Craft beer puts US on the map?

22 January, 2010

Having now got a decade of experience under my belt, I feel I can safely say I know a bit about retailing speciality beers. And if this past Christmas is anything to go by, it’s safe to say the beer drinkers of Leeds have finally got their heads around the idea of buying speciality beers. I can stratify our customers broadly into three beer-centric groups; stalwarts, enthusiasts and geeks.

The stalwarts don’t tell us anything about emerging trends in the global speciality beer market. We see them a few times a year, buying good English ale as a gift for a relative. They look at deliciously malty and strong Belgian Christmas beers in the same way? they might look at a roasted dog served up for Christmas lunch. To them, it’s just plain wrong.

The enthusiasts can give us a really clear picture of where the market is currently, and what is likely to sell well and keep selling well over the next few years. These people aren’t early adopters, but are broad minded and interested in trying new things.

If those new things happen to be tasty beers, so much the better.

The geeks are a bit of a nightmare. They are mostly interested in trying only rare and unusual beers. The great news for retailers is that these beers are usually fairly expensive. The bad news is the geeks will only buy a few bottles before moving on to something even more rare and unusual.

Emerging and established trends?Ten years ago Belgian beer was seen as an emerging trend in world beer. It’s hard to deny that today it’s firmly established both in the commodity and specialist markets. Not only do supermarkets sell the bigger brands (mainly Leffe, Hoegaarden and Duvel), but some also stock own-label interpretations of these – and if that’s not a sign of an established trend, I don’t know my ear from my eyehole.

Returning to our enthusiasts, these are the people who have made Belgian beers into bestselling brands, and crucially, kept them there. The question now is what new beers the enthusiasts are picking up on, and what the next big thing will be. The answer to both these questions is easy: US craft beer.

Over the past couple of years, the rise in US craft beers has been spectacular. There are a few brands that have become so widely distributed as to be? almost ubiquitous, and they have found favour across a wide cross-section of drinkers – most notably beers from Sierra Nevada and the Brooklyn Brewery.

Steve Holt of

Vertical Drinks, UK importer for Sierra Nevada, confirms sales growth for these beers (most notably its pale ale) has been phenomenal.

“Sales have doubled each year for the past three years. There was a bit of a dip when the pound was weak against the dollar, but it seems consumers aren’t put off paying a premium for quality products,” he says.

“Consumers have continued to buy despite price increases. More generally, I believe consumers are becoming more knowledgeable and are prepared to pay a premium for authentic products.”?These sentiments are echoed by Andrew Asquith of James Clay?, who also imports a number of stateside offerings. “American craft beer is going from strength to strength. Anchor, Brooklyn and Goose Island are all selling very well, showing good growth in a tricky year.

“German wheat beers have also shown impressive growth?.

People are still coming to us looking for interesting world beers, rather than us chas?ing business. It’s clear consumers are responding to the appeal of well-made, quality craft beers, drinking less but better.”?No compromises?Authenticity is a keyword for these beers. While Sierra Nevada has a colossal output, it has never compromised on the quality and flavour of its beers.

Not only that, but its ethos is to eventually become self-sufficient for energy production – it already produces around 90% of its own electricity and captures the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation, rather than allowing it to contribute to global warming. Although these are incidentals to its great-tasting beer, they are all part of the story that consumers buy into.

The notion of authenticity may be challenged by rumours that one of the most respected US craft breweries, Stone Brewing, is thinking about setting up a brewery in Europe. Clearly, Stone sees the British and European markets as fertile ground (probably correctly), but it remains to be seen if the consumer will buy into US beers brewed in Europe.

But let’s face it, that sort of pioneering spirit hasn’t done Scottish brewery Brewdog any harm – it is currently building an empire on US craft-styled beers brewed in deepest Aberdeenshire.

That’s not to say that the Yanks are having all the luck.

German potential?“There’s a lot of interest across the board generally in quality beer, with some European styles still waiting to have their day,” says Holt. “German beers still have potential for growth, with more German breweries now looking to export. That wasn’t the case a few years ago, and their willingness to export means we are seeing more good-quality smaller brands appearing in the UK.”?Asquith confirms this: “German wheat beer has also shown growth, and we are still optimistic that it has mileage to improve further.”?Holt also sees a synergy between Belgian and US markets: “US craft brewing has had a huge global influence. This has filtered back and started to influence some Belgian brewers, although this is still quite niche.

“It’s also exciting to see collaborations between US brewers and their counterparts across the world.” Something for the geeks there, perhaps.

Clearly, it’s no longer enough to stock a few European brands and try to call yourself a specialist. Importers are bringing them into the country, and consumers want to drink them. As a retailer, it would be folly not to take advantage?.




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