Mass Consumption Part 4 – Whassssup? Watching the game, having a beer

Whassup? During the summer, when it is scorching outside, there are few things better than an ice-cold beer. In Part 4 of our Mass Consumption series we review the state of the beer industry. But unlike the previous post, the Chinese beer industry outlook is not “whassup”. In fact, after peaking in 2013, Chinese beer consumption has fallen for three straight years and operating margins are less than half of global peers.



For those unfamiliar with the term, Whassup was an iconic beer commercial from the late 1990s. The commercial was so successful that for quite a while, everyone went around saying “Whassup?”. To truly appreciate the fad at the time, you have to go back and watch the commercial. (Youtube link here). It may appear silly now, but admit it, you said your fair share of “Whassup” back then.

As promised from my “Fried Chicken and Coffee” post, I was planning to do some work on the Beer industry but I did some initial reading, I I really did not feel a sense of urgency, hence the lateness of this post. To put it simply, the beer industry is not “Whassup?”

China beer production peaked in 2013

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According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2016, China’s beer production was 450.6mn hectolitres. Beer production had peaked in 2013 at 506.2mn hl and has now fallen for three straight years and are now down 11% from the peak. This is very different from the other mass consumption themes that we had been talking about (i.e. ageing population, travel and fast food).

Volumes down across most major breweries

Looking into the numbers, this is not just a China phenomenon. Across the major international breweries, Heineken was the only one to report a growth in beer sales in 2016 (up 6.3%). The largest brewery, AB InBev (owner of Budweiser, Stella Artois and Corona) saw sales volume drop by 0.4% in 2016. Carlsberg’s sales volume fell by 2.8% while Tsing Tao’s declined by 6.6%.

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Craft beers and premium-ization

With overall beer consumption flat, in order to grow revenues, breweries have turned to craft and premium beers to try to boost overall ASPs. Next time when you order a Leffe or Camden Town, you are in fact ordering a cousin of Budweiser (so to speak). Here’s a table of the family of beers.

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For instance, did you know that Budweiser, Corona, Hoegarden, Boddington’s and Pure Blond are from the same family. Similarly, the Carlsberg family of beers include Grimbergen and Brooklyn Lager. And in the Heineken family, this includes Moretti, Sol, Anchor and Tiger.

Alcohol-Free and Ciders

In addition to premium craft ¬†beers, another focus area for the breweries is the “low and no-alcohol” beer segment. AB InBev has set a goal to have low-and-no alcohol beers represent 20% of its global beer volumes by 2025. For Carlsberg, although Craft and Non-alcoholic beer only represent 5% of its beer volume, they make up 10% of net revenues. As for Heineken, the low-and no-alcohol segment represented 12mn hectolitres in 2016.

Margins are all over the place

While the beer industry’s growth profile is very different from the other mass consumption industries that we have reviewed, there is one aspect that is similar: Low China margins.

At 29%, AB InBev has the highest EBIT margin among the breweries. Heineken and Carlsberg are at 17% and 13% respectively. By comparison, the two Chinese breweries’ operating profit margin of 6% is less than half of their international peers.

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Looking at the international breweries’ segmental results, China’s lower margin is not obvious. For AB InBev, although its Asia Pacific profit margin of 16% is well below those of Latin America, North America and EMEA, it is still more than double that of Tsingtao and CR Beer.

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Interestingly, for Heineken and Carlsberg, their Asian operating margins are actually higher than those of Europe and the America. Of the three, Heineken’s 32% operating margin in Asia is the highest among our comparison group.

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Need to diet before I have a pint

Although overall volume growth has been anaemic, the sector has not done too poorly over the past 12 months. On a blended basis, the five beer stocks above are up 27% against their 52 weeks lows. But with current price only 8% below their 52 week highs, I feel that similar to my own situation, the stocks may need to go on a diet before they become attractive again.

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