With their centuries of brewing experience, worldwide reputations and global distribution networks, import brands still command prestige in the U.S. beer market today. After all, those foreign brewers were the originators of the beer styles now emulated by aspiring American micros.
On the flip side, there is a craft scene emerging overseas inspired by the success of the craft movement on this side of the Pond. There are plenty of on-premise opportunities tailor-made for the import category, and customers are willing to pay premium prices for premium beers of the world.
Overall, the imported beer category grew by 1.3% in 2011, according to Beer Handbook 2012, published by Cheers parent company Beverage Information Group. But the 10 leading imported brands surpassed that, growing 2.4% during that time period.
Mexican brands dominated, with five powerhouse labels in the top 10: Corona Extra and Corona Light, Modelo, Dos Equis and Tecate. The other top players are familiar names: Heineken, Stella Artois, Guinness, Labatt and Newcastle. Together those leading imports accounted for the lion’s share of category volume, reports the Beverage Information Group, or more than 278 million 2.25-gallon cases sold in 2011.
Fastest-growing among the top-10 brands was the sole Belgian brand. Stella Artois saw gains of nearly 22% in 2011. That growth in part reflects mounting U.S. consumer interest in the overall Belgian import category. Iconoclastic Belgian brewing styles have many adherents among American beer geeks.
“Belgian ales have become very popular,” says Gabriel Caliendo, vice president of food and beverage for the Huntington Beach, CA-based Lazy Dog Café. In fact, the 13-unit casual-dining chain has devoted a section on its bottle list to that country. “Belgium is making a lot of interesting beers,” he notes.
About 25% of Lazy Dog’s draft beers are imports such as Guinness, Newcastle and Stella Artois. Corona and Heineken ($4.95) can be found on the bottle list. Belgian beers are the priciest, such as a Piraat Triple (topping out at $8.95).
A nascent trend in the import market is the artisanal movement developing on foreign soil. Inspired by their American craft brethren, microbrewers in Italy, Scandinavia, Japan, Ireland and elsewhere around the globe are creating a revolution of their own. So far, production is small and distribution limited, but that may soon change.
In an on-premise climate where local micros tend to dominate taps and bottle lists, imports can provide an important point of differentiation from the competition.
“We are the only bar around that has so many imports. You’d have to drive a half hour or more” to find a place with as many, says James Glasser, bar manager at Chives Grille in Alliance, OH, which has made its reputation on imported and craft beer. The sports bar and grill boasts nearly 100 beers, of which 30% are import brands.
Chives’ list includes such popular brands as Corona, Heineken, Dos Equis, Amstel, Molson and Labatt, as well as more esoteric brews like Paulaner Salvator, Bitburger Pilsner and Franziskaner Hefeweisse. Most popular are Belgian ales Hoegaarden, Duval, Chimay and Maredsous.
“Guys who used to drink Bud or Miller Light are drinking imported beer or craft,” Glasser says. That’s despite the fact that Chives sells Bud Light for $2.75, while craft and imports start at $3.75. Priciest are the Belgians Duval and Chimay at $5.25. “People don’t have any problem paying that,” he adds.
West Chester, PA-based Kildare’s Irish Pub prides itself for being the go-to place for “good imported beer,” says its director of operations Dane Gray. “People come to Kildare’s for our Irish beers, Guinness, Smithwick’s and Harp, which brand us as a true Irish pub, and for long-established worldwide brands like Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Carlsberg, which give us European flair,” he says.
The seven-unit chain boasts authentic pub interiors imported from Ireland. Imports also command fully half of the restaurants’ 24 draft taps. “The other half is tied up with the American craft scene, which you can’t really ignore these days,” concedes Gray. Draft prices range from $4 to $6.50, with some rare imports priced as high as $10. Guinness Stout is Kildare’s biggest seller, hands down.
A complete dining experience
A number of restaurants that specialize in ethnic cuisines, from Mexican and Chinese to French and German will import the regions’ brews as perfect pairings.
“Our guests come here for the complete Italian dining experience, the foods, wines and beers of Italy,” says Jason Carlen, wine director and sommelier for Spiaggia/Cafe Spiaggia, a fine-dining establishment in Chicago. Spiaggia features a curated collection of Italian craft brews.
“Italy has one of the most exciting artisan micro-brewing cultures in the world,” notes Carlen. “They use indigenous hops, regional grains and flavors like chinotto; these beers taste of Italy.” Terroir, if you will.
Spiaggia’s all-Italian list includes rare and unusual bottles such as La Fluerette Pilsner, brewed with hops, whole roses, violets, honey, elderberry and black pepper, and Torbata Peat Smoked Ale, a barley wine brewed with chestnut honey, organic orange peel, and organic cane sugar.
These rarities aren’t cheap: Small bottles (about 12 oz./334 ml.) range $16 to $24; large formats (about 25 oz./750 ml.) are $48 to $69. There has been no price resistance, says Carlen. But he notes that the esoteric beer list does require some hand selling and educating customers about the selections.
The Mediterranean-inspired menu at The Purple Pig, an eclectic casual-dining restaurant in Chicago, draws upon the cuisines of Spain, Italy, France and Greece, as does its beverage program. “Our wine list is Mediterranean, our spirits are all Mediterranean and the beer list is Mediterranean; they are an extension of our menu,” says Jon McDaniel, manager and sommelier.
The Purple Pig’s beer list currently includes Birra Moretti La Rossa Doppelbock from Italy, Estrella Damm from Spain and Brasserie Pietra Colomba White Ale from Corsica among its eight draft taps; priced $6 to $12. The dozen beer bottles available include a Sagres Lager from Portugal and Macedonian Thrace Hillas from Greece. They’re priced $6 to $8, and as much as $36 for large formats.
“If we serve a dish from Sicily, we want to suggest appropriate beers to our guests,” McDaniels says. Customer education is often necessary, he adds: “If someone asks for Budweiser or Miller Light, our servers are trained to suggest similar styles; perhaps a Peroni Italian lager, in this case.”
Holidays for hoisting imported brews
Imports are invariably center-stage at culture-specific, beer-centric events like Oktoberfest and Saint Patrick’s Day.
“We had a wonderful Oktoberfest last fall; we changed out six of our taps and only featured beers from Germany,” recalls Caliendo of Lazy Dog Café. The casual chain’s promotion featured German classics such as Spaten Optimator, Weihenstephaner Oktoberfest and Köstritzer Schwarzbier. “The event was a huge success—we sold a ton of beer,” says Caliendo, who plans a similar program this year.
Imports also come out at the 13 Lazy Dog Cafés during the St. Patrick’s Day season. The chain then promotes the classic Black & Tan Guinness Stout and Harp Lager combo.
The rest of the year, however, American craft brews dominate the chain’s 18 draft taps. While imports do have a place on Lazy Dog’s beer list, “there are so many exciting things happening domestically,” Caliendo notes.
Chives celebrates every year with a menu of German food and Oktoberfest beers from Germany and America, as well as some seasonal English ales. “Imports are always the stars of the show at Oktoberfest,” says Glasser. Similarly, a number of Irish beers are on tap during St. Patrick’s Day.
During the Christmas holidays, Chives imports a number of seasonal winter ales from England. “The Christmas beers sell really well,” says Chives co-owner Tammie Sobotka.
Not surprisingly, “St. Patrick’s Day is a very big week for our company,” says Gray at Kildare’s Irish Pubs. Playing off of that is a monthly promotion called St. Practice Day. Held on the 17th of every month, Kildare customers practice up for St. Patrick’s Day with discounted pints of Irish beer and other specials.
While ethnic cuisines and traditional holidays give imported beer consumptions a boost, the focus on the American craft scene right now has clearly stolen some thunder from imports. Some observers believe that imported beer will regain footing lost to U.S. craft brews, however.
“European brands have taken a hit over the past few years from American craft beer, but imports will come back,” says Gray. “Right now people are trying every craft beer they’ve never heard of, but I think that will settle down. Then the established brands will regain their loyal customers.” That’s the reason Gray continues to reserve fully half of Kildares’ draft taps for imported beers. ·
Raise your chalice
European drinking traditions demand a specific glass for every beer brand. American operators are following suit. That custom enhances prestige, reinforces brand awareness and leads to me-too sales.
“Many of the big European brands push the use their glassware, because the logos are such a big part of their marketing image, and they try to carry that tradition over into the States,” notes Dane Gray, director of operations for Kildare’s Irish Pub. Top seller Guinness Stout is only and always served in logoed glasses at Kildare’s, as are other imports such as Carlsberg, Stella Artois and Hoegaarden.
Distinctive glasses can boost sales too. Stella Artois, for instance, “has an attractive chalice with a gold rim that grabs customers’ attention,” says Gray.
“It’s all about the proper vessel,” says Jon McDaniel, manager and sommelier at The Purple Pig in Chicago. The Purple Pig has branded glassware for just about each of the beers it serves. “We are lucky to partner with a couple of great distributors and importers that provide glassware for us,” he says.
Chives Grille, a sports bar in Alliance, OH, serves imports in branded glasses wherever possible, says bar manager James Glasser, “especially with the Belgian beers in those fancy goblets.”
The Lazy Dog Café is in the process of choosing new glassware. The Huntington Beach, CA-based chain now serves beer in 16-oz. and 22-oz. glasses, but those sizes are too large for higher-alcohol brews such as barleywines and Belgian triples, says Gabriel Caliendo, vice president of food and beverage. “I want to choose specialty glassware that goes better with those styles—dubbels, tripels and bocks,” he says.
Beer Bottles Get Bigger
Although the bulk of imported beers are packaged in small 12-oz./334-ml. bottles (or in draft kegs), the 750-ml. size is becoming more widely available. That large format, the same size as standard wine bottles, offers a number of advantages, say operators.
With the 750-ml. bottles of beer, “we can offer same presentation as for a bottle of wine,” notes Jon McDaniel, manager and sommelier at The Purple Pig in Chicago. That’s more elegant than plunking a beer bottle down on the table. Larger bottles also allow the sommelier to test-market a new beer without committing to a keg.
“Large-format bottles are a great opportunity for guests to share amongst friends,” says Dane Gray, director of operations for Kildare’s Irish Pub in West Chester, PA. Plus, some of the more obscure beers are only available in large bottles, he notes. It’s not unusual to see a group of six splitting a big bottle to taste something different, Gray says. The 22-oz. to 25-oz. bottles range in price up to $25.
James Glasser, bar manager at Chives Grille in Alliance, OH, is also a fan of the bigger beer bottles. “They look attractive on display in the cooler,” he says, and heads turn when a table orders an outsized bottle. “That’s my foot in the door to tell other customers about those beers,” Glasser says.