For decades, imported beers enjoyed on-premise growth as discerning drinkers pursued authenticity in ales, lambics and lagers. Due to a combination of factors, sales of imported brands have shifted somewhat over the past few years.
Sales of imported beer last year grew by 4.8 percent over 2009, according to the Cheers On-Premise BARometer Handbook, published by the Beverage Information Group (BIG). Imported beer sales accounted for 13.3 percent of the total category on a volume basis, according to BIG. That is roughly the same percentage it represented in 2006 at 13.7 percent.
This category experienced steady growth for almost two decades, according to BIG, but that slowed in 2008. Case sales were positive in 2010, but came in significantly below figures for 2006. This decrease can be attributed to the state of the economy, costs of transit and heightened competition from craft beers as well as wine and cocktails taking a piece out of the imported beer pie.
Operators report that leading brands Corona Extra, Heineken, Modelo Especial and Tecate have continued to lead the lineup and play strong roles in their beverage programs, along with a range of smaller, niche brands and Belgian brews.
Dallas-based Dave and Buster’s 57 units feature casual dining, as well as entertainment and gaming, with three of ten taps devoted to imported brands, and at least six of 20 bottled brands are imports. Peter Czizek, vice president of food and beverage research and development, says, “We focus on core imports such as Stella Artois and Bass Ale, but the last year, we’ve seen more price sensitivity on imports and also more customers who tell us they want to ‘buy American’ and support local breweries.” About five percent of overall food and beverage sales are derived from imported brands.
“There’s a core group of consumers who are loyal to classics such as Guinness and appreciate that we do the proper pour and serve it at the right temperature,” adds Czizek. “And overall, Corona is our No. 2 beer, selling very well, right after Bud Light.”
In Austin, Opal Divine’s Freehouse is part of a three-unit operation, which has 229 seats on two levels as well as outdoor decks, best described as an “Austin grill with amazing beer,” according to owner Michael Parker. It features Mexican favorites such as Corona, Negra Modelo and Tecate in bottles, priced between $3.50 to $4.50. Classic English ales such as Young’s Chocolate Stout, Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter and Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout are also stalwarts on the bottled list, priced at $5.50 each.
Imports are also a solid part of the lineup at the Cleveland-based Winking Lizard chain. “About 35 percent of our beer sales stem from imported brands and we feature breweries from all over the globe as part of our World Beer Tour,” says John Lane, the operation’s vice president. He adds that, “We recently revised our beer menu to include more detailed descriptions of all of the brands we carry and the menu shows that imports are definitely more expensive than crafts.” Imported bottles sell for $4.50 to $12, and the average price is $7, Lane adds. “Bottle sales are somewhat flat but draft sales are through the roof.”
Popular in a variety of venues
While chains continued to steadily sell a wide range of imports, smaller specialty bars have also had a strong year with sales of imported beer. In Denver, the 15-year old Café Berlin serves exclusively German imported beers to customers, “aged 21 to 91,” owner Marlene Garrett says. “Each beer has its own following, although the weissbiers are more popular with the younger customers.”
Draft and bottled beers are presented with branded glassware as often as possible, “because it is part of a memory of how it was served in Germany, people who travel appreciate these details,” Garrett adds.
The small, 45-seat café is due to double in size later in 2011, and Garrett anticipates adding more German beers once the move and space renovations are completed. “Right now, we have five taps, Erdinger, Paulaner and Warsteiner, priced at $3.50 for one-third liter, $5 for a half liter and $8.50 for a full liter,” Garrett says. “We also offer a mug club to reward the regulars, so they can buy a ceramic mug for $50, then the price drops to $4 for refills.”
Cole’s of Buffalo, NY, a 155-seat casual bar and restaurant near Buffalo State College, has focused on drafts such as Canada’s Labatt’s for decades. Owner Mike Shatzel says he brought in Guinness and Bass in the early 1990s. He has also increased his tap count from 10 to 36 taps, which include a couple of Belgian ales, plus Fullers, Guinness and Labatt. Drafts range from $5.50 to $8 for Brouwerij Bosteels’ Tripel Karmeliet. “I didn’t lose my core college customers, but brought in a new influx of slightly older customers, ages 30 to 50,” adds Shetzel about the changes to his beer program. “The university clientele appreciates the value pricing on the more mainstream imports, such as Labatt’s.”
In Philadelphia, The Dandelion opened on New Year’s Eve, the newest offering from the 20-unit Starr Restaurants. The Dandelion is a two-level, 135-seat gastropub housed in 19th century townhouses, renovated with imported British décor and salvaged woodwork. Such attention to detail is mirrored in the selection of three cask ales, six draughts (one on nitro) and about 15 bottles and cans and about three to four of those are widget cans. Prices range from $6 to $9 for bottles and cans and the U.K. cask ale offerings at $10 per Imperial Pint. The selection changes bi-weekly, including Greene King IPA, Abbot’s Ale, Wells Bombardiers and Thornbridge Hall Country House Brewery’s seasonal ale.
Thornbridge merits special mention, as its importer, B. United, has developed a new infrastructure for shipping artisanal beers. Last summer, the company began using fully temperature controlled tank containers, divided into compartments, to transport several brands of beer in volume. During shipment, the tanks are chilled to between 32 to 33 degrees Fahrenheit. At B. United, the beer is then filled into kegs, with about 120 kegs per compartment, and additional tanks are available for secondary fermentation and keg conditioning. Due to the extremely cold temperatures and volume for shipping the ales, this process almost eliminates oxidation and staling, and saves the cost of packing and shipping individual kegs. “Thornbridge Hall has been a fantastic introduction at Winking Lizard,” adds John Lane.
Belgians shine and communities support their own
Although Belgian beers represent a small part of the import category, they have continued to rev up sales on-premise. Four years ago, at Opal Divine, Parker began offering an expanded roster of Belgian ales. Now, Belgian brands account for eight percent of all beer sales at the bar. “With the economy the way it’s been, we try to hold the line on prices,” says Parker.
The restaurant even features “Belgian Beer Night” on Mondays and the imported beer is offset by discounts on burgers, such as buy one and another is 50 percent off. “We also offer fresh potato frites with dipping sauces, which is typical Belgian bar food.” Between six and 12 taps—out of 27 total—are in play for seasonal beer releases and imported brands, including a cask option.
Almost two dozen Belgian beers and imports are also offered in bottles, including magnums of Chimay priced at $50. Parker says, “Even though we pay $40 per gallon for Chimay white on draft, we sell 8.5-ounce goblets at retail $9.75.”
Certain brands of imports are also meeting with great success in their local communities, in part because they want to support the home team. Imported brews are fixtures at classic community beer halls, such as Laschet’s Inn in Chicago, the Red Lion Tavern in Los Angeles and the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens, NY. A unique range of imports are part of both the menus and ambiance that conveys the cultural identity, be it German, British, or Czech. Seasonal events, such as Oktoberfest and televised international sports such as the FIFA World Cup for soccer, bring in crowds and help drive sales of certain imports.
At Atlanta-based Hooters, seasonal promotions also help to drive import sales. Scott Kinsey, director of research and development and corporate chef says, “We have 16 taps in our stores and carry about 30 bottles of beer, with average pricing for bottled imports ranging from $4.50 to $5.50 and average tap price $4.75 for a pint.” Beer accounts for 24 percent of overall food and beverage sales and imported brands account for about 30 percent of beer sales. “We have had some great success with import incentives and promotions with Corona during our Cinco de Mayo events and with Heineken and Amstel during the World Cup and Champions League,” Kinsey adds. “During these eight-week promos, our featured imports more than tripled in units sold.”
Overall, imports continue to offer drinkers the value of an authentic beer drinking experience, one that can bring back happy memories of travel with friends and family. This, as well as flavor appeal of imported beer, means the category will remain key for on-premise operators.