How Craft Brewers Boosted Import Beers

With the economy in rough shape, restaurant visits down and fewer consumers visiting bars, you might conclude that the import beer market is in tough shape. You’d only be half right. Sales for the category have slipped and shipments have plummeted – down more than 13 percent from the previous year, based on statistics from the Beer Institute. But, despite the category’s woes, some import brands have benefitted from the American beer renaissance that has been most closely associated with domestic microbreweries.

Half of the top 30 import brands tracked by Chicago-based research firm Information Resources Inc. saw falling sales, but big declines of some brands have been matched by a similar number of big gains. While Corona, Heineken Guinness and Newcastle have slumped, four of the top ten brands, including Stella Artois and Dos Equis, have grown by double digits. And the good news extends to smaller brands. Craig Hartinger, marketing manager for Washington-based importer Merchant Du Vin, said his company’s sales for brands like Samuel Smith and Orval have been brisk as consumers continue to demand high-end imports.

Why? According to Hartinger, lumping all imported beers together is the wrong way to look at the category. He sees imports as two separate markets – ‘mainstream’ imports like Corona and Heineken, and ‘craft’ imports like Orval and Chimay. The former, he said, has suffered as consumers tighten their grip on recession-thinned wallets. The latter, he said, is feeling the same enthusiastic lift that has buoyed craft breweries, as beer-devoted consumers rush for quality over quantity.

Over the past couple decades, independent breweries like Boston Beer Co. and Dogfish Head have churned out novel approaches to beer. The specialty beer audience started small, but the “craft beer revolution,” as Boston Beer founder Jim Koch calls it, has continued to grow. Craft brewers now hold a number of yearly beer festivals across the country, and have even induced Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors to produce a couple of craft-style beers.

Due to its success, the craft sub-segment has increasingly trickled into the mainstream market. Hartinger said it has also boosted specialty imports as the beer-curious look past American shores to find new experiences.

Curiosity may even be helping imports at an equal rate to domestic brews, according to Tiffany Adamowski, co-founder of Federal Way, Wash.-based 99 Bottles. In her beer store’s 2 ½ year life-span, sales have grown, she said, but the ratio of domestic to import sales – 60 percent domestic, 40 percent import – has stayed about the same.

She noted that while craft breweries might get the credit for enticing consumers to explore new beers, she’s also seen beer exploration go the other way. Some consumers, she said, return from an international trip and visit her store in search of the beer they drank overseas. It’s a way to relive a memory, she said, to bring a piece of their vacation home to their refrigerator, and, in her opinion, it amounts to its own sub-segment. In addition to Hartinger’s mainstream and ‘craft’ imports, Adamowski defines a third category for beers that are popular in their home country but difficult to find in the U.S. – like Viking Beer from Iceland or Cusqueña from Peru (recently introduced in the U.S. by SABMiller).

While exploration has been a friend to imported beers, Hartinger posits that the economy may actually be helping by moving drinkers from wine exploration to beer exploration – possibly as a better on-premise value. With the economic slump taking a chunk out of consumers’ disposable income, Hartinger said that he thinks some diners who should normally order a $300 bottle of wine at a top-line restaurant are instead opting for a $35 bottle of beer.

Regardless, the push for high quality imports is increasing, and the bigger companies have taken notice. Anheuser-Busch InBev, for example, is putting a heavier emphasis on its Belgian brands, according to Paul Bern, a product manager for the company. AB InBev has promoted Stella Artois, Leffe and Hoegaarden at food and wine shows, Bern said, going as far as distributing booklets suggesting how those beers can be integrated into fine meals, both as an ingredient and as a beverage. Bern said the company has also pushed the brand at film festivals and has exerted a lot of time and effort building the on-premise image of the brand. AB InBev, Bern said, hosts classes across the country that teach bar staff how to properly execute the traditional Belgian nine-step pouring process (You read that right: nine steps). The company has also distributed each brand’s custom-shaped and labeled glasses (part of that same Belgian tradition) to bars serving the beers.

“We want the beers poured and presented as they are in Belgium,” Bern said.

All that work on-premise boosts sales off-premise, Bern said. Customers typically first encounter beer brands at a bar, and Bern said AB InBev has bridged the two worlds through its glassware. In the part of the store where the company stocks its beers in high-end retailers, like Whole Foods, Bern said, they try to stock the glasses nearby – sometimes even in the same display.

The strategy seems to be working. Stella Artois has grown around 40 percent in the last year. Bern wouldn’t reveal internal numbers for Hoegaarden or Leffe, but said both brands are growing at similar rates – albeit from a smaller base.

And the future could continue to be bright for imports – at least, those upper-market brews. The Brewers Association reported in June that, despite the country’s economic woes, 98.8 percent of poll respondents cited “high quality” as their main priority when choosing a beer. Of course, the Brewers Association conducted that poll at Savor: An American Craft Beer & Food Festival, so their results are biased. But at the same time, the increasing popularity of events like Savor itself is also indicative of the robustness of the push for quality. So, when the economy turns around, putting more money in the pockets of those beer-curious consumers, it could be a good era for beer importers and their retailers – at least, as long the segments new converts don’t return to drinking wine. •