For the third largest global economy, the fourth largest exporter and a population of almost 130 million people, the influence of Japan on global brewing has been slight. It’s been, in broad terms, a follower rather than a leader, perhaps reflecting the influence of other nations on Japanese identity and culture since the nineteenth century. And as with many beer cultures, which Japan surely is, its brewing scene was (and is) dominated by large national players; and in a similar parallel, only comparatively recently has a new wave of start ups and craft brewers started to make an impact. Despite this the craft scene is slower to emerge and in quantity at least (overall volume, share of market and number of craft breweries) behind other ‘beer nations’.
Part of this is cultural and behavioural: the Japanese are very proud of the achievements of their companies and traditionally the mutual bonds of paternalistic management with the honour and pride of working for these companies strengthens this. When it comes to beer therefore, Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi have been the mainstays on the islands of Japan for many years. And their interests stretch more broadly across drinks, particularly into distilling (whiskey), sake brewing and soft drinks.
Asahi have always intrigued me: for many years they languished behind Kirin as the leading brewer, with beers dating back to the late 1800s (Asahi Gold is one still brewed today). Traditionally, Japanese beers were heavily German inspired and were frequently malt-accented, leaning towards the Bavarian helles style (only maltier) as well as other German styles too, including black lagers and dunkels. But what propelled Asahi forward was their launch of ‘Super Dry’ in 1987. Pernicious whispers suggest that it was actually based on the recipe of an American light beer that they had been partnering with, but in body it is more like a north German pils: not as hop forward as Jever, but extremely well attenuated, flinty and crisp. I’ve never found it a beer that forms and keeps a good head, but in Japan this is not seen as a particular signifier of quality and for Super Dry less so, often drunk from the bottle as it is, or served in a small glass – it’s high carbonation cleansing the palate well when drunk with food – as beer in Japan so often is. So, a fairly typical, mass produced lager then? Well, yes, but also much more – the beer that saved Asahi in fact. Their performance and share had been falling relative to their peers, but Super Dry was an instant hit – so much so that it changed the character of the Japanese beer market, and Asahi’s competitors struggled to copy it and catch up.
For a brief period, I marketed Asahi Super Dry in the UK. Success with the brand was reasonable over here, albeit, it was always more ‘push’ than ‘pull’ and the relationship with the team from Asahi themselves was always an interesting one – a ‘quick dip’ into some of the differences of business conducted Anglo-Saxon style from that conducted Japanese style. The contract, for example, was always used as a guide by the UK team (de facto) – whereas for the Asahi team it was always ‘de jure’. One year, slightly behind the contractual volumes, the Japanese team decided to deliver the remainder to the UK depot anyway, even though it hadn’t been ordered. Twenty trucks rolled into Burton on Trent carrying enough Super Dry to keep shelves stocked for – well – let’s just say, you could over-winter pretty easily on it. But as far as the Asahi team was concerned, we had committed to a given volume in a contract and we had to find a way to sell it (no B&M Bargains in those days).
Overall though, the Japanese have played it close to home with their expansions beyond the shores of Japan. Kirin invested in Australia and New Zealand; Sapporo, in possibly the most ambitious move, bought Sleeman in Canada whilst Asahi opportunistically snaffled up a stake in Tsingtao from Inbev when it sold that company to oil the wheels of the Anheuser-Busch mega deal.
It’s now a mega-mega-deal that sees the first real expansion of Asahi out of Asia. Should it go ahead, one of the wheel greasers for the SAB acquisition by ABI is European crown-jewel selling. To overcome anti trust rules in the US and to free up cash to reduce the borrowing required, ABI put Grolsch, Peroni and Meantime up for sale. There were many suitors apparently, but Asahi were successful. It’s an interesting move: there are no real synergies (efficiencies or cost savings) as Asahi have no European operations. Shepherd Neame will probably have to find another brand to replace the volume they brew for Asahi in time, but other than that Asahi will be operating three stand alone businesses: the second largest in Holland, second largest in Italy and a significant London craft brewer. And you can forget the Japanese and Anglo-Saxon business culture differences – they’re going to be nothing compared to Dutch vs. Italian approaches. It’ll be a Bitterballen vs Bolognese bun fight.
But this isn’t a synergy play. This feels quite different and is possibly one of three moves. The first is desperation. It could be that Asahi see the global brewing world consolidating at such a rate of knots that they felt they had to move. An option, but unlikely – these are, after all, wonderful brands and whilst they have paid a premium, they’ve not over paid (about £2bn – chicken feed compared with the £70bn ABI are forking out for SAB). Second, and most likely is that this is an export move. Suddenly, Asahi have a premium portfolio of brands that they can take to most markets: Italian style, Dutch substance and the trendiness of one of the world’s largest brands. Add in, over time, Tsingtao, Meantime and anything else that they can bring to the party, and here is an interesting and powerful range for potential customers. A range that could perhaps nip away at Heineken, or Molson Coors, or even ABI here and there. Thirdly, and the most difficult to gauge is whether this a more strategic growth play. Are we now seeing Asahi build a platform for further consolidation? Will they now use their European base to target mid tier independent brewers (or unloved brands)? Will they use their base to buy into craft brewers (as they have in Australia)?
Whatever transpires, the move will be interesting for the European beer landscape as new morning rays from the rising sun shine down upon it.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2016