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Thursday, 2 August, 2001, 08:22 GMT 09:22 UK
Bad times for beer
By BBC News Online's James Arnold
Fancy a beer?
If you're under 40, female or middle class, the answer is increasingly likely to be "no thanks", according to market research.
As the Great British Beer Festival, the country's premier brewing jamboree, gets under way at London's Olympia, the mood in the beer industry is unprecedentedly grim.
Consumption is plummeting throughout the developed world, as consumers shift away to novelty cocktails and non-alcoholic health drinks.
And die-hard beer fans bemoan the decline of real ales and the Great British pub, driven by the rapidly globalising drinks multinationals.
According to Mark Hastings of the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association (BLRA), British beer consumption between 1990 and 2000 dropped by 13%, to 10 billion pints.
During the same period, wine consumption doubled.
Germans, long the world's thirstiest beer drinkers, have seen consumption drop from 156 litres per head in the mid-1980s to just 125 litres today - a lower per-capita figure than the Czech Republic and Ireland.
Australia has slumped from seventh to ninth place among beer drinking nations in the last three years, according to a June report from the Australian government.
And South African Breweries, one of the world's biggest beer producers, recently blamed shrinking African beer consumption for recent lacklustre figures.
The only places where consumption remains fizzy, say manufacturers, are developing countries - some of which are new to beer.
In vodka-loving Russia, for example, where beer is still officially classified as a non-alcoholic drink, beer consumption has risen by 30% a year since the mid-1990s.
Beer is boring
The problem is that beer has an image problem, said Peter Crean, business manager of research firm AC Nielsen.
"Traditionally, beer sells well when something is happening - new products, innovations.
"But not a lot is happening at the moment; you just get the same stuff everywhere you go."
By contrast, young consumers are excited by the boom in snappily marketed bottled drinks, especially "alcopops" - blends of alcohol and juices.
Many others - especially women - are concerned that beer is fattening, and may be shifting away from alcohol altogether for health reasons.
And while the market for take-out drinks from off-licences and supermarkets is booming, Mr Crean says that this has benefited wine at the expense of beer - especially among the affluent middle classes.
Just before the Great British Beer Festival opened on 31 July, the Camra, the campaign for real ale, launched a marketing campaign aimed at tempting young consumers back to beer.
The other factor is the rapidly evolving nature of the drinks industry.
On the one hand, this has given consumers many alternatives to beer.
"When you went into a pub in the 1970s, all there was beer," said Mr Hastings of the BLRA.
"Now, there's a vastly wider choice of drinks."
On the other hand, a wave of mergers in the industry has cut down the range - and, some say, quality - of beers available.
In Germany, Beck's, one of the best-regarded privately held brewers, is the subject of a takeover bid from Belgian multinational Interbrew.
In the UK, Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, another well-respected regional producer, is trying to fight off a bid from Pubmaster, an investment-bank-led consortium.
This sort of consolidation has led to the creation of global beer brands, and eroded the tradition of regional beers.
"Now, you get the same beer wherever you go," said Mr Crean.
The only beer brands that number among the top sellers in the UK are internationally standardised varieties, especially premium lagers such as Interbrew's Stella Artois, and Kronenbourg 1664, owned by Scottish & Newcastle.
There are also fears for the survival of the British pub.
Prince Charles last week extolled the virtues of the pub as the focus of community life, amid concerns that its traditional clientele were deserting it to sit in front of the TV.
Reasons to be cheerful
Things could be worse, however.
Mr Hastings points out that Britons still drink as much beer as carbonated soft drinks.
And beer has not suffered anything like as badly from changing habits as have spirits.
In 1990, six of the top 10 drinks by sales on the British market were whiskeys; today, there are only two among the top 10.
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