PARIS (Reuters Life!) - The French, already more wine lovers than beer drinkers, cut consumption of ale by 5 percent last year due mainly to a smoking ban in public places and economic gloom, brewers said on Wednesday.
That follows a drop of 3.3 percent in 2007 when France prohibited smoking in restaurants, bars and pubs.
"We are in a severely falling market and this trend is strengthening," said Gerard Laloi, head of a group gathering some 70 breweries which make 99 percent of the French output. The French drank 18.6 million hectoliters of beer in 2008, which puts them in the next-to-last seat in the European Union with an average of 30 liters per year, far behind the Czechs with 160 liters or the English with 110 liters.
That compares with nearly 32 million hectoliters of wine -- or some 50 liters per inhabitant per year -- according to the international organization of vine and wine (OIV).
France's beer habits are also changing, Laloi said.
Consumers are increasingly choosing specialized beers -- Abbaye , amber or white -- or high quality beers. Their sales rose by 5.7 and 6.4 percent respectively last year while classic beers like lagers, lost 18 percent, Laloi said.
"From September the impact of the financial crisis was very noticeable," he added.
However, the drop in consumption was compensated by a 33 percent rise in exports, mainly to other EU countries like Germany, France's main external market, Laloi said.
France is the EU's fifth largest beer-maker with a stable output of 15 million hectoliters in 2008.
Reporting by Valerie Parent, writing by Sybille de La Hamaide, editing by Marcel Michelson