Foreign Exchange: American Beer Styles, Brands Capture Attention of Drinkers Abroad
Ben Beinhardt has lived in Germany all his life, surrounded by hundreds of years of brewing tradition and some of the most iconic brands the world has known. He still fondly recalls his first Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock, made at a brewery that’s been around since 1877, and his excitement at drinking a beer steeped in Bavarian heritage. He also favors Augustiner-Bräu, which started brewing in 1328, and its Edelstoff and Lagerbier Hell brands.
But honestly, he wouldn’t mind an American IPA, either.
“I think it’d be great if we had new beers coming into the country and you get younger people to drink them,” says Beinhardt, 35, a resident of Stuttgart in the country’s southwest Baden-Württemberg state. “Developing a new beer culture in Germany would be tremendous and help our beer scene, but it would also take a lot of time and money.”
Maybe something like the $25 million Stone Brewing spent to open its production facility in Berlin? Beinhardt isn’t sure yet, but after a trip to the United States in 2014 when he visited breweries like Colorado’s Crooked Stave, Great Divide Brewing Co. and Ska Brewing Co., he hopes brands like Stone IPA or Stone Go To IPA catch on in his homeland, prompting an influx of more American beers to add options beyond the bocks or hefeweizens he can find anywhere in his home country.
“Any time I come to America, I see how many beers there are and how many flavors and realize Germans have no clue of the variety,” Beinhardt says. “But teaching Germans a new way of drinking alcohol? That’s pretty hard to do.”
Increasingly, American brewers are up for the challenge. Even though U.S. drinkers continue to thirst for a diverse range of beer, the continued growth of options in a crowded home marketplace is persuading many breweries to look beyond America’s borders for opportunities. In 2015, the U.S. beer market accounted for $105.9 billion, but that was less than a quarter of the money spent globally on beer. Sales are climbing at home, but according to market research company Allied Market Research, beer is projected to become a nearly $700 billion worldwide industry by 2020, opening the door in many markets for the eclectic brews produced across the 50 states.
Within the industry, the Brewers Association has been planning for this for more than a decade, creating its Export Development Program in 2004 to provide help to U.S. breweries who want to go abroad. In addition to sponsoring festivals and competitions around the world, the trade organization hired Sylvia Kopp in 2015 to act as its “American Craft Beer Ambassador in Europe” to build relationships between U.S. exporters and European importers and distributors, as well as educating others about the American brewing industry.
American breweries have stepped up to take advantage. In October 2016, Oskar Blues announced it would expand its international footprint to 14 countries, adding Brazil, Chile and more. Brooklyn Brewery, already in nearly 20 foreign countries that accounted for about 40 percent of sales, agreed to sell a minority stake to Japan’s Kirin Brewery as part of an effort to grow sales in that country as well as Brazil.
According to numbers tracked by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, American breweries exported 6.2 million barrels of beer in 2015, the highest total in 20 years. While a drop in the bucket of 2015’s overall total, Brewers Association-defined breweries accounted for 446,151 barrels sent abroad, a near four-fold increase from five years prior. It may only be a fraction of the full amount, but hop-forward pale ales and puckering sours—many made by small and regional American breweries—are leading the charge in a battle for taste buds across Europe and Asia.
“Anything IPA is selling a lot, but even Belgian-style beer from a brewery like Lost Abbey that makes traditional styles is more interesting than some of what’s being brewed in Belgium,” says Henrik Boes Brølling, who runs Danish importer Drikkeriget along with Evil Twin Brewing founder Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø. “Farmhouse-style sours from the U.S. are on the forefront of the styles serious beer drinkers want in Europe.”
Since starting the business in 2007, Boes Brølling has seen the Drikkeriget portfolio swell to 35 breweries, most of which are the kinds of American businesses treasured by beer enthusiasts, including Wicked Weed Brewing, Other Half Brewing Co., Logsdon Farm Brewery and Jester King Brewery. In May, Boes Brølling organized an event featuring 15 beers from California’s Pizza Port and 10 from Florida’s J. Wakefield Brewing.
In this unique situation, beers with cult followings that typically require standing in line for hours on an early weekend morning to get at the brewery are getting sent around the world—in small quantities—thanks to cultivated relationships built by Boes Brølling and Jarnit-Bjergsø.
“As our very first export beer partner, Henrik remains as passionate about our brands today as he did when he walked through our doors that very first time,” says Tomme Arthur, co-founder and chief operating officer for Port Brewing, The Lost Abbey and The Hop Concept, who’s worked with Drikkeriget for more than eight years. “While sending beer to Europe is a very small part of our business model, craft beer is a global market, and connecting with these fans far from home is still quite rewarding.”
For the most part, beer shipped to Drikkeriget takes five or six weeks in cold storage before it arrives in Denmark and heads to its final destination across Europe, which includes smaller nations like Liechtenstein up to Poland, Norway or Russia. Each total shipment to the importer may range from one to 15 pallets combined from several breweries, each pallet holding about 60 cases of beer. Hop-forward beers from AleSmith Brewing Co. and Port Brewing Co. are among Boes Brølling’s best sellers. High-ABV stouts are also ripe for sale. Boes Brølling admits he yearns to get any amount of beer from Massachusetts’ Trillium Brewing Co. and Tree House Brewing Co., but hasn’t had any luck thus far.
“No matter what you bring in, if it’s new, it will sell at first,” he says. “But to get those beers, with their reputation, would be amazing.”
‘The Cowboy Nature’
But for as much success as Drikkeriget’s business has had as something of a clearinghouse for a collection of rarified U.S. brands, other breweries have taken an approach to foreign markets into their own hands. Since its first export shipment in January 2013, Colorado’s Crazy Mountain Brewing Co. has grown its foreign sales to account for 25 percent of the brewery’s business with annual growth rates in foreign markets averaging between 60 and 70 percent.
Crazy Mountain was barely 3 years old and making about 3,000 barrels when brewmaster and CEO Kevin Selvy was approached by Winemarket Nordic, a Sweden-based importer, about selling his beer. After focusing on wine, Winemarket Nordic was ready to build a beer portfolio and flew to Colorado in the summer of 2012 after finding Crazy Mountain online and tracking the brewery, its beers and its fans through social media. Selvy agreed to partner on a trial basis, sending one pallet of beer every six months.
But then the first shipment sold out the day it arrived in Sweden. A second shipment was sent within days and did the same thing. By the end of 2013, Crazy Mountain was sending a container a month, accounting for an average of 92 barrels of beer per container. The impact was even felt in Colorado. During the 2014 ski season, Selvy says, Swedish tourists stopped into his taproom, having traveled to the Centennial State for vacation because they became familiar with Colorado by drinking Crazy Mountain beer.
“It was something about the mountain lifestyle of our brand that resonated with consumers in Scandinavia,” Selvy says. “Never in a million years did we think people would become loyal customers of our brand halfway across the world.”
With its Mountain Livin’ Pale Ale selling well, Crazy Mountain’s Snowcat Coffee Stout, a seasonal in the U.S., started being brewed year-round to sate appetites in Sweden and Norway. Other markets that have followed include South Korea, Guam, Ireland and the United Kingdom, where the brewery’s Creedence Pilsner and Hookiebobb IPA are top sellers for Selvy.
The U.K. market opened up so quickly that Selvy established his own importing company in London. It’s set to be Crazy Mountain’s second-largest market behind America, a key part of the brewery’s foreign expansion that started just three years ago. Another fast-growing market is South Korea, where Selvy sells about 360 barrels a month and is hoping to increase that to about 480 in early 2017. He’s eyeing China and Russia, too.
But that’s the kind of potential available for U.S. breweries of all sizes these days, when the idea of what American brewers create and how they do it seems to be just as enticing for Europeans as for U.S. drinkers who live down the street.
“If you’re a European beer consumer, you have amazing brands with interesting stories, but they’re drastically different than what comes out of American craft breweries,” Selvy says. “Our stories capture the hearts and minds of consumers, but the liquid is then able to take center stage. I think they’re intrigued with the cowboy nature of American craft brands.”
And what kind of American beer is more ready to play John Wayne these days than the IPA?
“IPA and session IPA are everywhere,” says Emma Victory, a London-based beer enthusiast and homebrewer who runs a club at the city’s We Brought Beer bottle shop, noting that over the past two years IPAs have become ubiquitous in Great Britain’s capital. First it was West Coast styles heavily hopped and bitter, and now “Yeast Coast” IPAs cloudy and full of juicelike flavors are all the rage.
The interest in IPAs has ultimately led to influence, presenting a new challenge for American-made beers trying to find a hold in England and elsewhere in the U.K., where the number of breweries has hit its highest point since World War II. Instead of picking up a hop-forward beer made by Stone or Crazy Mountain, Londoners can find IPAs from Magic Rock Brewing Co. and Cloudwater Brew Co. bursting with freshness. No need to wait for a hoppy pale ale that sat for weeks in transit from America. Ballast Point, Lagunitas, Green Flash and Alpine IPAs sit on the shelf much longer than ever before, Victory says.
“It’s curious to think about what would have happened in the U.K. brewing scene had we been cut off and had to develop in a different way,” she says. “Would we have gone for more European styles or different types of lager? But if you’re somebody who’s been to the States and enjoyed beer over there, you come home and think, ‘How can we drink that here?’”
Luckily for American brewers, Victory doesn’t believe an increase of English-made IPAs is a death knell for imported U.S. beer. Rather, it’s an opportunity. In recent months, she’s noticed an increased fervor for saisons and sours, with businesses like Crooked Stave, Jester King, The Bruery and Cascade all gaining attention, sometimes having tap takeovers at local pubs. But it may be only a matter of time before local brewers catch up on those styles, too. Victory says one of London’s popular breweries, Brew by Numbers, is making some really great goses and Berliner-style weisses.
So maybe it’s the case that American breweries must find some flexibility in their international planning. As localized brewing cultures become the norm around the world or the challenge of shipping beer to far-flung places grows, there’s a balance to be struck between selling beer at home and away.
‘Obsessed with Quality and Stability’
For a year, from 2013 to 2014, John Bryant sent beer from Spokane, Washington’s No-Li Brewhouse to Sweden, shipping Born & Raised IPA and Crystal Bitter ESB (now called Spin Cycle Red) after earning praise for both from foreign drinkers through the Export Development Program. That time abroad turned out to be more of a trial, as Bryant, No-Li’s co-founder, saw his business becoming one of the fastest-growing breweries in the Pacific Northwest, according to sales data by IRI. Instead of expanding No-Li’s foreign presence, Bryant decided to pull out of Sweden to focus more on his home market, but the experience also turned out to be a learning opportunity.
Because his beer spent weeks in transit, Bryant used feedback from foreign customers to invest in better equipment and processes at his brewery. No-Li moved its grist mill outside to reduce grain particles from the air inside the brew house. Bryant bought new flow and oxygen meters for mash tuns and re-evaluated how brewers pitched yeast to keep No-Li’s beer as fresh as possible.
“In the early days of a business, you’re trying to survive on passion and strategy, but as you mature as a company, where you spend your money shows,” Bryant says. “International business made us obsessed with quality and stability factors.”
Instead of sending No-Li’s beer far away, Bryant is now focusing on a closer foreign market: Canada. British Columbia, on the western part of the country and just north of No-Li’s Washington home, represents about 5 percent of the brewery’s sales, Bryant says. He’s also shipping a couple of pallets of beer three times a year to Japan, where No-Li has previously medaled at the Japan International Beer Festival. But the end game is to bring attention back to Spokane.
“One of the original reasons we went overseas was to bring international attention to our city because craft brewing is being led by U.S. breweries,” Bryant says. “It serves a greater purpose to build something special in our community and moves beyond beer, serving Spokane in a positive, economic way.”
Looking abroad is still part of No-Li’s business plan, even though it’s a small part of it. After all, total U.S. beer exports grew by an average of about 15 percent year-to-year from 2011 to 2015. As the market continues to add new breweries and brands on a daily basis, the feverish call of foreign drinkers isn’t likely to quiet down soon.
Back in Germany, even though his fellow countrymen may seem stuck in their ways, Beinhardt believes American beer is destined to be big in his country, given enough time. He says beer from small U.S. breweries offers an air of sophistication, which could attract German beer drinkers who admire foreign products and want to educate themselves on offerings from outside their day-to-day, traditional choices. Ultimately, he notes, the advantage that American breweries have in Germany and elsewhere is the ability to create curiosity around brewing that can be seen as cheerful, inventive and maybe even a little reckless. In a good way, of course.
“When I tell my friends about the kind of beers I’ve tasted in America, they can’t believe it,” Beinhardt says. “It’s almost impossible to not want to try them.”
No-Li Big Juicy + Born & Raised IPAABV: 6.1% + 7% | IPA + IPA
Tasting Notes: A more accurate description for Big Juicy might be hop juice; it’s more on the sweet side of an IPA and very, very thin-bodied. Grassy, field hop aroma with faint whiffs of muted citrus are its calling card. Born & Raised is more like a pine cone stuffed into a caramel-coated grapefruit, delivering upon all the expectations of an American IPA. Moderately chewy, bursting with resin, citrus and woody hops, and sticking around just long enough on the finish to remind you of its dominance. –John Holl
The Hop Concept Lemon & GrassyABV: 8.5% | IPA w/ Lemon Zest
Tasting Notes: The Hop Freshener series has been reliable for dense, generous hop bombs (if erring on the side of sweetness at times). There’s no lack of interwoven, citrusy hops offered here, building up to welcome, tongue-numbing bitterness. Intricate grass and a bit of alcoholic warmth appear as well, with fruity esters and enlivening, prickly carbonation underneath. Hop-forward; never quite heavy. –Ken Weaver
Bryan Roth is a North Carolina-based writer. Find him tweeting about beer @bryandroth.