American beer lovers may not be up to speed on the venerable overseas brands that have been defining and refining the art of brewing for centuries. They’re missing the elegant pleasures of well-crafted imported beers. Plus, there is a new and growing contingent of small artisans brewing in Italy, Japan and Spain, to mention a few.
Some savvy operators see a business opportunity, offering imports as a point of differentiation and creating a destination. Others see specific imports as integral to their concepts and complementary to their ethnic cuisines. Of course, this means working on sourcing, dealing with price issues and promoting the heck out of these beers.
The Shifting Beerscape
The beer landscape in the U.S. marketplace has evolved radically during the past few decades, with the ascent of the American craft movement, a change in attitude toward domestic premium and import beers and a more interested and better informed consumer.
“Winking Lizard [Tavern] has been around for 31 years; back then there was no such thing as American craft beer—at least not in Cleveland,” says John Lane, owner/vice president of operations for the Bedford Heights, OH-based chain of taverns. “We originally built our reputation on our imported beer selections.”
Moving with the times, the 19-unit company now has an impressive domestic craft beer list, but still maintains a reputation for its import selection. About 39 out of 98 bottles are imported, and six drafts out of 33 taps are devoted to imports. But, Lane notes, “you have to build programming around imports to move them.”
Indeed, “the rise of American craft beer has taken away from import beer sales slightly,” concedes Cody Jackson, marketing and beverage manager for South Bend, IN-based Hacienda/La Senorita Mexican Restaurants. “But the real victims of craft beer are the heavy hitters of domestic premium beer.”
At the company’s 13 Hacienda locations in Indiana and five La Senorita locations in Michigan (with one additional franchise location), Corona and Corona Light continue to dominate beer sales, according to Jackson. “We are one of the biggest destinations in the area for imported beers,” he notes.
Although the chains’ list relies heavily on Mexican imports, they do offer stalwarts such as Guinness and Heineken. The restaurants carry about three Mexican lagers on draft and around 10 to 15 in bottles. Prices range from $4 to $5.50 for 14-oz. drafts and $4 to $5 for bottles. Imports garner 15% of sales on draft and 25% of bottles.
Because American craft and domestic premium beer dominate the bar and restaurant scene, focusing on imports is a way for some operators to build a unique selection and draw more customers in.
“There is no place in the Capital District area that offers the beer selection we do,” points out Sam Leamy, general manager of Wolff’s Biergarten in Schenectady, NY. As the concept’s name implies, German beers dominate 24 taps and 20 to 30 bottles, with Belgian ales also getting substantial representation. Of the lagers, Spaten and Hofbrau are the most popular, as is the Czech Pilsner Urquell. Most drafts are served in 1/3-, 1/2- and 1-liter sizes.
Belgian selections can include St. Bernardus Abt 12, Rodenbach Classic and Saison DuPont. Wolff’s Biergarten serves these in 12-oz. goblets, ranging from $7 to $12, “because they are full-flavored, high-end and often higher in alcohol,” says Leamy.
The first Wolff’s Biergarten opened in Albany, NY, about five years ago and its Teutonic reputation has grown. “We are an established brand now,” notes Leamy, “People come in looking for German and Belgian brews because they know we serve some unique beers.”
Still, Leamy gets a few customers asking for IPAs, and he offers one or two American crafts because Germans don’t brew that style.
“We have regulars who come in just for the Italian beers,” says Domenic Trueman, general manager at Ariano Restaurante Italiano in Media, PA. “And they pair well with our Southern Italian cuisine, especially seafood.”
About 60% of Ariano’s beer list is Italian, with standards such as Peroni on draft. But the real draw is the curated list of Italian crafts from notable artisanal breweries such as Le Baladin, Birra Tenute Collesi, Birra del Borgo and Birra Memabrea. “Italians love food and seem to put more crazy ingredients in their beers—green peppers, fruits and chestnuts,” explains Trueman. “We get beer geeks coming in looking for these unusual beers only made in Italy.”
The most popular is My Antonia, an imperial pilsner that’s a collaboration between Birra del Borgo and Dogfish Head—perhaps, says Trueman, because customers recognize the Dogfish Head name. Another collaborative is Ama Bionda, a golden ale made by Amarcord Brewery of Marche, Italy, and Brooklyn Brewery.
“Our customers see us as a destination for Japanese craft beer,” says head bartender Jon Moncavage at Zama restaurant in Philadelphia. The sushi and sake restaurant sells “a ton of Sapporo, Asahi and Kirin, but sales for the Japanese craft are definitely trending up.”
The list currently includes six to eight Hitachino Nest microbrews from Kiuchi Brewery (priced $12 for a 330-ml. bottle). When Zama gets in a rare keg from Japan, a few dozen customers will stop by just to try the beer, Moncavage says. One brew was made from salted plums and another from sweet potatoes. “That’s pretty cool,” he notes.
Freight and Tariff
Beers from across the oceans can be more difficult to source than uber-local brews, especially with kegs for draft service. Whether bottle or barrel, more red tape is involved in importation.
“Sometimes it can take up to three months to get these Italian craft beers,” says Trueman. The small production of the breweries and logistic hurdles exporting them to the U.S. are challenges.
“My distributor reps will bring in new imports for me to try,” says Chris Blackburn, general manager of the Tampa, FL, branch of the four-unit Taps Restaurant, Bar & Lounge. Each store has a different line-up on 24 handles, based on the general manager’s discretion.
At the Tampa restaurant, imports compose 30% of drafts, 25% of the bottles. Most are from Belgium and Germany, including Radeberger and Palm, as well as Krusovice Cerne from the Czech Republic and Guinness, ranging in price from $6 to $8.
“I visit Europe every year, go to the source,” says Lane at Winking Lizard. He has cultivated relationships with many of the venerable brewers in Belgium and Germany over the years, which gets him access to allocated beers, such as Vedett Extra White. “We are the only one in U.S to have this witbier,” Lane notes.
On the down side of overseas sourcing, Lane points out that imports add another layer to the U.S.’s three-tier distribution system, increasing complications and costs. “Imports are a four-tier system,” he points out.
For Zama, “finding new craft beers is a bit of a process” because of the limitations of the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) system in Pennsylvania, says Moncavage. He and his staff often travel to beer fests in New York and Washington, D.C., to discover new quaffs.
Getting the Fiesta Started
Winking Lizard gets the word out mainly via social media to draw crowds for events. The tavern last fall hosted the director of Brasserie D’Achouffe to conduct a “biggest little toast” with a simulcast of the record-breaking participation from customers in all its stores.
Naturally, Wolff’s holds an Oktoberfest every year. The event closes down a street in Albany with tents and beer truck to host a thousand or so partiers in a pay-as-you-go event that includes a commemorative stein. The Biergarten also positions itself as a soccer bar: “We have a month-long party in the bar during the World Cup,” says Leamy.
“Our Cinco de Mayo promotions are highly revolved around Mexican imports and we see a huge jump in sales that time of year,” says Jackson. Signage and decor in the restaurants heavily favor imported Mexican beers. “We also create new drinks around Mexican imports if possible,” says the beverage manager. The latest is the Mexican Iceberg, which features Dos Equis Amber with a float of frozen Margarita.
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who crafts his own homebrew and writes about all things drinkable.
Glass It Up
Tradition calls for many European brews to be served in unique, logoed glassware meant to coax out optimum aroma and flavor. The glasses are also a nifty promotional gimmick.
The hefty, dimpled-glass Oktoberfest mugs used to serve the German lagers such as Hofbrau “look pretty bad-ass,” says Sam Leamy, general manager of Wolff’s Biergarten in Schenectady, NY. Wolff’s uses branded glassware provided by the distributors whenever possible.
Belgians are served in proper goblets and wheat beers in weizen glasses; the latter are especially delicate and prone to breakage, says Leamy. Customers celebrating their birthday at Wolff’s receive a free “glass boot” of beer. Plus, enthusiasts often bring in their own fancy German clay steins; “we fill those up for them,” he notes.
Zama Restaurant in Philadelphia serves some Hitachino Japanese beers in a special glass built like the classic pilsner vessel, says head bartender Jon Moncavage. Servers at Zama are trained to pour the beer correctly with a bit of ceremony. “When a customer spends twelve dollars for a beer, they want a little celebration with it,” he adds.
“The older crowd they still like the romance of imports, especially if you are pouring it into a traditional or logoed glass—that makes a big play,” says John Lane, owner/vice president of operations for the Bedford Heights, OH-based “Winking Lizard Tavern. He has created a number of promotional efforts around glassware for the chain. Customers who manage to drink the 10 or so imported beers in the “Iconic Brewery Tour” during the course of the promotion earn a pewter-top mug.
A similar promotion features Duvel’s annual, artist-painted glass program, in which customers are awarded one of the iconic vessels. Participants receive a “passport” with info on the breweries to educate guests. “For the Duvel promo, we gave away about 1,200 glasses,” Lane says.—THS