Beer sales are falling, disposable incomes are in peril and imported products are being lambasted for their carbon footprint. In theory, there has never been a less promising time to sell imported beers -
yet the sector is overflowing with confidence.
Why should this be? It's partly down to the fact that, as the world's mega-brewers have consolidated, space has opened up for a new generation of smaller producers who are reviving old styles and inventing fresh ones. These niche, premium products often represent the zenith of the brewer's art, but very few of them are anything like as expensive as, say, Blossom Hill.
"The customer base is far more knowledgeable about beer than wine customers are about wine," says Samantha Jackson, a director of Scatchards of Chester - named independent beer retailer of the year in the 2008 OLN Drinks Retailing Awards. "We have no trouble selling speciality beer. I've never had anyone say
'my god, look at those prices '. No matter how expensive a beer is it's not going to be as expensive as an expensive bottle of wine. It's always an affordable pleasure."
Ed Read, manager of Bacchanalia in Cambridge, agrees. "More customers are looking for really well-made beers. If they cost a couple of quid extra they don't mind."
Pierhead's director of imported beer, Michael Cook, adds: "I think people are still looking for new and different things. Our sales are up and there still seems to be interest. We're getting new customers all the time."
Some retailers who once prided themselves on having a pilsner from every outpost of the globe are now consolidating their ranges. "We did a lot of holiday lagers which was a lot of fun at first - people coming in for Efes from Turkey and Keo from Cyprus," says Jackson. "But at the end of the day there's not really anything about them. We just saw the market kind of trail off.
"Perhaps it's partly that Britain just doesn't have the weather to sustain them, and also people find they're not quite the same as they remembered them."
The Offie in Leicester has gone the same route, according to owner Muree Squires. "We used to keep all sorts of beers from all over the world but I don't bother now. If I found a beer from Indonesia I thought we would have some of that, but they're no great shakes so we stick to the traditional brewing nations."
Zak Avery, manager of Beer-Ritz in Leeds, welcomes the trend. "People are actually drinking beers from around the world and noticing what they taste like," he says.
"They are now
giving a little bit of thought to what they're drinking. I don't see that as a negative thing at all. If people are now rejecting 10 identikit 5% Eurofizz lagers in favour of one interesting beer, how can that be a bad thing?"
Premium British ales are performing well in multiples and independents alike. German and Belgian styles are also on a roll. "Belgium is quite a good example of a country where people know a few different beers," says Read. "You get people asking for Pauwel Kwak because it's got a funny glass, but deep down the beer is fairly mediocre - it's too sweet and the balance isn't great and there are a lot of beers that are better. There are beers that nobody has ever heard of with better quality."
How does Read source them? "I know quite a lot of beer suppliers and brewers, and the internet is a great tool," he says. "The punters also make suggestions and it's just a case of keeping your ear to the ground. If you don't do that you end up listening to the people who shout the loudest and have the best marketing. I've recently been to Holland to see a brewer called Molem, wh ich
is doing fantastic stuff trying to brew English porters and pale ales."
As, indeed, are the Americans. "It's been a long haul for American beers," says Ian Clay, managing director of importer James Clay. "There was initial consumer resistance because people couldn't believe there could be anything worth drinking from America - they thought it was a sterile product. As people experience the beers and the press talks about them they realise that they really do push the boundaries."
Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham's new Good Beer Guide
West Coast USA reports
1,400 craft brewers in
the States, with sales rising 11.7% in 2006.
"This volume and value is underpinned by unprecedented variety," they write. "The brewing masters of Europe may have provided instruction and inspiration, but in terms of choice the Americans knock contemporary European brewing into touch. They don't just push the envelope of innovation, they fold it into a paper airplane, attach two Harrier Jump Jet turbines to the wings and launch it to the heavens.
"Smoke-flavoured beers, herb and spice infused brews; American-style Hefeweizens; wood and barrel-aged beers; big and brash barley wines; pre-Prohibition lagers, honey beers and experimental ales brewed with pomegranate, coriander, beetroot and Kaffir lime leaves represent just a drop in America's bucket of brewing creativity."
Avery adds: "I honestly think that what's happening with imports from North America is going to be hugely significant, not just for the bottled beer scene, but for how brewers in the UK might seek to move forward.
"I do beer tastings and whenever we take a real classic English beer like Timothy Taylor's Landlord or Black Sheep
and then give people something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, everyone can see the relationship between the beers. The American beer is a bit like English beer, but a bit brasher and louder."
Former Safeway beer buyer Glenn Payne - now a consultant working with various US brewers - believes this may be changing. "American brewers have the reputation for taking it to extremes - more bitterness, hoppiness, extra alcohol - but they're coming round to the British way of thinking with excellently balanced beers," he says.
Even the big brewers
such as InBev and Anheuser-Busch have an interest in the speciality market. A-B has Harbin from China, Estrella Damm from Spain, and Michelob - which trades on its "craft" credentials.
"It's all very new and exciting to us and we have to have a different approach than with Budweiser," says brand manager James Whiteley. "We have gone for really pushing imported brands in on-premise, but then it's very quickly a case of not simply going to the big retailers but specialist off-licences and small retail groups. It's a new approach for us as a business.
"There's a story to be told about these brands, they're adding value to the category. We've just rolled out a national brand education training scheme across the business internally. Brewmasters have been touring the country to speak to our sales force.
"The biggest danger for this category is for people to fling out brands left right and centre simply because they exist in the world. We're seeing a lot of brands that are here one year and gone the next."
The category as a whole isn't in immediate danger of that. Consumers may be tiring of novelty lagers with less personality than their mainstream alternatives; but for retailers searching for beers with genuine provenance and flavour credentials, the world is at their feet.
How to specialise in speciality beer
Try to avoid simply stocking supermarket best-sellers. Ian Clay says: "Keep away from pilsners and what's in the supermarkets because you're always going to lose out in price terms. Choice and variety will always give you an advantage."
Don't crucify your margins. You can't beat supermarkets and consumers are happy to pay a premium for speciality products.
Consider themed displays. Michael Cook suggests: "Perhaps do a selection of South American beers and wines, or gear it around events that are going on. The Beijing Olympics is coming up so perhaps Chinese beer and wine."
Offer a beer of the month. You don't necessarily need to price-promote.
Develop an expertise in a particular country. Suppliers can help you get to grips with beers from Belgium, Germany, Poland or the States - and it can be rewarding and enjoyable to do your own research and track down lesser-known brands.
Don't spread your range too wide just for the sake of it. Ian Clay says: "Go for countries with a beer heritage, primarily northern hemisphere, and anything that's got a bit of a USP - some Third World ones for a bit of difference, things like Kenyan beer and Nigerian Guinness."
Surprise your customers. Muree Squires suggests: "We probably keep 30 -40% stock of old favourites and classics like Sam Smith's or Timothy Taylor Landlord. The other 60% I change around all the time.
What's selling best?
"We sell more domestic beer now. Everybody has
their own favourites. We've cut down on the world beers a little bit and just restricted it to a small selection, because people are going for Belgian, German and British beers."
Samantha Jackson, Scatchards of Chester
"Belgian beer has started to tail off a little bit. We're quite strong with Germany - I don't know why. We still stock more Belgian beer but it's the more obscure stuff - anything that's in the supermarkets we can't sell at all now. We don't sell Beck's or Stella, anything mainstream at all. It's affected the turnover a little bit, but not the profits."
Muree Squires, The Offie
"Belgium is still our strongest country for imports, followed by Germany and the US , which is growing probably the fastest."
Ian Clay, James Clay
"Coopers sparkling ale is doing the best
and we've just
brought in some South African fruit beers from Shongweni in Kwazulu-Natal made with strawberries, mangoes and pineapple, and there's a lot of interest in those. There's a lot of interest in South America - why, I'm not entirely certain. It could be because of the big promotions for Brahma. We have an ongoing demand for Quilmes, our Argentinian beer, and we're having a job to keep up with demand."
Michael Cook, Pierhead