Despite competition from domestic craft brews and spirits in general, plenty of on-premise opportunities exist for the imported beer category. If marketed effectively and imaginatively, well-chosen imports can intrigue beer lovers and provide operators with a competitive edge.
One obvious hurdle is the market dominance of domestic premium beer, the megabrands such as Budweiser, Miller and Coors. Despite continuing flat to down sales in that category, domestic premium still holds many consumers in thrall.
“Our challenge is to take domestic premium drinkers and teach them about the different styles of beers,” says Paul Zoellner, partner/general manager for Shallos Antique Restaurant & Brewhaus in Indianapolis, IN. Education and hand-selling is key to helping his customers understand the differences—and similarities between, say, a domestic lager and a German pilsner. “Enhancing customers’ perspectives turns them into connoisseurs,” Zoellner says.
The museum-cum-lounge offers 42 drafts and 500 bottles from all over the world. Prices vary from $4.25 up to $35 for large-format, shareable bottles. Imports range from as far afield as the Ukraine, Greece, Turkey and the Philippines.
CHANGING WITH TIME AND TIDES
Another factor affecting import beer sales has been the meteoric rise of American artisan brews during the past few years. Although it now accounts for a mere bucket in the ocean of beer, fast-growing craft has somewhat usurped the premium positioning that imports enjoyed. “The industry has changed a lot since we started 16 years ago,” concedes Harry Gnong, founder/director of concept development for the British Beer Company, based in Plymouth, MA.
Back then ales from the U.K. were a novelty to most American consumers. “So we had an edge on that market for four or five years,” he says.
Then the American craft movement began to vie for the attention of beer lovers. “Local is more prevalent than imports right now,” Gnong notes.
The British Beer Company’s 13 restaurants today offer a core of U.K. beers, but the overall lists are tailored to each location’s needs. Units average 40 taps; bottle lists and prices vary.
Blackboards that promote daily specials use national flags to denote country of origin and single out imports. “Smithwick’s, Guinness, Fuller’s, London Pride, still appeal,” notes Gnong. “Other than that, we drive our menus according to what customers are asking for.”
Shallos, which opened in 1982, also found the need to change with the times and tastes. The restaurant had built a reputation as a specialist in imported beers.
“Our beer collection used to be 80% foreign, 10% craft and 10% domestic,” recalls Zoellner. Nowadays that ratio is 60% craft, 30% imports and 10% domestic. “We are a still destination for beer connoisseurs, whether they are into imports or craft beers,” he says.
MANAGING IMPORT LOGISTICS
Because of their foreign origins, imports present supply logistics. It’s far easier to source a local craft than a faraway import. Shipping costs and currency concerns can also add up to higher costs. But operators say imported beers are worth the potential challenges.
“Most of our imports are in bottles because we can’t get a lot on draft,” says Bob Griggs, bar manager at Library Pub in Omaha, NE. Housed in a 30-year-old library, the bar offers 40 beer taps and about 30 bottles.
Imports such as Hacker-Pschorr, a hefeweisen from Germany, and Delirium Nocturnum, a Belgian strong ale, are often on tap. Among the bottles, Trappist and other Belgian ales are popular, as are dunkels and hefes from Germany.
Pints are priced at $5 to $7. The Library Pub are generally prices imports higher than the average American craft, about $1 to $2 more, Griggs says. “But the educated beer drinkers—who read the magazines and check out rating websites—flock to the higher-end imports, and are willing to pay more.”
Library Pub recently started offering 10-oz. pours of the pricier brews, especially the high-ABV Belgians, for $6. This translates to a lower price hurdle for customers and a better cost for the bar. It’s also more responsible beverage alcohol service.
SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE
Ethnic concept restaurants are an ideal setting for selling the corresponding imports. In fact, customers expect to see them.
“Imports sell very well in our restaurants,” says Brian Sirhal, co-owner of three Mexican restaurants in Philadelphia: Cantina Feliz, La Calaca Feliz and Taqueria Feliz. “Craft beer has impacted the market, but overall the major brands, Corona and Dos Equis, still have a prominent place, especially in terms of what we are doing at our restaurant,” he says. “I haven’t seen any fall-off in the percentages for the past seven or eight years.”
The top-selling beer is Dos Equis on draft; number two is Corona Light on draft, and third is Tecate in cans. The restaurants offer half a dozen drafts and bottles, including Pacifico, Negra Modelo and American craft, priced $4.50 to $5.50. The can of Tecate is least expensive at $3, which might account for its popularity.
“The main thing is that people associate Mexican food with Mexican beer,” says Sirhal. The light lager style of Latin imports pairs well with Mexican dishes, he adds. “They don’t overpower the food like a hoppy IPA might.”
U.K. brands such as Newcastle, Hobgoblin, Belhaven and Old Speckled Hen sell briskly at British Beer Company, but so do German imports like Paulaner and Stella Artois from Belgium. “I know it’s in our name,” Gnong says, “but the British Beer Company is not necessarily about the beer, it’s about enjoying a beverage in a British pub setting.” The pubs are constructed by Andy Thornton and shipped from England.
The restaurant chain also created a “mini cellarman’s program” with Fuller’s Brewery in London. “We send our folks over there once or twice a year to work in the brewery and get a better understanding of British pubs, as well as the opportunity to drink quality beer,” Gnong says.
Likewise, imported holiday traditions are ripe for import beer promotions. “With Shallos’ wide variety of foreign beers, it is easy for us to hit all the holiday promotions,” says Zoellner.
British Beer Company pushes Irish brews like Smithwick’s, Harp and Guinness for St. Patrick’s Day. German specialties are strong sellers during Oktoberfest, says Griggs at Library Pub. The Cinco de Mayo holiday tends to give a boost to the Mexican beer brands.
Strategies to invite trial are key to boosting import sales. Persuasive techniques include discounts, specialty glassware, flights and clubs.
Shallos’ list is a double-sided printed sheet packed with beers, which changes weekly. A blackboard lists daily specials, discounted $1 to $1.50. A regular Friday and Saturday special is Weihenstephan Hefe on draft.
“Those discounts might persuade a domestic drinker to try an import or a wine drinker to try a beer instead,” points out Zoellner, who also relies heavily on suggestive selling from staff.
Shallos takes customers on a trip around with world with its beer club. The brewhouse challenges guests to sample 12 bottles and 12 drafts from all over the globe.
“They get a perspective on the different beer styles and get their names on a plaque. That’s the glory,” Zoellner says.
The club has become so popular that he created a graduate school for budding connoisseurs. This so-called high-rollers club focuses on 40 examples of more-complex and usually higher-alcohol beers (and pricier bottles, $10 or more).
This is where the more exotic imports come into play. “Or, if a customer is looking for something off-the-wall, we can suggest a Turkish or Greek beer,” adds Zoellner.
Library Pub attracts a crowd every Tuesday with its Craft & Import Night, thanks to a dollar-off discount. The bar also runs regular promotions with giveaways of glassware and other swag—stickers, key chains and T-shirts. Customers can also construct their own custom flights, choosing 6-oz. draws from any of the drafts for $3 apiece.
The Feliz restaurants build traffic on Monday nights with a $10 special of an order of Carnitas Tacos paired with a can of Tecate. “We get customers who come in specifically for that special,” says Sirhal of the promotion’s pull.
He ran a giveaway of vendor-supplied Negra Modelo glassware this past fall. But because the restaurants are fairly tight in terms of storage, Sirha notes, it is too challenging to regularly use logoed glasses.
At British Beer Company, “we try to match the glassware as best we can,” says Gnong, noting that it is traditional to serve English and European beers in branded glasses. “We try, but we don’t always succeed—glasses break, people take them, and availability is sometimes difficult. The 13 pubs pour 28,000 to 32,000 pints every week—that’s a lot of glasses.”
The beer category in the U.S. is a dynamic marketplace, always changing. “It’s an exciting time to be in the business,” declares Zoellner. “I look forward the future and seeing how the imports will keep up with the micros. How the big boys will handle the little guys.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who crafts his own home brew and writes about all things drinkable.