Alcoholic fruit beverage (AFB) and spirit cooler sales have grown by more than 16% in the past year in a South African drinks market that is fairly stagnant.

The domestic market has experienced a decline in most segments, with the exception of wine and vodka, which have shown marginal growth. The growth of AFB's and spirit coolers has been exceptional, albeit from a small base of only 159m litres for 1998-1999 (July to June) to 185m for 1999-2000.

The lucrative beer and spirits markets have slipped back to 1996/7 and 1991/2 levels respectively.

According to industry statistics brandy sales are down about 8% from 45,4m litres in 1998-1999, to just over 42m litres in 1999-2000. This follows on a 12% drop the previous year.

Spirits as a whole are down by 2%, with vodka showing the only sustained growth since 1997.

Unfortified wines have also shown a marginal growth of between 1%-2%, but this has been attributed mainly to cheaper white wines being more readily available.

Beer continues its downward trend, falling just over 3% from 2,415m to 2,343m litres. According to the latest figures released by SAB

"The changes in drinking patterns stem from a number of developments within South African society over the past few years."

Cider and other Alcoholic Fruit Beverages and more recently spirit coolers have made inroads into the beer market, with dozens of products being tried, and only a few having success in this highly competitive market at the foot of Africa.

The latest assault comes from ready mixed spirits such as a range of Bacardi Breezers and Smirnoff Ice, which are taking away a certain share from both the beer and AFB segments. In the past year this has grown from one to five million litres and is continuing its upward climb.

In the AFB market, cider has about a 47% share, flavoured grape-based coolers have a 20% share, alcoholic soft drinks 23% and pre-mixed spirits 9%, according to Martin Scoble, AFB Manager for Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery.

According to the latest Alcoholic Beverage Review, Hunters Dry is the leading brand, followed by Crown Premium Ale, Savanna, Hunters Gold, Redds, Esprit, Solanti's and Hooch.

The changes in drinking patterns stem from a number of developments within South African society over the past few years.

"Factors such as a 30% fuel hike over the past six months, food price hikes, satellite TV, home computers, gambling and the national lottery are impacting on the disposable income of families.

"Cellphones are the latest status symbol and consumers are in turn buying less or changing to a different cheaper segment of the alcohol market," said Scoble.

These sentiments have been echoed throughout the industry recently.

"Production costs are also factors that have inhibited the growth of most AFB's - when compared with beer. The cost of growing and processing a hectare of apples is far more expensive than an equal amount of barley for malt, but these are factors we accept," said Scoble.

The first grape-based AFBs were experimented with in 1984, but were a total disaster, because legislation at the time prevented them from having lower alcohol levels and they were forced to have a minimum alcohol volume of about 11 percent.

Legislation changed and now one of the longest serving alcohol flavoured drinks is SFW's Monis Esprit, which was introduced in the mid-1980s.

A number of similar products have come and gone, but those currently on the market include, Hooch, Lemon Sting, Dooley's, Solanti's and Montello.

Cider has over the past 12 years tried to make inroads into the beer market, and though it has a toe in the door, it does not seem likely to upset the beer flagons too badly.

"Cider has over the past 12 years tried to make inroads into the beer market."

The first ciders were introduced on the domestic market in 1988, when Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery, in whom South African Breweries have a 30% share, launched Hunters Gold in October 1988 and followed it up with Crown in 1992, while the former Gilbey's group joined the race with their Hardy's brand in 1994.

In 1996 another SFW brand, Savanna Dry, was launched and by this time SAB saw enough to convince them they had to grab a bite of the apple pie and so launched their own malt-based apple flavoured brew, Redd's, in the same year.

In 1998 Hunters Dry was introduced and when British cider giant HP Bulmers entered the South African market late last year they took over Hardy's and Crossbow brands to add to their Scrumpy Jack and Strongbow labels.

SFW have recently added a Savanna Light, with a 3% alcohol level to the market.

This year has also seen the introduction United Distillers Vintners Smirnoff Ice and Distillers Bacardi Breezer causing a stir.

Smirnoff Ice, the latest trendy drink to make waves, was introduced in Gauteng in April and then nationally in May, following extensive research regarding taste, packaging and general appeal to see whether it was suited to the South African market.

"Even though it is available in the UK and other countries around the world, we did not want to just dump it on the South African market," said Tracy Kirsten, Brand Manager for Smirnoff Ice.

"Having Smirnoff Vodka as the number one spirits brand in South Africa was a plus. We had a stock out in the trade earlier this year because sales went so well, but we have increased production for the busy festive season and see this brand growing from hereon.

"We see this as a long-term brand which we will develop through the course of next year," she said.