Beer in Asia: The drink of economic growth

By Saira Syed
BBC News, Singapore


Beer has been brewed in Asia for 7,000 years but it's only in the past few years that it has overtaken Europe and the Americas to become the biggest beer-drinking continent. It's also the fastest growing beer market - a sign of a young, upwardly mobile, and increasingly hedonistic population.

Even on a weekday night, the Lau Pa Sat street restaurants in Singapore's business district have a party atmosphere. Part of the street is blocked off with patrons sitting in the open air, engulfed in the smoke from several satay grills.

Hungry office workers, families and tourists are in a feeding frenzy, as a live band plays pop songs and waitresses whizz by balancing five jugs of beer at a time.

"For spicy food if you've got an ice cold beer, that is really nice," says Ben, a visitor from Hong Kong, as his wife and kids dig into an array of delicacies on their table.

He also has another reason for his chosen drink: "It's the weather, it's very very hot." A typical daytime temperature at the moment is 31C (88F), and in the evening 27 or 28C (81-82F).

Although this part of the world is not particularly renowned for making beer, increasing amounts are being drunk.

Per head of population, Asia is still far behind Europe. The Czech Republic is top of Euromonitor's list of per capita drinking nations - with 174 litres (306 pints) per person of legal drinking age in 2011 - followed by Ireland and seven other European countries. South Africa comes 10th and the US 11th. Japan is the first Asian country on the list, in 41st place, with 64 litres per year.

But taken as a whole, Asia overtook Europe and the Americas in 2007. In 2011 it drank 67bn litres of beer, to the Americas' 57bn and 51bn in Europe, according to Euromonitor.

What's more, as developed markets such as Europe, the US and Australia stagnate, Euromonitor forecasts that beer consumption (by volume) will grow by 4.8% in Asia Pacific every year between 2011 and 2016.

Part of the reason is Asia's growing and young population. But experts say it also stems from the increase in prosperity in many Asian countries in recent years.

"Beer has a clearer correlation with strong economic growth," says Nirgunan Tiruchelvam, a consumer research analyst from Standard Chartered.

"People tend to drink beer in times of growth. They drink spirits when times are good and when times are bad."

During the great depression in the 1930s, beer consumption plummeted, he says, while spirits weren't much affected.

This looks to be in line with how beer is marketed around the world with slogans such as the "King of Good Times" for India's Kingfisher beer.

"It could be the fizz factor," says Mr Tiruchelvam, "It's the same element as a soft drink. When people are enjoying themselves they go for beer."

"Not many spirit products are seen in that hedonistic light."

It's China that is chiefly responsible for Asia's rise to the top of the international beer-drinking league. In almost every country, it seems, beer sales take off when a certain level of prosperity is reached. In China this happened in the 1980s and 1990s. It overtook the US in 2003.

It is also now the world's biggest beer producer, brewing 44bn litres in 2010, followed by the US (23bn litres), Brazil (12bn litres) and Russia (10bn litres). Snow, a Chinese lager, is globally the top selling beer brand, according to market specialists Plato Logic, even though it's not really drunk anywhere outside of China.

But the countries with the biggest growth prospects in the region are Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, where Euromonitor forecasts that volumes drunk will grow at up to 9% per year between 2011 and 2016.

Not everyone regards this a good thing. It's often attributed, in this part of the world, to growing Western influence.

In Singapore, which imposes a very high "sin tax" on alcohol to discourage excessive drinking, being drunk in public is punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to a month in prison.

But an article in the Singapore Medical Journal in July noted with alarm that alcohol consumption in the country was fast approaching levels in the US - doubling between 1992 and 2004.

Binge drinking "already an epidemic in many Western countries", it added, was on the rise. The paper's recommendations included the creation of a national body to address problem drinking, and limits on alcohol advertising.

image captionTrendy Arab Street is replete with bars

None of this appears yet to be deterring Singapore's drinkers. One recent trend, though, is a greater appetite for more expensive beers.

"A more affluent population will go for the exotic, more interesting tastes available in premium beer," says Goh Han Peng, who studies consumer products for DMG and Partners Securities.

In the Arab Street area of Singapore, the iconic two-storey shops have almost all been converted to trendy restaurants and bars.

That's where Dennis Chan co-owns Wit Bier cafe, which imports labels mainly from Belgium, Germany and Australia. He says he's confident that the demand for foreign and smaller volume beer will grow greatly because it gives people a taste of something different.

"They have a choice," he says, over a pint of Warsteiner. Instead of the ubiquitous Carlsberg, or Singapore's own Tiger beer, "they might say I want a wheat beer, I want a pilsner, I want a fruit beer."

media captionCraft brewer Scott Baczek demonstrates the process of making beer

Microbrewers as well as importers have come into vogue. Scott Baczek, an American brewer at the Pump Room bar and restaurant, makes four beers year-round - lager, ale, india pale ale and wheat ale - and one additional seasonal beer.

He sees the burgeoning of beer in South-East Asia as a big opportunity.

"If you're sitting outside on a sweltering Singapore Sunday afternoon, you will most likely want something thirst-quenching, light in body, with a dry, crisp finish - probably not an imperial stout, more likely a light, crisp lager," he says.

But he has noted that the "local palate" is a diverse one - providing brewers with a wide range of possibilities to explore.