Matthew Day in Warsaw -
The warm spring weather that gently rolled across Poland in mid-May did more than herald the advent of summer for Poland's brewers. For the beer producers a climbing thermometer means that they are about to start their busiest time of year as Poles go on holiday and cool off with an ice-cold and carefree glass of beer.
And while traditionally summer has always meant good business for brewers, this year's should be even better as Poland's football team will compete in June's European football championship in Austria and Switzerland. The brewers expect hundreds of thousand of Poles to settle down to watch the games in the company of a few cans of beer.
The fact that beer is now the average Pole's favourite tipple might come as a surprise to some. The stereotypical Pole has always been a vodka drinker, downing the odd shot in celebration or multiple shots as a sure-fire and rapid way to inebriation. But times are changing; when it comes to alcohol in Poland, beer now rules. According to one leading Polish brewer, Kompania Piwowarska, beer consumption in Poland has rocketed from the 48 litres drunk on average a year by Poles in 1997 to an impressive 93 (but still well short of the world-beating 156 litres consumed by their Czech neighbours). All in all, Polish beer production has grown by around 130% in the past 15 years.
This has translated into good business for a Polish beer industry now dominated by big international players. The SABMiller-owned Kompania Piwowarska saw its volumes increase by 12.4% and net profit by 14% in the 2007-08 financial year, while one its main rivals, Grupa Zywiec, which is owned by Heineken, posted a 2007 consolidated net profit of €184m - a 27% increase on the company's 2006 figures. Little wonder that Kompania Piwowarska's managing director, Dieter Schulze, describes Poland as "one of the leading European and, as a matter of fact, global beer markets."
Just why Poles have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for beer has much to do with changing social patterns. A young generation of affluent Poles has shunned the spirit-drinking and stay-at-home lifestyle of their parents in favour of the more social habit of drinking beer with friends in Poland's ever-expanding network of bars, clubs and restaurants. And for those who still want to stay at home and have a beer, Poland's surging retail sector affords them plenty of opportunity to buy whatever beer they prefer. Along with this, Poles have also been exposed to the savvy and sophisticated marketing campaigns of the multinational brewers that have made leading brands like Zywiec and Tyskie household names across the country.
Health has also played into beer's favour. Danuta Gut, director of the board at the Association of Brewing Industry Employers, points out that successive government health campaigns against spirits has helped wean people off vodka and move them onto beer. Beer has also profited from health-motivated tax increases on vodka, which has pushed the national drink away from the mass market towards that of the high end.
But while consumers enjoy their beer, and the big producers reap the rewards, not everybody is happy with the current state of affairs. Poland's small and independent breweries claim that their very existence is under threat as they fight a losing battle with the three all-powerful multinationals – Carlsberg Okocim, Grupa Zywiec and Kompania Piwowarska – that dominate the Polish market.
"For regional breweries the situation is getting worse and worse owing to the growth of the leading brewers," says Andrzej Olkowski, president of the Association of Small and Regional Brewers. "The market share of the big players is exceeding 85% so you can say that the big players have a monopoly, and therefore there isn't enough room for independent players."
Olkowski says that the small producers' market share now stands at just 3-4% and he expects it to fall further as independent brewers struggle to get their beer into shops and bars that are now saturated with brands from the leading players. He adds that even if they manage to achieve this, the consumer may shun their products anyway. "When it comes to beer, Poles are guided by price or a well-known name," sighs Olkowski. "These two points dictate Polish beer sales: we don't really know what we can do."
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