Premium beer sales are set to grow in "every continent" over the next four years according to a new just-drinks report, with Asia expected to show particularly strong growth. However, premium beer growth is forecast to be "sluggish" in Europe.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the global downturn has been a relatively dynamic period for the premium beer category, a new just-drinks report suggests.

The report, Premium Beer in Emerging Markets  – Forecasts to 2016, points out that, like all consumer goods, beer sales have been impacted by the downturn over the last four years. 

Recession, unemployment and lower consumer spending, compounded by increased consumer concern over excessive alcohol consumption, may have exacted a heavy toll on previously reliable Western beer markets, but this unquestionably hostile environment has led the big four brewers, Anheuser-Busch InBev, SABMiller, Heineken and Carlsberg, to revise their approach and increase the emphasis on premium beers.

At the same time, it has prompted those same brewers to pursue expansion strategies in emerging markets, where increasing urbanisation, swelling middle classes, increased average incomes and rising consumer sophistication are also providing fertile ground for premium brands. "Beer consumption in Asia is continuing to grow, as it is in Latin America and Africa, on the back of a steadily-expanding population with an emerging class of wealthy, sophisticated consumers thirsty for superior products," the report states.

The premium beer category currently accounts for around 18% of the global beer market, with mainstream products representing 68% and economy brands making up the remaining 14%. However, the premium sector is forecast to grow from 34.02m kl in 2011 to 39.29m kl in 2016, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.8%.

"The global premium beer market is unquestionably set for growth over the next four years to 2016. Interest in the sector has never been higher and all of the major brewers now appear to be convinced of the merits of pursuing the strategy," the report states. "We foresee the total global premium beer marketing growing steadily by 2016, with an increase anticipated in every continent as the economic recovery continues, consumption increases and the premium sector becomes more established."

However, while there may be growth in premium beer in every continent, some regions are expected to show stronger growth than others. 

In Europe, premium beer sales are only predicted to show "sluggish" growth of around 1% per year over the next four years to reach total sales of 20.04m kl by 2016. In 2011, premium beer sales in Europe stood at 19.07m kl. North America is also expected to post only "modest" growth of 2% per year over the period, to 7.09m kl in 2016, spurred in part by reviving interest in craft beers and microbreweries.

By contrast, Asia is set for much stronger growth, with premium sales forecast to rise to 7.88m kl in 2016, from 5.37m kl in 2011. "Economic growth in Asia is creating a more affluent demographic, allowing international beer companies and their local counterparts to increasingly follow a strategy of premiumisation," the report states.

China is expected to lead the way for premium beer in the Asian region, accounting for the majority of the growth over the four years to 2016. However, the report states that India also offers "enormous potential" by dint of its size and in spite of the "comparative immaturity" of its beer industry.

Smaller South-East Asian countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines should remain "dynamic" but the problem of these markets becoming "saturated" with cheaper, lower quality beers remains an issue for companies seeking to carve out a niche for premium products, the report adds. Although marketing has a "key role" to play in elevating the social standing of beer drinking, the report warns that advertising restrictions in countries such as Thailand present a challenge for brewers in this regard. 

However, online advertising and promotions offered on social networking websites could provide "a way past" these prohibitions, the report suggests, and help to attract younger consumers. Sponsorship of popular events will also remain "crucial". 

South America is "almost as exciting a prospect as Asia", with the premium sector forecast to grow to 3.29m kl in 2016, representing a CAGR of 6% per year. Traditionally, drinkers in major Latin American markets such as Brazil tended to opt for lighter beers with lower alcohol levels, but tastes are beginning to change. This, coupled with rapid economic growth, the report suggests, is driving the premium beer sector forward.

"Latin America continues to progress well and shows huge promise as a premium beer market," the report states. In Latin America, Brazil is performing a similar leadership function as China is doing in Asia. "Like Asia, [Latin America] has a thriving leader in Brazil with a big population comprising aspirational consumers."

In addition, Mexico also looks "strong", while Argentina and Colombia are both currently "exciting markets" for premium brewers.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, meanwhile, is "another significant growth area" for premium beer, with sales set to hit 0.99m kl in 2016, notwithstanding the religious prohibitions which restrict advertising and marketing.  The growth in the MENA region stems primarily from "booming" northern African markets and the return of tourism to Middle Eastern resorts after the instability of the Arab Spring.