A Closer Look at Craft Imports

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 31, Issue 2
May 1, 2010 By

The day is coming when the distinction between “import” and “domestic” will be far less important than the distinction between “mass market” and “craft.” Check out the top 25 import brands in terms of case sales, you’ll find that most of the leading brands are pale pilsners. Heck, two brands, Corona and Heineken, account for 50 percent of the whole category. The top 25 brands include only three ales (Newcastle Brown, Guinness and Bass). You’ll look in vain for an IPA, a Scotch ale, a hefeweizen, a barley wine, a bock or doppelbock. To find a Belgian specialty beer on the list, you have to scroll down to Hoegaarden White at No. 41. Pretty much like the domestic beer scene, huh?

Big Brands Get The Budget Cut

And like the big domestic brands, big-name imports are tanking in post-economic meltdown America. Imports are down nearly 10 percent in barrelage through September, according to the Beer Institute. Familiar names like Foster’s Lager, Amstel Light, Bass Ale, Pilsner Urquell, Moosehead and Grolsch have seen U.S. sales drop by double digits. Fewer Americans are drinking Guinness (down 5 percent), in spite of the hoopla surrounding the brewer’s 250th anniversary, which included the introduction of a special anniversary beer and a series of concerts worldwide.

The conventional wisdom is that financially pinched beer drinkers are trading down from $8 six-packs of green and clear bottles to budget brands like Keystone Light. There just isn’t enough difference in flavor to justify paying for a beer’s boat ride across the ocean.

It’s a little more complicated for Corona and Heineken, the lead brands dragging down the whole pack. “The old guard has been caught off guard,” comments beer industry consultant Bump Williams. He cites a number of factors, ranging from import pricing being “out of whack” to the desertion of former Corona spokesman Jimmy Buffett to hawk Anheuser-Busch’s Land Shark brand. He also mentions that the soft economy has prompted the exodus of minorities who consumed a great deal of Corona. “It costs them more money to live here as opposed to a year-and-a-half ago when they were sending money home.”

But just as domestic beer is buoyed by a craft beer segment (up 5 percent in spite of the recession), the import segment has its bright spots. “Our sales are up,” comments Craig Hartinger, marketing manager for Merchant du Vin, the Tukwila, WA-based company that imports Samuel Smith’s ales, Lindemans lambics, the gluten-free Green’s Belgian-style beers and numerous other brands. “There ought to be a category called craft imports,” he asserts. But no one has attempted to define such a category, let alone tabulate barrels.

Supply and Demand

It appears counter-intuitive that in the midst of a recession consumers would be splurging on the priciest segment of the beer industry, but Steve Cardello floats the idea of beer as an affordable luxury. “If you ask what you can buy with a ten spot, merchants who sell gourmet cheese, Scotch and cigars will laugh you out of their stores,” comments Cardello, market manager for Duvel Moortgat USA. “You can’t even buy a boxed wine for that price. But you can go out and buy a 750-mililiter bottle of one of the best beers on the planet for $10.”

Cardello notes that bottle sales of Duvel, the archetypal Belgian strong pale ale, are up 8 percent. In spite of dwindling on-premise sales as customers opt to eat and drink at home, the draft-only Duvel Green is doing almost as well. This lighter cousin of Duvel (6.8 percent ABV, as opposed to 8.5 percent) is made from the same ingredients but doesn’t undergo the secondary fermentation that Duvel undergoes in the bottle. “Because of the intense pressure that builds up, the kegs would explode,” elaborates Cardello. “A draft presence is a must,” he continues. “The first thing I do when I’m at a bar is look at the taps long before I look at the bottle listing.”

It’s clear that many beer connoisseurs are equal-opportunity buyers of flavorful and quirky beers, regardless of their point of origin.

Just ask Matthias Neidhart. The founder of Connecticut-based specialty importer B. United International has a highly diversified portfolio, stocking dozens of brands from 10 countries. “We have a number of breweries that do beers only for the U.S. market,” he notes, citing Duchessic, a saison from Italy’s Birra del Borgo microbrewery blended with a Cantillon lambic from Belgium. Allotting these limited-edition rarities (the entire supply of Duchessic for the U.S. market amounted to six kegs and 80 cases) is “a big challenge,” admits Neidhart. “We don’t list them on our website because we’d get too many orders. We basically alternate among our accounts. But they talk to one another and they find out anyway.”

It’s not just new-wave micros in lands that have not previously been noted for their beer. A few old dogs, including such hidebound traditionalists as the Germans, are learning new tricks to satisfy the unquenchable thirst for novelty.

A prime example is Schlenkerla Oak Smoke from the Heller-Trum Brewery in Bamberg, Germany. “The brewery has always used beechwood for its smoked beers for the simple economic reason that it burns faster,” explains Neidhart, “but [sixth-generation owner] Matthias Trum wanted to find out the impact of oak on the time of kilning, the intensity of the smoke, and the flavor and aroma.”

In December, 125 kegs of this experimental beer reached American shores. B. United’s website promised “a smoother and more multi-layered smoky note” than the intensely flavored beechwood-smoked beer. “It was even more than we hoped for,” commented Neidhart.

Jocelyn Cambier is also bullish on specialty imports. A native of Brittany, France, and former Paris resident, he worked in this country as a sommelier and wine importer before branching into French microbrews. Cambier blind-tasted 100 of these beers before settling on 15 brands from seven breweries for his company J. Cambier Imports, Inc. in Great Falls, VA. They include Bière au Sapin from Brasserie Mandrin in Saint Martin d’Hères, an amber ale flavored with pine tree buds and needles from the Vercors and Chartreuse forests, and La Verte from Brasserie Mont Blanc in the foothills of the Alps. The latter is packaged in clear bottles to show off its pale green color—it has an anise-like flavor from an Alpine herb called Génépi, which is also used in various spirits like absinthe.

Since he started importing beer 13 months ago, Cambier has expanded his portfolio to 25 French beers along with 24 from French-speaking Quebec, Canada. He’s currently considering additions from Switzerland and the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, his selection of wines, though extensive, is pretty much static. “As of today, it’s way easier to sell beer than wine,” he asserts. “Wine has been overproduced for the last 10 years. Wine styles have been done and redone. There’s not much new going on.”

Belgian imports are reported to be down nearly 11 percent year-to-date, and there are some murmurings of a backlash against this Maryland-sized country with 10 million people and 120 breweries that has provided more inspiration to the U.S. craft beer movement than any other corner of the globe.

Has the saturation point been reached? Not with the good brewers,” insists Martin Wetten of Wetten Importers, Inc. in Sterling, VA. He specializes in beers from family-owned breweries that stretch back six generations or more. Among his latest acquisitions is Straffe Hendrik from the Halve Maan (“Half Moon”) brewery in Brugge. Wetten categorizes the beer as “a Brugge triple,” a near-extinct style that’s darker and maltier than the typical triple, and remarkably light on the palate for its 9 percent ABV alcohol content.

On Oct. 26, 2009, Wetten introduced (or reintroduced… the brand was made for 20 years by the now-defunct Riva brewery before the original family reacquired the rights) Straffe Hendrik at Belga Café in Washington, DC. Joining the festivity was restaurant owner and head chef Bart Vandaele, who had recently been made an honorary member of the Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mash Staff, a modern incarnation of a centuries-old Belgian beermakers’ guild. Also raising a goblet-shaped glass were Belgian Ambassador to the United States Jan Matthysen and his wife.

Obviously, Belgium takes the U.S. market very seriously.

How to Survive

No product is completely recession-proof. Importer Dan Shelton of Shelton Brothers in Belchertown, MA, reports that his sales have flattened somewhat in 2009, but he attributes this to distributors and chain stores getting cold feet and cutting back on products, not slackening consumer demand for the new and unusual.

We already buy 40 percent of their production and we could use a lot more,” Shelton says of Cantillon in Brussels, a tiny (annual production about 1,000 hectoliters) producer of uncompromisingly tart and funky lambic beers. Among their occasional offerings is Cantillon Saint Lamvinus, a beer fermented with cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux and other classic wine grapes that straddle the divide between two beverage worlds. Customers are happy to pay $30 a bottle or more, which prompts Shelton to reflect, “The high-end of beer is a bargain compared to the high-end of wine. Beer is an affordable luxury people want to keep in their lives.”

Shelton’s biggest beef is the registration fees that individual states impose on labels. “It costs $150 per label in the state of New York,” notes Shelton, who markets about 160 different brands there. “We have no idea how many of our beers will sell enough to justify the fees.”

The Cantillon brewery dates back to 1900, but Shelton Brothers carries the beers of some foreign microbreweries whose heritage dates back less than a decade. They include Nøgne Ø (“naked island”) in Grimstad, Norway. Its founder, Kjetil Jikiun, is an airline pilot whose job took him on frequent forays to the United States and its blossoming beer culture. (Larry Robinson, beer buyer for Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits in Washington, DC, recalls him as a tall, Nordic-looking fellow with a keen interest in craft beers.) Jikiun’s recent experiments include Red Horizon, a strong ale (in the neighborhood of 19 percent ABV!) fermented with a sake yeast and a Christmas beer aged in Islay whisky barrels. On his excursions abroad, he’s also done collaborative brews with the folks at Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, CA, and Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, MI.

Another of Shelton’s clients is Mikkeller in Copenhagen, Denmark, founded in 2006 by two young homebrewers who attended the University of Kansas together. The brewery’s moniker is an amalgam of the founders’ surnames. One of the partners, Kristian Klarup Keller, has since left to edit the music magazine Soundvenue, leaving Mikkel Borg Bjergsø to run the shop on his own.

Perhaps its most famous beer to date has been Beer Geek Brunch, an imperial oatmeal stout made with Kopi Luwak. The beans of this exotic coffee have passed through the digestive tract of an animal called the Asian palm civet, where enzymes reportedly break down the bittering compounds in the beans and enhance the flavor. This is probably the world’s only beer that can claim part of its raw material is filtered through a weasel.

Also brewing beers far from the norm is BrewDog of Fraserburgh, Scotland, a microbrewery that, according to its website, specializes in “beer for punks.” Its founders, James B. Watt and Martin Dickie, are reported to draw inspiration from American craft brewers like Dogfish Head, Stone, AleSmith and Three Floyds. One of their beers, an 18.2 percent ABV imperial stout named Tokyo and brewed with jasmine and cranberries, was banned in Britain because of its high alcohol content and a tongue-in-cheek label that reads, “Everything in moderation, including moderation itself. What logically follows is that you must, from time, have excess.”

The public outcry led BrewDog to release Nanny State, an “imperial mild” with an alcohol content of 1.1 percent by volume and an estimated 225 international bitterness units’ worth of hops. Those two aren’t available in the United States yet. But the brewery’s U.S. importer, Preiss Imports in Ramona, CA, has brought in BrewDog Atlantic IPA, a India pale ale that was aged for two months in the North Atlantic aboard Watt’s fishing boat in an attempt to replicate the long, bumpy sea voyage to India that the original IPAs would have endured.

Last November, BrewDog released its most extreme offering to date, an imperial stout called Tactical Nuclear Penguin that measures (so the brewery claims) in at 32 percent ABV, making it the world’s strongest commercial beer. The brewers used the eisbock method of freeze distillation to reach this level, chilling the beer down to -20 degrees for three weeks and removing the ice as it formed.

And so we’ve come full circle: The earliest American microbrews were inspired by German pilsners, English porters, Belgian fruit lambics and other styles that the brewers sampled on trips abroad or encountered here in the imports aisle. Now, a new crop of foreign microbreweries is taking its cue from the United States, giving American styles some unique twists and forging new ground.

The world is a global village, and its craft brewers are comrades in arms.