In October, I found myself sitting across from Rudi Ghequire, the famed Rodenbach master brewer/site manager, during a stop on a media tour in Durham, North Carolina. Ghequire had spent the day chatting with excited fans so deep in the weeds of beer culture it came across like a rock star moment. There was a near constant stream of people posing for photos with him.
When I asked Ghequire what excited him about having these interactions during his visit to the Tar Heel State, his answer was simple.
“This is not the easiest beer you can have,” he said, speaking of Rodenbach’s namesake Flanders red. “Sour beers are more complex, more specialized, and the guys from our sales force need some support.”
It’s common to see an American brewery owner or head brewer at events these days, traveling within the city, state, or region where they call home. But the master brewer from one of the world’s most iconic breweries traveling 4,000 miles to support a sales team? That’s something more.
“Some beers are well made,” Ghequire noted of American sour offerings. “A few are very balanced, but also a lot are not completely balanced.”
As much as balance in beer is important, American tastes have always skewed a little toward extreme. Whether it’s a barrel-aged stout brewed to taste like cookies or a golden ale mimicking a gin and tonic, our palates prefer to live large.
Which puts Ghequire and so many of his peers in a difficult position. The foreign beers they create, which once satisfied “extreme beer” seekers in the US, may no longer meet American taste expectations while facing increased competition from U.S. brewers who are now producing sours, saisons and other Old World styles at high rates within our own borders.
Overall, the amount of beer imported to the U.S. is growing, but increasingly faces challenges created by the natural push and pull of a country with more than 4,200 breweries—not to mention a country that adds roughly two per day. Styles or brands that drinkers once found exciting and exotic are now being brewed right down the street. Competition isn't just tightening among American breweries. Rather, avenues and occasions for foreign beers are getting smaller every day.
To consider where imports are going, you should first recognize where American-made beer stands at a time when 75% of drinking-age Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery.
“A lot of the big-name American Saisons are at the same price [as imports] or sometimes even more,” says Christopher Barnes. Barnes is director of import, specialty beer and cider at Portland, Oregon’s Point Blank Distributing and editor/head writer at ithinkaboutbeer.com, which focuses on Belgian beers. “You can buy a bottle from Logsdon [Farm Brewery] for the same price as Saison Dupont, but there’s hypermania around ‘local’ in craft.”
The biggest challenge for imports in the modern American beer market is that local, fresh, and new are what drives sales these days. Not always old, iconic, or heritage. While mystery may surround a foreign beer with an unrecognizable name, a local brewery down the street has hometown pride on its side. Plus, the person buying the latter can walk down the street and talk to the person who made it.
In a 2015 survey by market research firm Nielsen, 45% of respondents said “local” is important to their beer purchasing decisions. The number rose to 53% for 21-34-year-olds, the most important potential consumer demographic in American beer.
It’s that kind of sentiment that makes future potential more difficult for foreign brands, but some imports have clearly been up to the challenge. In 2015, 31.2 million barrels of imported beer were brought into the U.S. That number is set to grow again in 2016, on pace for about 32 million barrels. But where that growth is coming from is most important.
Through April, only Mexican, Belgian, Canadian, and Latin American brands demonstrated import growth in the U.S., year-to-date, based on IRI data tracked by BUMP Williams Consulting. Nearly all that growth—tracked by bar codes in grocery, drug, big box stores, and more—is coming from globally recognized brands. Mexico’s Corona Extra, Modelo Especial, and Dos Equis XX Lager are tops for a country that accounts for 65.9% of all import volume share. Labatt’s Blue, Light, and Ice lead the charge for Canadian sales. Stella Artois accounted for 100% of Belgian beer’s growth in the U.S. in this timeframe.
Part of Stella’s incredible showing is because of the kinds of stores from which IRI tracks data, but Jeff Nowicki, chief strategy officer with BUMP Williams Consulting, said that Stella has a dominant share in every channel in which it’s sold as lesser volume Belgian brands tend to fight amongst themselves, cannibalizing purchases from one another.
Jumps in sales aren’t necessarily coming from artisanal, classic, or heritage breweries. It’s in the form of multinational breweries owned by the likes of AB InBev and Heineken International. Style-Defining beers like Saison Dupont and Rodenbach are fighting for growth, which means these classic beers and others must reevaluate how they market brands to Americans.
Guinness, the classic brand owned by London-based alcohol company Diageo, is getting a social media makeover. While Guinness has gone to a “social first” approach to advertising in the UK and Ireland, it’s also worked to galvanize its American audience online through publishing branded content on popular websites like BuzzFeed and hiring a U.S.-based social media correspondent to promote the brand on Twitter and Instagram. The company also has recognized voices that matter within the beer world. In March, Jeff Alworth, a contributor to All About Beer magazine and previously Good Beer Hunting, and author of The Beer Bible, announced his personal Beervana blog would be sponsored solely by Guinness.
Importer Merchant du Vin has taken an educational approach, creating nationwide events to educate consumers about the iconic brands in their portfolio, which includes Westmalle, Rochefort, Linedemans, and more. In January, the company organized the sixth annual “Samuel Smith’s Salute,” an event to “recall the prominent role this iconic British brewery has played in the U.S. craft beer revolution,” and encouraged businesses to build displays and add Sam Smith beer or cider to menus. There was even an official hashtag on Twitter.
In March, the company also organized the first-ever national Orval Day, which came about after an Ohio sales representative found success with pushing the famous Trappist ale at a local bar in 2015. More than 150 accounts across the country participated in 2016, accounting for about 12,000 bottle sales and a portion of proceeds donated to MAP International.
Again, social media played a strong role, with bars and drinkers sharing hundreds of posts across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook highlighting the beer. The difficulty, said Craig Hartinger, marketing director at Merchant du Vin, is continuing that goodwill all year long. Merchant du Vin doesn’t release sales data of their brands - Orval Day an exception because the company pledged a per bottle donation - but Hartinger noted that the event “made for a really good month of sales.”
In addition to one-off events, Merchant du Vin has sought out ways to make their beers stand out by providing nutritional facts on its website to make it easier for distributors to educate customers from a health standpoint. Hartinger noted that a move like that gives distributors one more advantage with a growing number of consumers who are increasingly health conscious. As competition grows for importers, they’re hoping small changes like these may add up to more sales.
“Ten years ago, Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout would be the first and maybe only one that came to mind for a restaurant to carry, but I’m sure there’s 100 oatmeal stouts now,” Hartinger says, noting that while his company may not have its best year in volume sales, some of its brands will set new records. “Local folks always want to discuss local and make a strong assertion that local equals good. It’s more competitive than it was a few short years ago and we’re forced to try and be nimble with some pretty good success.”
At its core, what’s happening is an erosion of consumer expectation between what used to separate American beer and imports. Beer made in brewing-heavy states like Oregon and Colorado to growing destinations like Tennessee and Florida is just as good and sometimes more affordable than the imports that once inspired many of those brewers and beers.
“People want exceptional beer and they’re very willing to pay for exceptional beer,” says Tom Rose, vice president of sales and marketing for importer Total Beverage Solution. “It’s about authenticity, it’s a story, it’s uncompromising standards and it comes with great ratings. There’s no monopoly on that.”
In the last seven years, Rose has been able to translate that plan to continued growth for German brewer Weihenstephan, which he said has grown from 125,000 imported cases to 800,000 of the 10 different beers Total Beverage Solution now carries. The brewery’s trajectory has been so strong over that time, Rose said when he arrived at Total Beverage Solution in 2011, he had one directive regarding Weihenstephan: “Don’t fuck it up,” he was jokingly told.
Other Total Beverage Solution brands haven’t been as much of a sure thing, Rose said, thanks to the rapid increase of new SKUs found in stores today. There are too many options for everyone to have such success.
“Growth is not easy to come by,” he noted.
But even for the oldest brewery in the world (Weihenstephan dates back to 1040), the modern American beer movement isn’t having much trouble catching up to styles once dominated by their countries of origin.
Need proof that Americans can hang with the big, historic brands of Europe? In last year’s European Beer Star competition, branded as “one of the most important beer competitions in Europe,” American breweries won 18 gold medals across 55 categories, second only to Germany’s 20. The tally was twice as many as Americans won five years prior.
But while the Germans dominated categories that originated in their homeland and Austria, U.S. breweries won across categories and geography, including styles native to Belgium and the UK. Charlotte, North Carolina’s Olde Mecklenburg Brewery even won a gold in the Märzen category, the first time since 2011 anyone other than German brewers medaled in the style.
But the ability of American brewers to adapt and evolve Old World beer styles doesn’t end there. At this year’s World Beer Cup, Americans won medals in Belgian-Style Sour Ale and Witbier, as well as golds in Belgian-Style Fruit Beer, French & Belgian-Style Saison, and German-Style Sour Ale.
It’s apparent more than ever that U.S. beer feels quite at home playing with styles from outside of America—drinkers are happy with that, too. Barnes, the director of import beer in Oregon, noted that when Americans think about Belgian-style beers, thoughts on the East Coast may often float to Allagash Brewing Co. On the West Coast, if someone is looking for a German beer, they may think of pFriem Family Brewers. There’s also Hill Farmstead and their Saisons, Lost Abbey, Russian River, or Jester King with wild ales, and Cascade and Crooked Stave for sours.
When it comes to high end beers, where imports like Orval or Saison Dupont fall, the availability and hype of homemade options is riding high. There are now 16 states with more than 100 breweries producing all sorts of beers.
“It used to be that you could put a Belgian or German beer on a table and people would buy it because they thought Belgian and German beers were better than American beers,” Barnes says. “Now you have a lot of really good American breweries making really good American beer and there’s an expansive culture that has responded to what’s being made here. People will often drink a poorly crafted local beer because they have some sense of story or attachment to the brand regardless of quality.”
When their American counterparts are taking up shelf space, what happens to imports?
Consider “sour” beers, a catchall term easy for consumers to understand that brings together a swatch of beers and styles. One of the hotter trends in American beer for years, the production of the style took another step in the past year with the rise of kettle sours, which not only cut the time in producing the flavor, but can also lower the cost for beer lovers. At Breakside Brewery in Oregon, kettle sours sometimes cost around a third of traditionally made ones.
Instead of spending years to produce a nuanced sour beer, brewers now only need weeks to offer consumers the general flavor profile they’re seeking. That equates to more sour beer becoming available at a lower price and more American options sitting alongside foreign ones, even if there may be controversy over the quality and place of time-sensitive, traditionally-made sour versus the quick, kettle version sold in versions by breweries like Funkwerks and DESTIHL. Even a huge brand like Lagunitas kettle-soured its new, year-round Aunt Sally “sweet tart sour mash ale” to consumer-pleasing results.
Drinkers will find the abbreviated sour beers made across the country in addition to other tart offerings, including goses from smaller breweries like Two Roads and Off Color up to the biggest players in craft like Anderson Valley, Victory, Sierra Nevada, and Sam Adams.
No wonder Rodenbach’s doing the rounds on U.S. soil and having its brewmaster do AMAs on Reddit to remind drinkers about the brewery’s presence. Print ads found in beer-focused papers and magazines now tout the Belgian brewery’s lineup as the “Original Sour,” trying to capitalize on America’s interest while positioning itself as the heritage brand that started it all.
But the latest adjustment in American beer is a pivot to directly take on the most popular import of all: Mexican beers, which make up nearly two-thirds of import volume to the U.S., placing 15 beers in the top-50 selling imports. Corona Extra and Modelo Especial are the top selling imports in the country, accounting for nearly 8% of the total dollar share for the category.
With that kind of success, it’s no surprise drinkers can find American craft offerings, too. According to Jennifer Litz-Kirk, executive editor at Beer Business Daily, the top-50 craft breweries in the country are producing a combined 140,000 barrels of “Mexican-themed” beer.
“Any time we look at styles that industrial breweries can crank out, you always want to see how you can complete that with things they may not be able to do in terms of ingredient sourcing or ways to make a beer unique,” says Ben Savage, chief marketing officer for Flying Dog Brewery. “How can we add something unique to smaller breweries?”
For Savage and his coworkers, the question has been answered pretty definitively. After piloting a Mexican lager made with agave and lime peel in 2013 and working it up to a summer seasonal last year, Numero Uno Summer Cerveza is set to go year-round for the Maryland brewery in 2016. Following in the popularity of other Mexican lagers, the beer sold like gangbusters in 2015, tripling the seasonal sales of the brewery’s previous summer offering.
“If given the choice of drinking a beer that comes from overseas from an industrial brewery, people may prefer to choose one where they can shake the hand of the brewer that makes their beer instead,” Savage says.
Savage likened the success of Numero Uno to music, saying that while some beers may have hit the right note with drinkers before, that doesn’t mean others can’t come along and play those notes in a different order with similar success.
If that’s the case, Flying Dog is just one member of a fast growing band that also includes Great Lakes Mexican Lager, Ska Mexican Logger, Oskar Blues Beerito and 21st Amendment El Sully, among many others. Whether it’s a charge at America’s growing Hispanic and Mexican demographics or multicultural-identifying Millennials, these brands are coming for one of the hottest markets in beer.
European Saisons and Sours, alongside Lagers from south of the border, may be the profitable base for imports, but as these styles continue to get reinterpreted by American breweries, they can also offer get served with a beloved “local” identity. It’s the iconic examples of these styles from afar that might be most at risk.
Is the struggle for imports really real? Yes and no.
Now more than ever, foreign brands are being forced to innovate and update strategies in order to keep share of mind with American drinkers. That comes in the form of print and television ads, organized beer “holidays,” and those visits from world-famous brewers.
[Editor’s note: last week, our creative team on the business side of GBH even helped launch a new video short documentary about Saison Dupont with the intended purpose of regaining relevance for the iconic beer and brand ahead of it’s family brewer’s first trip to the US]
But import numbers continue to climb, even if the biggest names are leading the way. The challenge presented to higher-end brands is one they haven’t had to face before on American soil. For now, they’re following the ebb and flow of the market.
“In years past, younger consumers grew up seeing nothing but craft and there was no exposure to iconic, international products,” says Rose. “As awareness of other brands have grown, there can be a real blurring of lines of iconic craft and iconic international brands.”
This is one of the biggest potential markets for imports—the assumption that, as American beer drinkers become more curious about what they drink, they’ll turn to the original beers that once inspired the brands Americans now love.
Whether that’s wishful thinking or not, the truth is that many drinkers who enjoy American-made beers may still find interest in tasting and learning about the beers that inspired their local brewer. But then a challenge rises again: how do you keep those beer lovers coming back to an international brand?
For now, that answer remains a work in progress, the inkling of a definitive solution suggesting that some imported brands need to remain nimble in how they approach their evolving market in the U.S. Their designation once automatically meant “quality” to drinkers, but as craft options from all over the country fill that space, so many things that set imports apart are now just table stakes.