Mexican and Belgian brands remain the preferred imported beer flavors, but actual flavors are poised to shake up the category. In reviewing the imported beer sales rankings for the past year, “what really piqued my interest was we are starting to see flavors impact the import segment,” says Wandel.
“There were a couple in particular that had over half a million in dollar sales change over a year ago, which was pretty significant, those being Crabbe’s Ginger, Stiegl Radler and Schofferhaufer Grapefruit from the Radeburger group,” Wandel says.
Radler and shandies―typically blond lagers mixed with lemonade or citrus soda―are catching on in the U.S. Canada’s Moosehead Breweries this year is launching a radler beer infused with grapefruit, grape and lemon juices.
If these flavored brews take off, it will echo trends in both the craft and flavored malt beverage niches―as well as the new hard soda brands. Unusual flavors catch the attention of drinkers on the lookout for something novel.
“If you look outside of imports at the phenomenon of Not Your Father’s Root Beer, the flavor game is not going away,” Wandel says. “I think imports are not going to sit back and watch this happen. They have to look at opportunities like flavors to help grow their business.”
Eyes on Eurobrews
Stella Artois, owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev and the number-five-selling beer, is a rare brand: a European premium lager that has kept its shine. The brand increased 9.1%, reaching 22.8 million 2.25-gallon cases in 2014.
The beer’s message emphasizes its appeal as an on-premise beverage, with the distinctive branded chalice. The Stella Artois brand developed a “nine-step pouring ritual” that plays up the mystique of the perfect pour and has been promoted through an annual World Draftmasters’ competition.
Classic Heineken, though slumping in sales, retained its number-three position in 2014. Its appeal, and that of Heineken Light, relies on perceptions of quality. As Lasda notes, the Heineken brands “embody the traditions and craftsmanship of their native country and are created with tried and tested techniques that offer distinct full flavor, taste and character.”
The venerable Guinness brewery also trades on its history. “Guinness has always been about beer and people,” says Emma Giles, Guinness brand director. “This past year, we’ve expanded our on-premise task force by bringing on 50 additional members to our sales execution activation leadership squadron.”
The on-premise team will focus on educating beer drinkers about the history of Guinness and the company’s commitment to innovation. “This new focus allows for people to see Guinness as brewers of more than just great stout in an authentic, educational and experiential way,” she said.
Guinness has responded to changing tastes with two initiatives. The brand in 2014 joined the pale lager line-up with Guinness Blonde American Lager. “It’s pale, clean, and crisp―as it is a lager―but it’s quite highly hopped and brewed with the same yeast we use for our stouts, which lends a lot to taste and savor,” Giles says.
More tantalizing is The Brewers Project, “charged with designing new brews to trial,” which recently released Guinness Nitro IPA. More beers in the specialty vein are scheduled to appear in 2016.
Czech Republic beer Pilsner Urquell and Italian brand Peroni were flat and up just 1%, respectively, in 2014. But the brands have been successful in upscale on-premise accounts, according to Marty Maloney, a spokesperson for parent company MillerCoors.
Just as the craft segment has energized the U.S. beer market in the past decade, a large number of smaller, specialty beers have spiced up the import menu.
At World of Beer, Paine has noticed the increasing popularity of Belgian beers. “It may be because we’re called World of Beer and people expect more special beers, but I see Belgians doing well in other bars as well.”
The ultimate import chimera might be a limited release from Constellation, available only on draft in Chicago. The company has introduced a beer called Tocayo, jointly developed by chef Bayless and the brewmaster at Missouri’s Perennial Artisan Ales.
A white ale―a traditional Belgian style beloved by craft brewers and popularized by Coors’ hugely successful Blue Moon―Tocayo is brewed with the addition of hominy, the lye-treated maize that is the base for Mexican masa flour.
“So we’re taking the hottest import segment, Mexican imports, and the hottest segment of craft and putting them together,” Sabia says: “a Mexican-inspired craft beer.”
Julie Johnson, previously co-owner and editor of All About Beer magazine, has been writing about craft beer for more than 20 years.