By Charlie Zhu and Donny Kwok
China's beer consumption, which hit 450 million hectoliters last year -- nearly twice that of the United States -- is expected to grow 5 percent per annum in the next few years, double the 2.5 percent growth forecast for the global market this year.
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Premium draught beers make up only 5 percent of China's overall beer market, compared with 50 percent in developed markets such as France and Germany, and 30 percent in the United States.
Analysts expect premium beer to account for a quarter of China's annual production in five to 10 years, largely driven by rising brand awareness and lifestyle changes following the emergence of a wealthy middle class.
For Paul Sin, a Hong Kong Chinese merchant in his 60s, drinking beer is not just a matter of taste. It is also about national pride.
"We are now able to taste good beer produced by ourselves, taste the success of our economic development with our taste bud," said Sin as he sipped a Tsingtao Draft in an upscale Hong Kong restaurant.
"Our beer is now good enough to stand side by side with Heineken and Blue Girl," he said. Blue Girl is made by South Korea's Oriental Brewery Co Ltd <INTBB.UL>.
Major local brewers are likely to see their premium segment growing more rapidly than foreign brands, helped by their vast sales network, nationwide presence and cost advantage.
Tsingtao Brewery Co Ltd <0168.HK> <600600.SS> is a distant second in the segment with a 15 percent share, while Heineken NV <HEIN.AS> and Carlsberg AS <CARLb.CO> trail at 7.5 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively.
Premium beers, priced 30-50 percent more than regular beers, offer bigger margins despite increased cost of production due to the need for higher quality ingredients and packaging, as well as more spending on marketing and advertising.
Production of Tsingtao's flagship products, including its green bottled Tsingtao Pure Draft labeled "stylish and intriguing," rose 11 percent in the third quarter, versus flat growth for its none-core brands.
China's largest brewer CR Snow, which uses the slogan "The Great Expedition" for its premium Snow brand, reported a 48 percent jump in the sales of premium beer in the first half, accounting for 21 percent of its sales, up from 17 percent a year earlier.
CR Snow is a joint venture between China Resources Enterprise Ltd <0291.HK> and SABMiller Plc <SAB.L>.
"The industry is trying to raise average selling prices to improve margins to levels we see internationally," said London-based David Serre, who oversees Credit Suisse's global beer industry investment banking business.
"If you get the premium strategy right, get the pricing right, the profit growth prospects are truly amazing."
In the broader beer market where the top four companies together command more than 55 percent, AB InBev is the only major foreign company. The company has a 11 percent of the market, versus CR Snow's 21 percent, Tsingtao's 14 percent and Beijing Yanjing Brewery Co Ltd's <000729.SZ> 11 percent.
Encouraged by their success in regular beers, Tsingtao, CR Snow and Yanjing have been racing to pump out more premium beer to challenge the foreign dominance of the segment, which is growing more than twice faster than the overall beer market.
Chinese brewers are offering premium beers at 20-25 percent cheaper than foreign brands and utilizing their extensive sales network, undercutting foreign brands.
UOB Kay Hian analyst Jason Yuan estimates gross profit margins for premium beer at 50-60 percent versus 30 percent for mainstream products.
Rapid growth of Chinese beer companies, fueled by an acquisition binge over the past decade and cut-throat price competition, have left them with lower margins, driving them to produce more premium beers that carry higher margins as Chinese consumers trade up.
Operating margins at Tsingtao and Yanjing are less than 10 percent, below the 12-17 percent at Heineken, Carlsberg and AB InBev.
Per capita beer consumption in 20 major Chinese provinces averages less than 33 liters, way below 100 in some European countries, 40 in South Korea and Japan and 65 in Brazil.
Despite soaring costs and competition, Chinese brewers' shares are one of the most expensive among beer brands.
Tisngtao is trading at 24 times estimated earnings and China Resources at 27 versus AB InBev's 15 and Carlsberg's 10.
Shares of Tsingtao, China Resources and Yanjing have soared in the past decade, with Tsingtao posting a twenty-fold jump. Tsingtao's shares in Hong Kong were little changed so far this year, beating a 14 percent fall in the benchmark Hang Seng Index <.HSI>.
"Tsingtao is a long-term hold," said Nomura analyst Emma Liu, adding long-term investors should look beyond its latest results.
Tsingtao, about 20 percent owned by Japan's Asahi Group Holdings <2502.T>, posted a nearly 1 percent fall in third-quarter profit as high barley costs hit margins and poor weather slowed growth in sales volume.
TOUGH TO CRACK
China, one of the fastest-growing beer markets in the world, has proven to be a tough nut to crack for most foreign brewers.
Despite two decades of efforts, foreign brands have a relatively small slice of China's overall market because of a fragmented industry, fierce competition and distribution bottlenecks.
Foreign brands such as Carlsberg and Foster's Group Ltd <FGL.AX> entered China in the 1990s, setting up shops by themselves or with small local producers, only to see their start-ups drown in a sea of cheap domestic beer.
Foreign brewers have tried different strategies, such as setting up ventures with large Chinese partners or taking strategic stakes in relatively big Chinese brewers.
This appears to be working as China's contribution to the revenue of foreign brewers has grown in recent years.
However, the prospects for foreign beer brands in China remain unclear as their local partners focus on promoting their own brands.
The most successful foreign brewers in China is probably SABMiller, which formed the CR Snow joint venture in 1990s with state-run retail, food and beverage conglomerate China Resources Enterprise.
Leveraging China Resources' extensive distribution network, CR Snow has become China's top brewer and brand.
"Over the next five to 10 years, you will find more and more mid-cap Chinese brewers becoming acquisition targets for large Chinese brewers and international brewers willing to play in China," said Credit Suisse's Serre.
(Editing by Chris Lewis and Vinu Pilakkott)