Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Anheuser-Busch InBev has warned that its biggest three beer brands - Budweiser, Stella Artois and Corona - are bearing the brunt of a sales collapse caused by Covid-19.

Revenue from those brands dropped 11% in the first quarter, about twice the rate of decline for the company's overall portfolio of more than 500 labels. Shipments plunged the most in China, where the effect of Covid-19 lockdowns hit hardest because they started earlier than in the US and Europe.

As demand evaporates amid a global shutdown of bars and restaurants, AB InBev and rivals Heineken and Carlsberg are racing to find ways to cut costs to reduce the effect on profit. So far AB InBev's more expensive products are suffering less.

Longer term, as the pain from a pandemic-induced recession spreads from blue-collar to white-collar workers, that could also harm the collection of niche premium labels that AB InBev has built up in past years.

"We do better when consumers feel good about the future," CEO Carlos Brito said.

Sales of premium brands are slowly recovering in China after nightlife establishments there reopened, Brito said. Demand for more expensive beers "could have a couple of bumps, but it will remain in our view".

AB InBev is in more of a pinch than Heineken and Carlsberg, given it is also struggling to reduce debt that stood at $96bn (R1.7-trillion at current rates) at the end of 2019. The brewer said on Thursday that shipments plunged 32% in April. Budweiser, Stella and Corona are in its mid-priced segment in the US. The company's stock has lost almost half its value this year.

Carlsberg said last week it was already preparing for a new normal in which more profitable craft labels face more competition from cheaper alternatives. An eye-opening moment for CEO Cees 't Hart was when he took a taxi to Amsterdam airport on April 26: he was the driver's first customer in a month, and the ?60 (R1,195) fee his only income.

"We need to cater to this with a slightly different portfolio - it could be that for a while, we will have a focus on economic brands," the CEO said. "The aftermath will be much longer and maybe quite a bit more painful, with people not having the money to spend."

Cut-price beer was performing well in some markets, such as SA. AB InBev was already seeing its inexpensive Lion Lager grow at a double-digit rate in the first quarter before its production and distribution was halted to comply with a government mandate.

China's lockdowns were largely responsible for AB InBev's 9.3% decline in total first-quarter shipments, and excluding that market, the decline was only 3.6%. That may bode badly for Europe and the US, which entered lockdowns later.

While some craft breweries are seeing surging demand from drinkers looking to prop up local producers, catastrophic levels of unemployment in the US in the longer term may eventually lead those consumers to switch to less glamorous labels.

"There will be permanent economic damage and the shape of this recession is likely to impact low-income workers hardest, and we probably will see some down-trading as a result of this," said Trevor Stirling, an analyst at Sanford C Bernstein. -

Bloomberg