Despite the many obstacles faced by legacy import brands in recent years, beer marketers and retailers are hopeful that post-pandemic conditions and better, more targeted campaigns will bring improvement. The easing of supply-chain constraints, return to growth in the on-premise, and an increasingly knowledgeable beer consumer all bode well for imports from countries including Germany, Belgium, Italy, and China.
European beer imports have been hampered in recent years due to a myriad of challenges including Covid-19, supply-chain logistics, and inflation. But the most important factor of all has been the ongoing rise of Mexican beers and American craft brews. According to the Beer Institute, imported beer volume from Canada, Germany, Belgium, and Italy had all fallen in 2022, while Mexican beer—which accounts for the lion’s share of the import category—continued to grow at a high single-digit rate. Imports from Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands also posted growth during the period.
Ferdinand Sneed, beer buyer at Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, Ohio, says the pandemic and resulting supply issues have forced beer distributors to cut back on their import offerings. “My biggest problem is that I can’t get the variety I once had,” Sneed says, pointing to more than a dozen beers from Belgium and Germany that are no longer available. Brian Ingram, owner of the Gnome Craft Pub in St. Paul, Minnesota, which offers brands from Belgium and Germany among its 68 draft brews, says limited supply has been a concern. “There were times when my distributors could only provide one or two kegs of a product, not the several that I wanted,” he notes, though adding that by late 2022 the situation had improved.
At least one marketer expresses concern that non-Mexican imports are being adversely impacted by changing consumer demographics. “There’s a new generation of millennial and Gen Z consumers who don’t have the same enthusiasm for craft beers and high-end imports as previous generations,” says Matthias Neidhart, owner of B. United International. Pointing to the growing popularity of spirits, wine, and canned cocktails among these consumers, Neidhart adds that he’s skeptical that some boutique imports will find sustainable demand. Even within his own portfolio, he concedes, “we had to pivot because demand had fallen off and eliminate some products.”
U.S. craft beers, meanwhile, have served as a double-edged sword for many imports. “Imports owe a debt of gratitude to crafts,” says Steve Hauser, CEO of Paulaner USA, which imports Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr from Germany, Tsingtao from China, and Fuller’s from England. “They opened up consumers’ minds to new styles.” But as craft beer grew, so too did the competition between crafts and imports. At New York’s Half Time Beverage stores, director of purchasing Adam Wolloch says today’s beer drinker often starts out with hazy IPAs, pastry stouts, and heavily fruited sour beers from local craft breweries, rather than pale ales, lagers, and classic Trappist beers as in the past. Imports at Half Time’s two locations are generally priced between $8 and $38 a 4- or 6-pack of cans or bottles.
Tradition And Quality
German beers traditionally have been heralded as the standard bearer of quality among imports, steeped in tradition and often following strict ingredient requirements. But Hauser believes the segment’s devotion to tradition may be inhibiting growth. He points to marketing cues that frequently associate German imports with beer gardens. “We have to emphasize the liquid in the container in a relevant way,” he says, noting that Paulaner is now promoted as a beer not just to be enjoyed in a beer garden but when grilling too. Hauser adds that the brand had just embarked on an off-premise expansion campaign prior to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a move that proved beneficial. Paulaner—which now boasts grapefruit radler and pilsener expressions—is stocked in 1,000 Walmarts around the country, Hauser says.
At B. United, Reissdorf Kolsch from Cologne is also defying German beer trends, Neidhart says. Imported by the Connecticut-based company for more than 20 years, Reissdorf, which is packaged in 4-packs of 16-ounce cans, has registered growth every year. Chains now offering the brew include Total Wine & More and Whole Foods.
Volume-wise, Belgian imports have suffered lately, with shipments down a whopping 83% in 2022, according to the Beer Institute. Much of that loss can be attributed to Anheuser-Busch InBev’s (A-B InBev) move late in 2021 to shift production of Stella Artois to the U.S. According to an A-B InBev executive, the 2021 decision was made, in part, because of “the instability of the international supply chain,” and would ensure that U.S. consumers could find the popular Belgian brew on store shelves.
Beer retailers are split on the prospects for Belgian beers. Considered a legendary category by some, Half Time’s Wolloch says that high-end Belgian brews are often pricey and carry a high abv. “They’re not something most consumers would consider to be an everyday drink,” he argues. Decatur, Georgia’s Brick Store Pub, meanwhile, serves up Belgian beers on tap ($5 a 6-ounce pour-$14 a 13-ounce pour) and stocks hundreds of Belgian brews in bottles ($7 a 330-ml.-$300 a 6-liter). Neil Callaghan, beer director for the Brick Store Pub unit in Decatur, Georgia, says, “Demand for Belgian beer has been phenomenal,” adding that guests are enamored with the stories behind the brews. “In a market that seems to constantly be chasing the next hot thing, there will always be an audience for a beer made in the same traditional method, in the same brewhouse, for hundreds of years.”
Similar to Germany’s Paulaner, Peroni—imported from Italy by Molson Coors Beverage Co.—is moving beyond traditional targets. “Our focus isn’t necessarily on Italian restaurant accounts, but trendy new and growing accounts, such as hotels and rooftop bars,” says senior marketing manager Cara Lauritzen, noting that the brand over-indexes in bars and restaurants as compared to off-premise. Peroni’s on-premise support includes the “apertivo hour” campaign, in which the brand is incorporated into cocktails such as the Peroni Negroni, which features the beer with bitter Italian aperitif, gin, and sweet vermouth, served over ice with an orange twist. Brand ambassadors have also contributed to the brand’s on-premise success, Lauritzen adds, with samplings, giveaways, and events. But off-premise expansion for Peroni is planned this year with the introduction of Peroni Nastro Azzurro 0.0 in major metro markets.
Beyond European imports, beers from Asia have long been marketed in the U.S., and they too were impacted by the pandemic and subsequent supply-chain challenges. Paulaner USA has imported Tsingtao from China since 2021, and according to Hauser, surging freight costs due to the pandemic resulted in a limited supply reaching the U.S. By 2022, supply had opened up, he says. While Tsingtao’s key markets are New York and the West Coast, the brand is a staple on the P.F. Chang’s beer list and was featured earlier this year at Whole Foods as part of its Lunar New Year promotion.
Japanese imports, meanwhile, have been surging, with volume up 38% in 2022. Hitachino Nest white ale, imported by B. United, is doing extremely well, according to Neidhart, as the Japanese craft beer is increasingly promoted as the ideal accompaniment to Asian cuisine, ranging from sushi to kimchi to ramen. “It’s a different world of flavors today, and Hitachino is a good match,” he says.
With the return to “comfort” foods and drinks in the wake of the pandemic, beer retailers say they too have seen increased interest in classic imports. “We’ve seen a movement from hyper-local crafts to international beers and larger national crafts,” says Ingram of Gnome Craft Pub, where 16-ounce pours of German and Belgian brews are generally priced at $7. “We sell tons of Paulaner because there’s a familiarity,” he says. Half Time Beverage’s Wolloch agrees. “People are going back to easy-drinking, no-frills styles,” he adds.
The retail environment can also go a long way in building import sales. Brick Store Pub, for example, features both a Belgian beer bar and a cask ale bar. “The pull through for brands like St. Bernardus Abt 12 ($5 a 6-ounce pour) is helped immensely by enjoying them in a Belgian-themed setting,” says Callaghan. Jungle Jim’s international focus is also an asset for the beer department, Sneed says, with brews hailing not only from Europe, but Lebanon, Argentina, and Nicaragua. “If I could expand the selection, I would,” he says, noting that the stores’ sales staff is knowledgeable and willing to help customers find the products they’re looking for. Imports at the Ohio stores are generally priced at $11-$15 a 6-pack of cans or bottles.
Despite the challenges, future prospects for imported beer look good, marketers and retailers say. “There’s an ebb and flow to market trends in beer, as in any other market,” notes Wolloch. “As things come full circle, we’ll continue to see a lot of people returning to the more accessible, cost effective, and drinkable options that a lot of the import brands offer.”