SABMiller's MD for Europe believes that beer consumption can still rebound in the hard-hit region, but is concerned that mainstream brewers are "driving blandness".

Beer consumption in SABMiller's core European markets, such as Poland, Romania, Czech and Russia, has been hit hard by the global economic downturn. But, Alan Clark thinks that the worst may be over.

The SABMiller Europe MD told analysts last night (21 February): "I do think that we can expect some rebound in the next few years in per capita consumption in central and Eastern Europe. But, it will be more subdued than what we saw in the decade leading up to the economic crisis." 

Speaking at the Consumer Analyst Group New York conference, held in Florida, he said that SABMiller's agreed tie-up with Anadolu Efes "strengthens our position in Eastern Europe". The deal is expected to close in March, leaving SABMiller with a 24% stake in Anadolu Efes' global business and the Turkish brewer with control of SABMiller's operations in Russia.

More broadly, however, Clark voiced his concern that Europe's mainstream brewers are failing to make beer attractive to new consumers or as a premium drink. "The competitive heartland of beer is driving blandness," he said, "where refreshment has almost become the only cue in many markets".  

If beer is to avoid "commoditisation" then brewers must make it more "aspirational" for consumers, and this is what SABMiller plans to do. Peroni Nastro Azzurro and St Stefanus are examples of the firm's strategy.

"We want to avoid a scenario with only the craft brewers [are] seen as aspirational," said Clark. He sees structural decline in Europe's beer market that will outlast the region's economic headache. Faced with this, "we must change perceptions of what beer can be", he said. 

SABMiller plans to invest marketing money behind this idea. It will also accelerate efforts to move beyond beer and into other fermented beverages, at the same time as continuing to cut costs in the region.