markets
For the big global brewers, the more evenly spread around the planet their business, the better their prospects. SABMiller is a careful hedger, with no single region taking more than 33% of total sales for the last 12 months. More importantly, they are active in notably improving economies, e.g., South America and parts of Africa.

It's no accident that they've experienced double-digit growth in these regions: Anheuser-Busch InBev took in 17% more year on year in 2011 selling its brews to Latin American consumers. Heineken (OTC: HINKY.PK), which isn't quite as internationally diversified as Anheuser-Busch or SABMiller, nonetheless saw a 12% annual jump in African revenue last year.

So Molson Coors, understandably, wants to get in on this action. On the surface, StarBev is a good start for this strategy: It's headquartered in a nation that knows its beer (and happens to consume far and away the most of it, in per-capita terms, than any other country). StarBev also has a portfolio of 16 beers and distributes or licenses seven more top names, including Beck's and Stella Artois.

What it doesn't have is much of a global reach. The company's brewing operations are limited to only seven smallish countries in central and Eastern Europe, and people in that record-holding part of the world aren't going to drink much more beer. Even after years of selling their wares in that region, the big guys haven't been able to grow their revenue much. For example, Heineken has seen anemic growth in sales there of less than 0.1 percentage points over the past five years.

It's good that Molson Coors has started making a serious move toward becoming a bona fide global company. However, just buying StarBev will not be enough, and the acquisition was expensive ($3.5 billion) -- particularly considering that Molson Coors had $1.9 billion in long-term debt at the end of last year and only about $1 billion in cash to pay it down.

The future of beer-brewing success -- for the big players, at least -- does not lie in America. Rather, it awaits in the pubs of Buenos Aires or the restaurants of Cape Town. Molson Coors needs to reach these locales before its rivals build too strong a presence there.

The Canadian/American beer company will struggle to win market share overseas, but we've got the lowdown on three companies who are primed and ready to dominate abroad. Find out who they are by downloading this free report.

Fool contributor Eric Volkman owns no stocks mentioned in the story above. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Molson Coors Brewing. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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