BEER drinkers are celebrating a cut-price field day while the health-conscious 1990s have left cognac with a hangover. Despite a boom in one market and a slump in the other, Hong Kong is importing more alcohol than ever - though not spending quite so much on it. Latest import figures released by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council reveal a 33 per cent increase in alcohol imports in the first eight months of this year. But value-for-money is obviously being found - most noticeably in ultra-cheap beer imports flooding the market at under $3 a can - because spending on those same imports is only up eight per cent. The purchases are poised to exceed $5 billion by the end of the year - or nearly $1,000 per capita. France, which sends the largest consignments of wine, champagne and cognac to the territory, retains its position as top supplier of alcoholic beverages with a 45 per cent market share of total revenue. But this share is down from last year's dominating 58 per cent, with supermarkets like Wellcome reporting a 'significant' decrease in cognac sales this year and a consumer preference for wine. Meanwhile, the United States is fast coming into contention, having leaped from fourth to second in the rankings this year. Following a 98 per cent boost in alcohol sales to Hong Kong last year, the US has posted another 37 per cent gain this year to grab an 11 per cent market share. Cheap beer and wine has been the secret of the US success. Further down the rankings, the Netherlands has slipped from second to fourth, edged out by both the US and Singapore. This is no reflection of Holland's alcohol export performance, which is up a respectable 27 per cent, but more an indication of intense competition in the beer market, which is being flooded by cheap imports. Not that the Netherlands is losing out in the cut-price beer war; Skol is selling in vast quantities at $2.60 a can, although at the expense of top-selling premium import Heineken. From the statistics, it appears more apparent that the bargain-basement US brand, Pig's Eye Pilsner, and South Africa's Castle lager, both retailing at $2.90 a can, are claiming a fast-rising share in the market. From negligible sales worth under $3 million in 1993, South Africa's alcohol exports to the territory, mostly beer but supported by wine, rocketed 225 per cent last year and another staggering 555 per cent in the first eight months of this year with sales of $30.8 million - a more than ten-fold increase in two years. Britain, meanwhile, has slipped from third to fifth place among suppliers, with sales slumping by eight per cent this year, probably because it has no cut-priced beer with which to compete in that market. Similarly, Australia has found itself unable to compete, despite the popularity of its wine, with a slight drop in overall alcohol exports to Hong Kong inevitable this year after last year's peak of $41.2 million. Premium beer clearly has its place, however. Consider the glittering performance by the Philippines this year - up to 9th from 25th in the alcohol-supply rankings. Largely on the strength of the popularity of imported San Miguel in clubs and pubs, sales from the Philippines have boomed from $1.4 million last year to $45.6 million this year. Another winner is Sol and Corona Extra. Mexico's alcohol exports have doubled for the second consecutive year. Sales went from $7.3 million in 1993 to $16.4 million last year and were up another 62 per cent in the January-August period to $18.3 million. Clearly, the moral to beer importers competing in Hong Kong is: Be cheap or be trendy.