London brewers Fuller’s and Young’s have adapted especially well to this market, often employing parts of the strategies identified above. Granted, they have also successfully capitalized on their location, given that most anyone who goes to Great Britain stops in London and will have likely seen a Fuller’s or Young’s pub. But their export selections have been particularly suitable for US craft beer drinkers.
Fuller’s ESB was a seminal beer that inspired a generation of home and craft brewers. London Pride, a perfect name for an English beer if ever there was one, has made a more recent appearance, but at an export strength (4.7%, compared to 4% in cask in the UK). Other products, like Fuller’s IPA, London Porter, and Vintage Ale (8.5%, bottle-conditioned), are targeted at the export market and are much more commonly seen in this country than in Britain.
Young’s have also emphasized bigger, stronger beers that are less-often seen in their home market. Special London Ale, a complex and aromatic bottle-conditioned ale, has earned many accolades in the United States. At 6.4%, it has enough oomph to stand up to most American microbrewery pale ales. And beers like their Oatmeal Stout, Old Nick barley wine (7.2%), and ever-popular Double Chocolate Stout have been consistent sellers.
Increasingly, both breweries have also changed their packaging to be more in concert with American preferences. Beers that were once only available in pint bottles can now be purchased in our standard 12-ouncers and six-packs,
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
In the last decade a number of excellent regional brewers, like Batemans and Shepherd Neame, have exported to the United States, but with very mixed results. Shepherd Neame ultimately decided to get out of the US market, and I think the main reason for their limited success here was as clear as their bottles. Consequently, even though its first exports were bottle-conditioned, consumers too often purchased skunky beer. Later exports were pasteurized, but the beers were still susceptible to skunkiness and eventually, as they sat on the store shelves, to oxidation. With two of three beers under 5% ABV, these beers really didn’t have much of a chance for long-term survival.
Those who have stuck it out have had some tough going, but they ultimately have had the right products and strategy. Merchant du Vin has varied very little from Yorkshire’s Samuel Smith line or the strong ales from Scotland’s Traquair House, and these products have survived quite well. They avoided the urge to flood the US with a lot of look-alike products and found unique niches of their own.
What is the future for the latest British imports in the US? Just as over the last 40 years, brands will continue to come and go. Much of this will reflect the continuing consolidation among the largest British brewers and the natural ebbs and flows inherent in microbrewing. The big names obviously have a built-in advantage. They can discount more heavily and get into more markets.
But the most interesting products in Britain are coming from smaller craft and regional breweries. They can overcome their inherent obstacles by choosing the right products for this market, and not going overboard by bringing in too many brand names. Hop Back Summer Lightning, which has radically transformed the image of traditional beer in the UK, has the right sort of characteristics to make a lasting mark in the US. Yet Hop Back has other products coming into the States, and these may be muddying the waters for their flagship brand.
In 20 years, will Summer Lightning be our new standard for British beers? Stranger things have happened. After all, who would have ever thought that 4 mop-headed Liverpudlians would change our lives forever? Americans haven’t yet embraced the new British invaders, but there’s still a chance. We now have a richer beer culture that’s more open to distinctive products from abroad. But we won’t settle for the Bay City Rollers when we can get the Beatles instead. The brewers, importers, and beer store owners must do their part to make sure we’re getting new classics and not one-hit wonders.