I can’t tell you how many beer lists have attracted my thirsty attention in the past 15 years: table tents, chalkboards, server recitals. One, at a little joint in Kentucky, was beautifully succinct: “Beer. Light Beer. Pabst.” When there were imported beers, you could count on them being almost as standard as the domestic choices. You’d see Corona, Heineken, Labatt Blue, Guinness, Amstel Light, Newcastle, Bass—the solid sellers.
Imported beer has changed dramatically in the past three or four years. Customers want more flavor and variety, and both customers and operators want upsell paths that give them real, new choices. A curiosity about beer-based and beer-paired menu choices now exists, too. The top imported brands are so successful today that they run the risk of being too familiar for the customer who’s looking for an imported beer to be different. That’s made a number of smaller, less well-known brands attractive both to operators and to importers, and prompted the marketers of the majors to spice up their advertising and promotional programs.
Big brewers have become big importers to meet the needs of this evolving market. The world’s largest brewer, Belgium-based InBev, has created an alliance with Anheuser-Busch. Acting as InBev’s U.S. importer, A-B is bringing in not just the flagship pilsner, Stella Artois, but also beers like Hoegaarden and Leffe Blonde, brands with next to no promotional support even three years ago. Heineken’s Star Brands imports Paulaner, Affligem, Murphy’s, Żywiec and Moretti. SAB/Miller is delivering its own Pilsner Urquell, Tyskie and Aguilar.
This level of support is broadening the accessibility of these smaller brands. Partnered with a company that has organic national distribution reach, a serious marketing budget and a ubiquitous sales force to utilize those assets, these brands suddenly look a lot better both to national multi-unit operators and to small-market independents who might be thinking about slotting them into their beer lists.
“I don’t know if the big guys supplying imports has raised the demand as much as the awareness via advertising has,” says Bob Lewis, who’s developing the 29 Degree Tavern concept as area director of specialty concepts for Metromedia Restaurant Group, the 800-plus-unit international casual dining oufit based in Plano, Texas that also operates the Bennigan’s chain. “But, it has definitely made availability much better.”
Draft beer is the focus at the three 29 Degree Taverns currently operating; the concept is named for the temperature at which draft beer is served, and beer accounts for 85 percent of beverage sales.
Broad availability and support made Heineken Premium Light the brightest spot in the import segment, proving that the standard brands—with a light twist—still have plenty of power. In its second year in national markets, the new upscale light beer rode continued marketing support with a 25 percent growth rate, still impressive despite not living up to company projections of 40 percent growth. That’s substantially better than the overall category, which was only up 3.6 percent for the year according to The Beverage Information Group.
Maybe it’s the light: the new Tecate Light sold a respectable 800,000 cases, and Corona Light grew 10 percent. Stable mate and anchor Corona was pretty much flat after a last-minute price increase at the end of 2006 by outgoing importer Gambrinus. The Corona Light growth bodes well for the future of Crown Imports, the new nation-wide importer for the Grupo Modelo brands.
Proper Beer Pairing
Big importers with small brands and big brands with light beers are the trends attracting the attention of the big operators, while independent establishments and beer-centric chains are seeing growth in smaller, almost boutique brands. Specialty import houses offer a deep selection of high-end, offbeat brands that appeal to the growing gastropub niche. B.United, for example, offers the adventurous Hitachino Nest beers from Japan, which have found a solid market by exploring different flavors such as red rice and cedar aging. Shelton Brothers’ portfolio ranges from the extremely assertive, even sour Cantillon lambics to the beautifully drinkable Mahr’s microlagers. Even a not-so-new face in the Euro-standard lager category can generate excitement. After years, Carlsberg is finally getting some traction in the American market as a discovery brand.
Each of these imports can offer opportunity in the right situation. The key is recognizing your own situation and the right brands and types to match it; in other words, creating the correct imported beer pairing for your establishment.
Mike Stachura, beverage operations manager for the five-unit Marlow’s Tavern chain in Atlanta, spends a lot of time doing just that. As a small operator, he enjoys the freedom to innovate and experiment with a range of brands. He’s built up a reasonably varied beer selection in each store that includes a changing list of imports. Why did he add import labels beyond the familiar names?
It’s variety again. The big-sellers in the imports—Corona, Heineken, Labatt, Stella—are all lagers, and all hit roughly the same price point. “There’s a significant following for them,” he acknowledges, “but it comes down to affordable luxury. Consumers are more interested in high-end products today.”
Stachura provides the upper echelon with a selection of out-of-the-ordinary beers such as the three Belgian imports that graced his winter menu: Hoegaarden, Delirium Tremens and St. Bernardus Abt 12. “The Delerium Tremens and St. Bernardus are becoming more popular, and people are asking for them. They are an easy introduction to the style. They’re both doing pretty well.” That’s at a nifty $9.75 a bottle!
He also educates his staff on what he calls parallel moves. “For example,” he explains, “If a guest orders Blue Moon, they might suggest Hoegaarden, a Belgian beer that’s similar but different, that the guest might like.”
It’s not about upselling or one beer being better. “It’s to educate the guest,” he says, with evident passion, “so they’re not just coming in and getting the same beer all the time. We’re a local tavern, so we get a lot of repeat business, a lot of regulars. I want to keep it fresh for them.”
Imports Large & Small
For Bill Catron, the beer specialist at Brasserie Beck in Washington, D.C., “evident passion” would be an understatement. Catron was knighted in Belgium, in the order of the Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs, the “Knighthood of the Brewer’s Mashfork,” in recognition of his work in support of Belgian beer.
Brasserie Beck is a Franco-Belgian restaurant, an increasingly popular cuisine on the East Coast. How important is the beer selection to a Belgian-themed restaurant’s success? “It’s—it’s everything,” Catron says. “If you don’t have the correct beer selection, or sell it with the correct knowledge…” He runs out of words, and you get the idea that you’ve asked a Cordon Bleu graduate if wine is important at a French restaurant.
“You have to explain the beers, you have to have the full selection,” he says, finally and forcefully. “It is Belgium.” A specialty independent establishment like Brasserie Beck is defined by its difference; a large selection of small imported brands is essential.
Although he has uncommon Belgian beauties on his menu, Catron also menus beers from the big brewers. “We sell a lot of Affligem and Leffe,” he says, “and sure, we do sell some Stella. It’s comfortable for people to see something they know. If someone comes in and sees Duchesse de Bourgogne on tap and says, ‘Sure, I’ll try that…’ A Belgian sour ale for a first-timer? It’s a great beer, but it’s like throwing them to the wolves; they’re not ready. You have to have something for everyone.”
The beer’s so important to the concept, conventional restaurant wisdom is challenged. “People come to Brasserie Beck primarily for the food,” Catron notes, “but a lot of them stay for the beer. The neon flashes when you [get them to] try the rainbow of flavors in Belgian beers. It’s a really cool feeling.”
For operators running large chains and thinking, “That’s okay for independents, but I’ve got too many units to manage a wide selection of imports and the staff education to sell them,” meet Scott Kerkmans, the chief beer officer at Four Points by Sheraton. Four Points, headquartered in White Plains, N.Y., has 125 units in 21 countries, and Kerkmans’ position is a symbol of its commitment to the Best Brews program that puts at least four draft beers and 12 bottled beers in every hotel. “All [are] quality craft or imported beers,” according to Kerkmans.
The program grew out of the chain’s Los Angeles aiport location, where the manager added a variety of beers to the menu as a way to differentiate the hotel from others nearby. It was quickly apparent that travelers, far from looking for the homogenized “same-thing-everywhere” one might expect, thirst for a taste of something different. Four Points management saw an opportunity, and started building a chain-wide program in early 2007.
Best Brews calls for half the beer list to be culled from a large portfolio of approved nationally available craft or import beers, with the remainder coming from local or regional brewers. Serious training ensures each location’s staff makes the right selections and that bartenders and servers are able to discuss the brews with curious guests. “The training program is extensive,” Kerkmans notes. “Each hotel has at least one Beer Ambassador who’s gone through training on the brewing process, off-flavors, hops and malts, beer styles. They can make informed decisions.”
It’s too early to tell if the year-old program is a complete success, but Kerkmans is upbeat. “It comes down to, ‘Is the guest happy?’ It seems to be working well in that regard and we’re happy with it.” Overall, Best Brews at Four Points by Sheraton demonstrates that with careful selection and appropriate training, national chains can offer a world class beer selection.
It’s exciting to try new things, but the need to provide the security of familiar brands is a rock-solid reality. Lewis knows that he’s got happy guests at 29 Degree Tavern primarily because of those standard imports.
“We focus on name recognition as well as styles,” he says. “Guinness is a staple. Bass Ale, Newcastle, Harp and Heineken are all very popular and sell well. Most people come in and have their brands and they are very loyal to them. If they are going to drink something different it is usually a change from a domestic to an import.” Among the imports on draft at the Ft. Worth, Texas location are Bass, Blue Moon, Flat Tire, Guinness, Rahr’s Red and Rahr’s Seasonal.
With concern about the economy looming large, both domestic and international, there’s anxiety about drink choices running toward less pricey options. “The economy is impacting everything in our business,” he admits. “But if our guests choose to come in to eat and drink, they will select items with their taste buds, not their wallets.”
The world of imports is larger than ever and here to stay. That little Kentucky restaurant might want to reconsider its beer list. l
Lew Bryson is the author of three brewery guidebooks, including Pennsylvania Breweries (Third Edition). He writes and consults on beer and spirits from Bucks County, Pa.
Franco-Belgian restaurant Brasserie Beck in Washington, D.C. serves up Barbãr Winter Bok, a boutique Belgian beer, with frites and white wine and garlic mussels.
Uncommon imported beer is crucial to his concept, says Brasserie Beck beer specialist Bill Catron, but less exotic imports such as Leffe and Stella Artois still are necessary for customers not ready for a dramatic change of pace.