If you didn’t ride the wave of imported beer growth in the past ten years, blasting case after case of high-margin foreign brew over your bar, you missed an incredible opportunity. Imports have risen to command almost 10% of the entire U.S. beer market. The best-seller, Corona, is now the tenth largest-selling beer in the country of any kind, an unprecedented position for an import beer in the modern U.S. market. Best of all, these beers have supported higher price-points for almost all brands of beer, and brought home excellent margins for savvy beverage managers.
Corona’s not the only import on the fast track. Tecate, Dos Equis, Labatt Blue and Labatt Blue Light from Labatt USA, Modelo Especial, Pacifico and Corona Light from Gambrinus/Barton, and Newcastle Brown Ale from Scottish and Newcastle are all growing at a double-digit rate, and old favorites like Heineken, Guinness and Amstel Light are still showing impressive gains.
But there are a couple more tiers of imports under the cover of those huge and familiar names that are gaining followings among brew fans and in selected operations looking to develop a niche business. Among these brews, you’ll find connoisseurship and prestige, and even higher margins that can pay off handsomely for the right venue. If you carry fine drinks in other categories, you probably have an unmet demand you could fill from your beer cooler.
Successful on-premise sellers of these high-end imports have a variety of theories on why they sell. Marc Kadish, owner of Boston’s renowned 100+ tap Sunset Grill, has both tap and bottled imports for a reason. “A lot of what we try to do is cover all the different styles of beers,” he explained, “and a lot of classics of the styles came from somewhere else. To cover the true definition of these styles, you have to go out of the country. American brewers are emulating them, but sometimes you want the original.” Are they worth the money? “That’s the question you have to ask,” he mused. “You know, you can get a steak at Sizzler for $5, or you can get filet at Morton’s for $35… they’re both ‘steaks,’ but you can tell the difference.”
Larry Erenberg has had a range of imports at his Country Inn, back in the Catskill Mountains, since opening in 1975. Now he has over 400 beers, with many niche imports. “It is a good portion of the draw,” he said, as a master of draw: most of his regular customers travel 30 miles or more to the Inn. “I try to represent the countries around the world, and present them to people who’ve traveled. ‘Ooo, I’ve been there,’ they say. And a lot of people just like to experiment.” Erenberg has mostly imports on draft as well.
David Alexander is the manager of the Cheers Beverage Award winning Brickskellar’s justly famous beer selection. The Washington, DC saloon is generally considered to have one of the largest selections of beer in the world, and much of it comes from all over the world. Alexander has a special reason to keep his imports up. “We’re right off Embassy Row,” he laughs. “It’s not unusual to hear four or five languages as you walk through the restaurant, so we’re always trying to find another country.”
Alexander knows as well as anyone in America about the hassles of getting smaller imports. “It’s like The Blob,” he says ruefully, “just an oozing mass. Things change, brewers switch distributors, change the name of their beers. Then there’s the condition of the beer. How was it handled? Are you getting the last case out of the warehouse? You have no idea. The imports are all pretty consistent, more or less, but we’re a lot more cautious on buying seasonals.”
He’s sure, though, that the high-end’s a safe bet. “It’s a small, but very solidly entrenched audience,” he says firmly, “and they’re not going back to Bud.” That’s one thing about these beers. People buy them because they know them and like them. They don’t really care how much they cost, or how far they have to go to get them. They’ll never sell like Corona, but if you put in the work to build up an educated clientele, they’ll pay you back handsomely.
“Very often some of the best restaurants have an award-winning wine list, huge Scotch, vodka, bourbon, and tequila selections” points out Alan Shapiro, national sales manager at ground-breaking beer importer Merchant du Vin, “and a beer selection that resembles the convenience store down the street. We believe that the consumer for fine wine, fine spirits, and fine food is also a fine beer consumer. That presents a wonderful opportunity for restaurants to sell higher priced beers, providing vertical pricing and profit opportunities.”
Labatt USA may be best know as the source of red-hot Labatt Blue, but their parent company is the Belgian megabrewer, Interbrew. Labatt’s Belgian brand manager is Filip Wouters, and he’s big on Belgians. “The Belgians are a hot category,” he says. “Last year they were the fastest-growing country of origin for U.S. imports, and this year they’re still growing at 55%. The other countries are growing at a maximum of 20%.” Wouters admits that the base is tiny, but then, so was Corona’s.
Like Corona, Hoegaarden and Stella are making things happen on-premise. “Not a lot of import brands focus on on-premise,” Wouters says. “The microbrews caused a growth in tap handles, which favored on-premise. To be successful in on-premise, you have to have an image as a high-quality draft beer. We like to have people consume the beers in the proprietary glass, as we do in Belgium, and that’s unique. That enhances the consumer experience.”
Wouters has the best of both worlds: a niche product with the resources of a large company behind it. Stella has benefited from that muscle. “In every market we open up,” Wouters notes, “the launch comes with support. You need that when the Big 5 dominate. Most of our support is concentrated in a few markets, like New York City. But in some markets we let people discover the brand, only selling to 30 or so accounts and waiting for the demand to grow.”
Some Belgian beers command prices that edge into wine territory. Bottled in 750 ml format with caged corks, these beers look like wine on the shelf and sell for $15 and up in restaurants. Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield, owners of the Belgian beer import company Vanberg & DeWulf, have a unique way to ramp people up to the high-priced Belgians: they brew their own as well. After 16 years importing classic Belgian beers like Duvel, Boon, and Saison Dupont, Feinberg and Littlefield started Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, about three years ago, making traditional Belgian-style beers.
“Ommegang is a logical extension,” says Wendy Littlefield. “We built the brewery to put a beachhead in America for Belgian beers. Once they learn how Belgian beers are brewed, they might graduate to Dupont, or Duvel. If people are already interested in high-end specialties, they’re aware of what we’re doing. Ommegang is just the latest thing we’re doing.”
Littlefield often works on an account from the kitchen door. “We always have represented our beers as ‘food beers,'” she says. “We talk a lot about pairings and work hard with chefs. You say to the chef, ‘try this,’ and it works its way to the front of the house. The Belgian beers have great food stories: the complexity of the beer, the spices, the relatively high alcohol, the trade route crossroads of Europe. Belgian cooking has a lot of Spanish, French, and German influence, and the beers go well with all of them.”
The demand for German beer is still growing steadily. “We’re running at about 12% over last year,” reported Spaten North America general manager Mark Ciesla. Ciesla, like most people involved in importing beer, points to microbrewing as the source of a lot of import growth. “The microbrewers had a very important role,” Ciesla explained. “They introduced the consumer to a variety of types of beers. Then everybody started up a micro, with all those labels, and they confused the public. You didn’t have the consistency of product, and there were just so many. Who else to pick it up than the imports. In terms of beers like doublebock, weiss beers, we just fell into that place.”
Ciesla’s Spaten Lager and Franziskaner weissbier brands are supported with old-time presence. “We target upscale restaurants,” Ciesla allowed, “and we have support from ads and promotions. But we have regional managers who frequent the accounts, a direct contact. We don’t sell you the product and then never see you again. We also have a strong wholesale network. I have to give credit to them, they really support the brands. We have a 300-wholesaler network in the eastern U.S., and they’ve been with us, on average, 20 years.”
Paulaner North America (PNA) is a relative newcomer to the import business, but since 1987 they’ve grown their main Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, and Fuller’s brands to respectable levels. PNA president Jeff Coleman sees his brands benefiting from the same situation that drove the Big 5. “Imports in general offer a perceived quality advantage over domestic beers,” he says, crediting this to “the major U.S. breweries producing bland, mass-market brewing styles. The strength of the dollar is minimizing the price difference between domestic and imported beers. With a perception of superior quality, and minimal price difference, import beer is growing at the marketshare expense of domestic brewers.”
But PNA’s winning with beers that are distinctly unlike the Big 5. “The leaders for both the Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr brands are the weiss beers,” notes Coleman, “followed by Oktoberfest beers.” Although for a long time, “Fuller’s” meant “ESB” to American lovers of British ales, “Fuller’s is beginning to gain US consumer recognition for the depth and superiority of its full portfolio,” Coleman adds. “With [new] consumer recognition of London Pride, distribution and volume success will follow for Fuller’s London Porter, India Pale Ale, and bottle-conditioned Fuller’s 1845.”
PNA has emphasized draft service. “PNA does in excess of 40% of its volume in draft,” says Coleman, about four times the national average. High-end draft is an interesting sub-niche that can set you apart even more than specialty imports in bottles. “They’re rarities that the consumer has to go look for,” Matthias Neidhart explains. “Many people perceive draft beer to be even more exciting than the bottle version. And the margins in keg are just amazing. The margin makes them unique.” The combination of margin and prestige comes together stunningly in draft for the experienced manager.
Originally planned as a wine import business, Merchant du Vin changed course when Charles Finkel found what he calls “the beer that made me do it: Samuel Smith.” He set the model for the niche by bringing in this robust line of Yorkshire-brewed ales in an ornate package and charging a hefty price. Samuel Smith beers went for $10 a sixpack in the early 1980s, and $2.75 a bottle in a bar was considered a bargain price.
People bought it. Maybe they were intrigued by such a high-priced beer, but once they tried it, they never thought twice about the price. “We don’t really feel that we need to defend the price,” said Shapiro. “Even at $5 for a single bottle you can enjoy what we feel is one the best beer experiences you can buy, period. Compare that to, say, a first-growth Bordeaux; I don’t think you can come close to that price. We’ve always made our living at the top of the category. Our highest priced products are doing the best.”
It’s not just the charge itself that makes you money, either. The uncommon nature of these beers can easily become something that sets your restaurant or tavern apart from the run of the mill bar selection and make it a preferred destination. Matthias Neidhart, principal of importer B.United International, explains how this aspect sells beverage managers. “It’s the product, its complexities, that convinces sommeliers to carry it,” he said. “Then they have something exquisite to offer and it makes them different than the place around the corner.”
Neidhart has made the truly rare and exquisitely unusual his company’s specialty. In his broad portfolio he carries beers brewed with smoked malt that taste like barbecue in a glass, tartly twanging, fizzy Berliner Weisse beer, a couple of complex, wickedly overstrength “Baltic porters,” and a line of Belgian beers from De Dolle Brouwers: “The Mad Brewers.” Names like “Old Engine Oil” and “Mad Bitch” just make the products more niche-attractive.
How does Neidhart get restaurants to stock such outlandish beers? “Only one way,” he notes. “You have to go do a tasting and let them experience the complexity. Not everyone will enjoy them, everyone’s different. But like top single malts or wines, the tastes are so unique. That’s what works. Once they taste it and then think about it, they realize that these are very high-margin beers. Working on 60-70% margin, one case generates a tremendous amount of money.”
High margins mean high prices, of course, and that can be a problem with a clientele used to paying high prices for wine, not beer. “One of our more unique challenges is sales training,” Shapiro says. “These products may cost three to five times more than other imports or domestic craft products. They are really sold as a cousin to wine by-the-glass programs. Once retailers get past that hurdle, I believe they appreciate the opportunity to enhance their draft line and image with unique products.”
There are difficulties. “To get servers to pour draft properly is of utmost difficulty,” Neidhart admits. “Our people take training at Siebel [Institute, an American brewing school], they talk to the brewers in Europe. The education is a huge cost for us. Then you must relay the information to the server, and with turnover, we have to keep educating. We must teach them to be patient; these beers don’t pour like Budweiser.”
Ask if it’s cask
Probably the most esoteric beer import is cask ale from England, the stuff they call “real ale.” There’s nothing like it: softly carbonated, cool, and a “taste the rainbow” burst of flavor in the mouth. It is, however, tremendously fragile. Matthias Neidhart of B.United has made a specialty of bringing in superb examples of this live beer, which leave the breweries unfinished, still fermenting in the cask so as to come to peak readiness in
How does he pull it off? Once Neidhart has picked a bar that is willing to undergo the training, “we work back to the breweries,” he says. “The legal system requires you to go through wholesalers, but you’ve got to do everything for them. When the beer’s in the keg, it’s picked up in a refrigerated container at 59F. That puts the yeast to sleep, dormant for two weeks to cross to the Port of New York. Now the challenge begins. We do the fining (an addition of ground seaweed to clear the beer), and we want all 150 kegs fined and out in 48 hours. They’re sold ahead of time, people are waiting, but it’s a 20-hour workday, two days in a row, to get them all out the door.”
What does it take to be one of the few, the proud, the cellaring? “The place has to have a manager who has a lot of knowledge or be interested in learning,” Neidhart begins. “We can train him. We have a cellarmanship manual so he knows what to expect. He must have a cellar, racks for the beer [called stillage], and the manpower and commitment to properly set up the beer every night. In our opinion you can do it, but only on a tiny, tiny scale.”
David Alexander at the Brickskellar agrees. “It’s just such a lot of work to do it right,” he says. “You’ll find some oases where they work. We love them, they’re great. But they have to be handled right, or you can screw them up real fast. There’s nowhere to hide. All you have to do is mishandle it for half a day. But we do love selling them, and we hope they do well.”
There are more real ale events popularizing the phenomenon all the time, from the Real Ale Festival in Chicago to the Real Ale Rendezvous in Philadelphia, both of which serve imported and domestic versions. Maybe it’s time for you to get real…real ale.