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Central Asia: Culture Shift Sends Beer's Popularity Soaring

(AFP) Beer drinking in Central Asia is on the rise, according to a new survey by a beer-market consultancy. The reason isn't altogether clear, but experts think it could have something to do with growing disposable incomes and societies shedding their traditional images.

LONDON, April 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asians aren't known for their beer consumption. The alcoholic drink of choice in the region tends to be hard liquor.

No longer, say international beer-market experts.

They say there has been a cultural shift over recent years. With the region growing richer, mainly from oil exports, the European habit of drinking beer is fast taking root.

Simon Silvester, an executive director in charge of beer markets at Young & Rubicam Europe, a marketing and communications group in London, says that the growth in beer consumption follows a trend set by Russia and China.

"Clearly, market research in countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, is at a lower level of sophistication than it is in, say, Russia or China," he says. "But I've seen massive volume growth in both Russia and China in terms of the beer market, and all the indications are that in Kazakhstan, in Turkmenistan, in Uzbekistan, beer is on a steady upward growth curve."

Silvester cites a recent market-research report in Central Asia and the Caucasus carried out by the beer-market consultancy Plato Logic. The report found that, from 2002 to 2005, beer consumption in Turkmenistan grew by a staggering 177 percent. Other Central Asian countries are not far behind. Kyrgyzstan has shown a 112 percent increase, Kazakhstan a 75 percent increase, and Tajikistan a 71 percent rise.

More Like Europeans

Silvester says he is not surprised at this shift in drinking habits, as the countries involved are rapidly shaking off their image of traditional societies. He says their lifestyle and habits are becoming more European.

"We have to, I think, accept that even though we may like these traditional images of people living in their traditional dress and doing traditional things, that's not the way they see it," Silvester says. "They all have television at home; they all know what the rest of the world is doing."

Beer consumption soared in Russia during the administration of President Boris Yeltsin (TASS)

Others working in the beer industry agree that there has been a shift. "We can absolutely confirm that trend," says Mervy Henaro, a director with the BBH Baltic Beverages Holdings in St. Petersburg. "Baltica considers that region as one of our major export areas. And, to be honest, these CIS countries are really the core of our exports -- a major part of our exports go there."

Henaro adds that her company's own Baltika beer brand already accounts for some 24 percent of the Russian market. BBH, a joint venture between Carlsberg and Scottish & Newcastle of the United Kingdom, owns 18 breweries in the Baltic countries and the CIS.

Disposable Incomes

But why are some Central Asians putting down the spirits glass and switching to beer? Henaro says that it could be something to do with rapidly growing disposable incomes in these countries.

"The consumer pattern is changing, and especially away from hard liquor," she says. "And I think the trend is the same everywhere that people are considering their health, and, as we can see in other parts of the world, strong drinks will diminish in favor of lighter alcoholic drinks, especially beer in this case."

Simon Silvester says that there is also a process of equalization at work here. Wine- and spirits-drinking countries generally move towards beer, he says, and beer-drinking countries also tend to develop a greater appreciation of wine.

As for the most popular types of beer in Central Asia, Silvester says that lagers are the market leaders.

"Traditional Pilsner lager beers tend to be the main beer that sweeps into countries and the main beer that gets adopted," he says. "But I am also very conscious that other types of beer like wheat-based 'Weiss beer' and even Belgian fruit beers, I would guess, are moving in."

That's all good news for Central Asian beer lovers.

Central Asia In Focus

Central Asia In Focus

THE COMPLETE STORY: Click on the icon to view a dedicated webpage bringing together all of RFE/RL's coverage of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.