The sale of one of Carlsberg's two breweries in Italy signals a stronger focus on the premium end of the market, according to the head of the Danish brewer's business in Western Europe.

Speaking to just-drinks today (6 March), Alex Myers, Carlsberg's senior vice president for Western Europe, gave further details behind the decision to put the Ceccano brewery, south of Rome, up for sale, while increasing capacity at its remaining facility in Varese, north of Milan.

"We've had an over-capacity in the two breweries put together of about 400,000 to 500,000 hectolitres for a long time," Myers said. "The expectation of the Italian market in the 1990s in growth terms was very different - the market hasn't grown as expected.

"We've chosen a strategy of focussing on our branded business and our premium brands and we don't need that over-capacity. We still have growth for our brands, but we just don't need the capacity that we have. We'd rather have one efficient brewery than one-and-a-half not so efficient breweries."

The Ceccano brewery has a capacity of 1m hectolitres, while Varese runs at 900,000 hls. Carlsberg Italia plans to modernise the Varese site and increase capacity to 1.4m hls.

When asked about the Italian beer market, Myers said he felt that Carlsberg was in a strong position. "The total Italian market has grown but at very low rates," he conceded. "From our perspective, the good news is that the premium segments are growing quite considerably - brands have a favourable position versus private label. It's a healthy market in terms of mix but the total growth rates aren't there, and it's highly competitive. We're focussing on where the growth is."

Carlsberg is the third-largest player in the Italian beer market, with a market share of 7%. SABMiller leads the pack with its Peroni beer brand, while Heineken holds second place with Moretti. "We don't have the big local mainstream brands," Myers noted. "We focus on premium and super-premium."

Looking more generally at Western Europe, Myers agreed that many brewers are looking to strip costs from its operations in the region. "It's a case of balancing the efficiencies with the growth and innovation in Western Europe," he said.

"The region's beer market has been quite stagnant and even declining in terms of beer consumption. Some years are better than others, and 2006 was a good year, thanks to a combination of football and a good summer.

"In the longer term, however, it's a tough environment with a lot of competition. Then you have to focus on costs and efficiencies."