No bartender worth his or her weight in beer would leave tip money on their bar. It's odd, then, that this is essentially what some of the planet's largest and most powerful breweries are doing by not doggedly pursuing a huge regional market that's exploding before their eyes. Perhaps they've been too busy consolidating their many recent acquisitions or clawing for share in their mature markets to do more about it.
Have a brew
The rising star of the global beer market these days is Asia. At the moment it's far and away the world's biggest tippler of the amber (or brown or black) liquid. According to market researchers Euromonitor, last year folks on that continent quaffed around 69 billion liters (18 billion gallons).
In spite of the aggressive marketing that characterizes the American sales approach and the long tradition of beer-making in Europe, those two chunks of land don't come anywhere close to Asia's consumption -- in all of the Americas, intake was around 57 billion liters (15 billion gallons) in 2011, while Europeans drank 51 billion liters (13 billion gallons). The Middle East and Africa, home to many struggling economies and more than a few heavily Muslim teetotal societies, had much lighter consumption at 13 billion liters (3 billion gallons).
Granted, Asia is a vast continent, home to 3.9 billion people, more than four times the population of both Europe and the Americas. That's a lot of thirsty people hankering for a cold one.
And their numbers are set to increase. Asia is the only region that's predicted to grow to any significant degree (by 4.8% every year from now until 2016, to be exact). Rising beer consumption strongly correlates with a booming economy; not surprisingly, it's China that's driving the continent's growth. From barely over 10 billion liters (3 billion gallons) in 1980, the Chinese have elbowed their way to the low 40 billions at the tail end of the 2000s. During that decade -- in 2003, to be exact -- consumption in that country eclipsed that of the U.S.
A full mug
Western brewers haven't been quick to pounce on this. One probable reason is that all of them are based in competitive and saturated markets. It's hard to fight a world war when you've got a series of nasty battles outside your front door. As a result, most of the major breweries have concentrated lately on acquisitions, grabbing market share by buying smaller beer operations in their non-native regions.
A recent example of this is Molson Coors' (NYSE: TAP ) purchase of central European beer group StarBev earlier this year. A longtime player in its home turf of North America, the company gained an instant presence in the "Old Continent" with its purchase.
Unfortunately, the struggling economies and already-high consumption leave little room for growth there. In fact, out of the top 10 beer-guzzling nations (in terms of per capita amounts), nine are located on that continent; there's only so much more pivo or bier or alus they can drink.
The words "Asia" and "beer" just don't seem to fit together very naturally -- at least from the perspective of the big beer conglomerates. Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD ) has a grand name and a global footprint, but only a few toes in the East. Asia took 14% of the company's beer by volume in fiscal 2011 but didn't drop too many coins in its coffers -- the continent's contribution to the firm's EBITDA was a paltry 2%.
Molson Coors is an even lighter presence in that market. In fact, prior to the StarBev buyout, the company was basically a pure North American/U.K. play. So much so that what it terms its "International" segment basically covers any locale that isn't the U.S., Canada, or Britain. It might as well lump the rest of the planet together, since in 2011 it had net sales of only $123 million in those parts. Considering that total net sales for the company came in at $3.5 billion, this barely qualified as the foam on top of the keg.
Maybe it takes a more integrated global beverage concern to pounce on the Asian tiger of potential? Diageo (NYSE: DEO ) is the top international seller of alcohol in the continent (and in Africa and Latin America, by the way). According to company figures, it's got more than a 30% share of the total booze market there, and despite its reputation as a seller of spirits, around 22% of its net sales are derived from its beers.
And yet, not a single one of the bottles it proudly features on the webpage showing off its beers is an Asian brand. Meanwhile, the only brew that gets a mention in the company's Asian section of its fiscal 2012 preliminary results press release is Guinness -- a product born in Europe.
The Dutch make a move
The one big drinks player that seems to be making the most concentrated effort to grab share in the Asian market these days is Heineken (NasdaqOTH: HINKY.PK). It's in the midst of a bruising campaign to capture a majority stake in regional powerhouse Asia Pacific Breweries, an effort that finally seems to be tipping in its favor. For the company's shareholders, hopefully that won't be the last encroachment into the region; at the moment, Asia contributes a mere 1.4% to overall revenue.
Buyouts and consolidation have been the stock in trade of the world's top booze slingers over the past few years. If, like Heineken, they would do that with more intensity in Asia, they'd have a better chance of adding to their top and bottom lines. It's a thirsty continent all too happy to consume their products.
Bud and Molson Coors might be a little behind the curve, but there are several homegrown firms poised to win big on international markets. Read which ones we think they are in our FREE report "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World," available for download here.