Americans are relative newcomers to the world of good beer, but that’s not stopping them from making a name for themselves overseas.
Story by Ben Swenson
Virginia brands were well represented at this year’s Craft Beer Rising; The Virginia Beer Company and Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, as well as O’Connor and Smartmouth brewing companies were all there.
If you missed it in February, don’t feel bad; you’re probably not alone. That’s because the annual three-day, 155-brewery trade and consumer show is held in London. Just last month in that same city, O’Connor’s ODIS, a dry Irish stout, got a third-place nod in a U.S. cask beer category at the Great British Beer Festival.
Turns out American breweries are finding eager consumers on other continents. And states like Virginia – situated near the coast – are especially well-suited to export their beers.
The irony of Europe, with its centuries-old beer culture, turning to a scene in its relative infancy is not lost on American brewers. But according to Ted Horton, a United Kingdom-based liaison for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, British drinkers regard American breweries as high-quality and innovative, especially in the area of hoppy and citrusy beers.
“In the U.K., many older beer drinkers are stuck in their appreciation of easy drinking British session ales, typically cask beers,” he says. American craft beers “have captured the imagination of many beer lovers, particularly younger ones.”
The business of beer in Europe developed in the late 20th century in much the same manner as it did in the U.S. A handful of large players began to dominate the market, producing a limited number of generally unremarkable styles. Beer fans everywhere tired of the same old suds and became eager to drink full-flavored alternatives made with fresh ingredients, says Richard Miller, Hardywood’s vice president of sales and marketing.
In the past decade, exports of American craft beer have increased nearly eight-fold, from $9.4 million in 2009 to $74 million in 2018, according to statistics from the Brewers Association, the industry’s trade group. The latest figures are down from a peak of $125 million in 2017, but that decrease can be attributed to a maturing craft beer market, as breweries “have shifted production of certain beers to local markets in order to more effectively reach consumers abroad with as fresh a product as possible,” says Steve Parr, the association’s export development program manager.
Still, the trend is unmistakable, says Parr. A decade ago, there were fewer than 15 American craft brewers exporting beer. Today, more than 120 small and independent breweries send their products overseas.
The U.K. is the second largest importer of American craft beer after Canada, but foreign markets are not limited to our (mostly) English-speaking partners. Sizable amounts of American exports make their way to other European nations, as well as East Asia, Australia and South America. And while the largest craft brewers in the United States, including Sierra Nevada, Stone and Lagunitas brewing companies, are established in many of these foreign markets, regional breweries have a growing presence, too.
Chris Smith, co-founder of The Virginia Beer Company, says that the brewery has hosted international buyers three times and is currently shipping to Japan, the U.K., France and the Netherlands, where the importer ships beer across continental Europe.
Coelacanth Brewing ships to Europe, as does Hardywood, which also sends beers to Japan and South Korea, according to Miller. There’s also interest from partners in Spain, Thailand and Australia. The brewery has placed well at the Australian International Beer Awards – including gold medal and Major Trophy awards in 2017 – but that would be about as far as Hardywood would be willing to ship beer, Miller says.
Although exports make up a small amount of total volume a brewery produces – percentages hover in the low single digits – the practice nonetheless remains a nice complement to the bulk of their business.
Brewers’ efforts to cultivate foreign markets receive assistance from numerous economic development groups. Locally, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as well as the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, connect brewers with the resources they need to effectively export their products. Nationally, the Brewers Association Export Development Program, which receives funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, facilitates the export of beer overseas.
That assistance is critical because it affords independent brewers opportunities they’re generally too small to tackle on their own. The Export Development Program, for instance, recently helped The Virginia Beer Company send beer to competitions in Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Australia and Chile.
Although that help is appreciated, shipping large quantities is not the hardest part of exporting beer, especially for a coastal brewery, according to Miller. “It’s actually easier for us to send our beer to Europe than it would be to truck it to California,” Miller says of Hardywood brews. “Trucking costs are exorbitant.”
Regulatory hurdles are the big headache. They vary by country and are very specific for alcoholic beverages. What might be required on a label in one country, such as allergen warnings or average number of drinks per can, might be different in another country. Customs paperwork needs to be error-free, and an innocent oversight, such as including a little bit of branded swag with the beer, can delay a shipment.
Maintaining the cold chain is also a top priority among brewers. Having beer that is shipped, stored and served without ever becoming warm is critical to keep a fresh flavor profile, says Smith.
Despite the challenges, foreign business is booming, and American brewers remain optimistic that growth will continue overseas because there are devout importers and distributors around the world they can trust to look after their beer once it leaves their hands.
“We want our beers to be respected in any place that people drink great beer,” Miller says. “The most important thing is having partners who share the same passion for taking care of it.”