Imported beer can be romance in a glass and a taste of tradition from faraway lands. For many operators, foreign beers are a prestige call, a way to show off their sophistication and please their guests. With their wide-ranging styles, imports have an important place in every well-curated beer list. And some establishments, especially those with overseas-oriented themes or a tourist-heavy customer base, make their imported beer selection a competitive point of differentiation.
In 2006, import beer volumes in the U.S. were up an impressive 12 percent according to research by the Beverage Information Group (Cheers’ parent company); by 2010, however, imports had dropped to 0.9 percent, flat but still positive especially compared to total beer volume, which was down by 1.9 percent. The imported beer category has also been besieged by the weakened dollar in the global market and the poor domestic economy. Foreign imports can also be out of synch with the locavore trend currently ruling many restaurants. Nonetheless, there are many bright spots in the import sector.
Corona Extra remains the No. 1 imported beer in the U.S.; its sibling Corona Light ranks number six, according to statistics from Beverage Information Group’s Handbook. Both Mexican beers are from Crown Imports, which imports another strong contender, Modelo Especial in the number-three spot. In the iconic green bottle and now on draft in the U.S., it is the second-ranked import Heineken Lager. Heineken USA also imports two brands in the top five—Tecate and Dos Equis; both are Mexican beers, and the latter is showing strong growth thanks in part to its “Most Interesting Man in the World” advertising campaign.
Standouts and Competition
“Although imported beer is down overall, a small number of brands within the import section are actually performing quite well,” notes Dan Hoffman, director of equipment and beverage specifications, global operations services for Bethesda, MD-based Marriott International Inc., with more than 3,000 hotels in 60 countries.
The import brands that have thrived, believes Hoffman, are those who have repositioned themselves, revamped packaging and continued marketing spend. As examples of positively performing imports, Hoffman cites Stella Artois, Dos Equis and Modelo Especial. Further, says Hoffman, Mexican imports have benefited from growth of the Hispanic demographic.
The biggest factor impacting imports is rising competition from American craft beer for that prestige call. “Craft beer is what’s selling fastest right now, imports not as much anymore,” observes Larry Berestitzky, owner of one-location Cooter Brown’s Tavern, Grill & Oyster Bar in New Orleans, which specializes in seafood and po’ boy sandwiches.
Although the sports bar still stocks a huge selection of imported beers, demand has dropped over the last five years because of the popularity of microbrews. Corona and Heineken are among the sports bar’s biggest-selling imports, along with Red Stripe. Cooter Brown’s offers nearly 400 beers, about two-thirds are imports, ranging in price from $3.50 to $20. These days many customers drink imported beers that they have sampled while traveling to relive that experience, according to Berestitzky, in the hopes of creating sort of liquid souvenirs.
Promoting imported beer can be an important point of differentiation in a competitive market.
“Our clientele comes here because of our import selection,” points out Neil Vigars, manager at the one-location Rock Island Brewing Company in Rock Island, Ill. For more than 32 years, the bar and music venue has been known in the Quad Cities for its selection of handcrafted beer, both foreign and domestic. “The collection has gotten more eclectic and beer-snobbish over the years and we market ourselves that way,” says Vigars. Currently sales of imports run about 50 percent of total beer sales. Rock Island offers 12 beers on draft and about 150 bottles, priced from $4.50 to $20. The most popular imports are Samuel Smith, Paulaner and Guinness. “We get a more sophisticated customer here than a Corona or Amstel crowd,” says Vigars, who notes the bar sells a fair share of Dos Equis.
“Because we are a German restaurant, people come here expecting imported beer,” says Meaghan Fitzgerald, general manager of Jacob Wirth in Boston. The restaurant devotes at least half of its 48 draft lines and 50 bottled beers to imported brands. Draft prices range from $5 to $11.25. The focus is mainly on European imports; Belgian and German styles sell the best. Leffe Blonde and Schneider Aventinus are the most popular. “Over the past few years, Belgian beers have really been taking off in popularity,” observes Fitzgerald.
As a silver lining, Fitzgerald says reduced demand for imported beer has been an advantage for Jacob Wirth restaurant. It has meant greater availability for highly allocated brews such as rare Belgians Gulden Draak Tripel and Piraat Ale. Costs for some imports are lower as well; savings the restaurant has passed along to its customers.
Imports are at the heart of the Fox and Hound’s newly launched beer initiative. “We have a lot of imported beers on our new list,” exclaims Lisa Brooks, marketing director for the 82-unit sports bar chain based in Wichita, Kan.
As part of its “Year of Beer” promotion, which kicked off this January, Fox and Hound mandated a chain-wide list of 100 beers; for some restaurants, that meant doubling the suds selection. “The bigger list means more variety, something new for our customers to try,” says Brooks, who believes the larger selection will attract new customers to the restaurants.
The company created a red leather-bound book, the first page of which prominently features five Belgian-style imports like Chimay and La Fin du Monde. The “Craft Import” section features another ten brands, and bottled imports number around 20. Bottles are priced $3.85 to $16.15; for a limited-time introductory period drafts were specially priced at $2.50. The eclectic selection ranges from Beck’s, Kirin and Newcastle to Young’s, Spaten and Peroni. “People do drink domestics but if we can trade them up to imports, that’s going to grow our topline sales,” posits Brooks. At Fox and Hound, Imports are featured prominently on the new list because of their prestige status and because they are generally priced higher than domestic premium, and therefore also have the potential to increase check averages.
“The number of imported brands in our core portfolios has remained fairly consistent over the years,” remarks Hoffman, although craft beer now represents a larger percentage. The hotel company maintains different beverage portfolios for its brands: Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott, Marriott Hotels and Resorts Renaissance, Peabody Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels. These core portfolios include products with broad appeal; properties build programs out with options to meet needs at their specific locations. For example, hotels in microbrew hotspots like San Diego or Seattle naturally stock more local brews, explains Hoffman. “It’s about turf management.”
But, he cautions, “You can’t just focus on trendy beers and neglect the standards.” A hotel property may host guests from all over the world, points out Hoffman, and while they might sample local brews during their stay, they will want to drink something they are familiar and comfortable with as well. “The biggest opportunity is to understand your guests’ specific needs and influences of the local market to determine the optimal selection,” he advises, adding, “Just because a product is popular locally you’re not going to automatically change the preferences of your entire guest mix.”
Draft versus Bottle
Although a number of large producers offer specific programs to assist operators with serving their products on draft, notably Guinness and Heineken, the trend seems to be towards bottled imports. More bars are turning over the majority of their taps to local micros. And many import brands are still only available in this country in bottles.
“Bottles are a great way to offer imports because you can get beers that aren’t available on draft,” opines Fitzgerald at Jacob Wirth. “And you can offer a wider variety that doesn’t take up as much space as a keg does.”
Freshness is another concern. “You don’t want to buy kegs from overseas if you don’t know when it was brewed or how it was shipped,” advises Berestitzky. At Cooter Brown’s, only 20 percent of taps are devoted to imports, while nearly 95 percent of bottles are imported. “Bottles will last but draft spoils quicker,” says the owner.
Glass Equals Class
It’s a long-standing European tradition to serve each beer in its own logoed glass, especially when they are shaped to best bring out its particular characteristics. In this country, some operators continue that custom. For its new program, Fox and Hound has mandated glassware for five brands, including Guinness and Stella Artois. “That can make all the difference,” declares Brooks. “With the right glassware, the customer’s perception of value goes up.”
“At Jacob Wirth, we serve every beer in appropriate glassware,” affirms Fitzgerald. “That gives the customer a different experience. They can go anywhere and get a beer in a pint glass.”
Not everyone is sold on specialized glassware, however. Rock Island uses the standard 16-ounce shaker pint, although it serves high-alcohol specialties in snifters. “Breakage and theft are issues, plus we don’t have space to store specialty glasses,” comments Vigars.
Specialty glassware is also not in use at Cooter Brown’s. “If I had 20 different glasses associated with 20 beers, my bartenders would kill me,” quips Berestitzky. “And those nice glasses tend to walk out the door.”
Wider World View
Although the craft beer revolution may have stolen market share from imported beer, it has also raised general appreciation and interest in all types of beer and attracted more consumers to the overall category.
“People’s palates are changing,” agrees Vigars. “The variety and selection of beer in U.S. has grown in leaps and bounds, in both imports and domestic craft.”
“Imports are wonderful,” adds Fitzgerald. “I think it’s great that we can taste different beer styles from all over the world.”
In conclusion, despite some tough recent years, they are still prestige pours and have their legions of fans; imported beers deserve a place on every well-written beverage menu.