Monday, September 14, 2009

U.S. drinkers continue to walk away from import beers

Reported in Beer Business Daily on Friday:
Things just don't seem to be getting any better for our imported beer shipments. Beer Institute released figures yesterday indicating that imported beer shipments were down another 8.1% in July, bringing year-to-date import shipments down 9.3%, or a loss of about 160,000 case equivs a day. There was some hope among import suppliers that sales would start to rebound toward the end of summer, but that just hasn't happened. In fact, anecdotally, distributors are telling us that the big imports are continuing to show steep declines in many big markets.
Losses are across the board: Mexican imports were down 4.7% in July, and YTD down nearly 3%. Netherlands down 14% year-to-date, while Canadian shipments off 22%, German shipments down 10%, Italy down 3%, and Belgian shipments off 11%. [Not Stella, BTW: Stella claims its U.S. sales are up 14%. -- Lew]
What's this mean? Well, imports -- which are almost all light lagers -- are pricier than comparable domestic beers because of shipping and the weak dollar. Craft beer's increases are thought to be coming largely out of imports' lost sales.

And, as former Capital Brewing prez Tom Fuchs told me in an interview back some years ago, "One of these days, the American import drinker is going to realize he's been sold a mule in racing silks." The big-selling imported lagers aren't bad beers, not compared to similar American light lagers. But they aren't better, either; in fact, they're not even significantly different (with the exception of Heineken, which is, these days, all-malt. Actually, so is Michelob, so never mind).

When money's tight -- mentally, even if there's no difference in your particular wallet, everyone is thinking tight -- you look at the relative value and think, why am I paying more for this? And, increasingly, people aren't, apparently. If this keeps up, it will represent a major shift in American beer-buying, one which will not be easily reversed. It also represents a major opportunity for craft beer, which is, of course, significantly different from mainstream light lagers.

20 comments:

Bryce said...

There are some decent imports out there but for every style it seems that there is a superior US craft beer available. I'm sure that that has more do with what's imported than the quality of brewing overseas. Beers tend to have to be watered down and made completely inoffensive - read flavorless - before the money will come for increased marketing and distribution.

Anonymous said...

I see this more as a sign that the Amstel Drinkers of 2007 have become the Bud Light Drinkers of 2009.

In reality Bud Light has much more in common with Amstel than Amstel does with a Russian Imperial Stout. Still, Craft beer needs to aggressively brew/market all malt, Pilsner style beers if they want to compete with the imports and domestics that are most popular.

We beer geeks sometimes forget that Pilsner-esque beers have been the most lucrative and popular beers for well over a century. Unless these bubbly yellow things stop tasting great with everything the trend will continue.

Lew Bryson said...

What BBD is talking about -- and so am I -- is the big lager imports: Corona, Heineken, Molson/Labatt, Beck's, St. Pauli, and suchlike. Not sure how the likes of Guinness and Newcastle are doing, and the 'specialty' imports have never had a budget to speak of for marketing.

But I didn't mean for any of what I talked about here to apply to specialty imports that go head-to-head with craft types, because I think the market forces that apply there -- other than currency exchange -- are completely different.

Stephen Beaumont said...

I've got to wonder about InBud's claim about Stella, assuming, of course, that the BI's numbers concerning Belgian beer imports are correct. Because the vast majority of Belgian beer imported to the US has to be Stella, meaning that if sales of it are indeed up, then sales of everything else would have to be way down.

Even if Stella only accounted for 50% of Belgian beer sales in the US, and I'd bet it's much more, that would mean all other Belgian beers are down 30%! For me, that simply doesn't compute.

Lew Bryson said...

I don't think so on the Amstel/Bud exchange. The person who's drinking Amstel -- or any of the imported light lagers -- is often what marketers call an 'aspirational drinker.' They're drinking the brand because it sets them apart, and the higher price only reinforces that. Bud Light doesn't set anyone apart. Drinking a craft beer that's a different color clearly sets you apart...and they may find out they actually like the flavor. Some people really do drink more expensive beer just because it costs more, studies have proved this over and over.

As for pilsneresque beers, I think there's an equal or bigger shot for kölschesque and hellesesque beers. I think there's a huge opportunity for craft brewers there.

Lew Bryson said...

Indeed, Stephen; hence the word 'claims.' Seems weird to me, too.

Bryce said...

True, Lew. Sometimes I have trouble crawling out of my beer geek mentality.

JP said...

bagreed would like to see this as well a push towards lagers like pils and helles koelsch and such would be a welcome respite from all the extrmeme beer jazz. Tuffer then it sounds though it is harder to standout in the crowd as not easy to give individual charecter to more dielicate beer without messing up the balance.

Lew Bryson said...

JP, I think you'd have to aim at a completely different audience, much like Full Sail did with Session Lager.

jp said...

I am definitely part of that target group that is, old timers who conk out after a couple of those monsters they are brewing nowadays

sam k said...

I love the "mule in racing silks" take. It's what I've thought for damn near ever.

Corona or Genesee? I'll take the Genny every time.

Anonymous said...

why someone would drink a big name import lager over a brooklyn lager or sam adams lager baffles me .

Anonymous said...

How about Pabsts Blue Ribbon or Keystone Light for that matter and this is going to kill me to say Lionshead might be the best beer for the money in the entire state,its a shame the rest of their beer all taste the same..Its the recession and people on their extended unemployment benefits who are going for the cheaper beers and are putting the imports down.A one percentage drop in imports would equate to an additional 355,000 case increase in keystone,natty,and highlife on the books in Penna..

Steven said...

Funny headline to see the day after I treated myself and bought 5 .5l imports yesterday. No, not Corona, Heineken, or Molson.

To Bryce's comment about superior US craft beer counterparts to imported styles, I'd agree -- right up to Oktoberfest Märzen. I've yet to find a micro that has matched the rich maltiness produced by the Bavarian breweries. Yes, even from Mr. Fuch's brewery. They're good, but they fall short in my eyes.

Lew Bryson said...

And helles. That seems to be a problem, too.

Steven said...

"And helles."

I think they suffer from the same troubles as American Oktoberfest -- different malts and no decoction mashing.

Hops in Pilsners and alcohol in Bocks hide the same fault, but mask it with pleasant alternatives.

Richard said...

Steven, you need to try Victory's Braumeister series of varietal, keller pilsners. Brewed with whole flower German hops by a brewery dedicated to true flavorful German beers. Just recently on tap was Hersbrucker Hop pilsner....unusually fruity and chewie brew. My favorite Tetnang-Tetnang is now in the house....spicy with that lovely bone-dry finish. Hope you have an opportunity to give them a try.

Steven said...

"you need to try Victory's Braumeister series of varietal, keller pilsners"

I wish I could, but Victory only distributes their every-day beers to the Midwest.

I have had their Maibock, and while good -- it still didn't carry that malt richness I always (until recently) found in the Bavarian beers.

I note that your description focuses on the Victory hop character too, something I addressed above in that the hop character of American Pils' never seems to suffer, but the malt character always comes out more grainy or nutty, not sweet and bread-crusty like the Bavarian brands.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Fuchs, imports were a nice change vs. domestic beers 15-20 years ago, but many american beers are better and a better value in my opinion. Beers like Yuengling, Saranac are better and cheaper and a lot of craft beers are similarly priced but a superior product in terms of look, body, taste etc.

Harry said...

I'm late to the conversation, but regarding Belgian import shipments being down, remember that it's just one month, and shipments come over the sea and are given to wild shifts in warehouse inventory. YTD Belgian imports are still up. Stella is slowing down, but still doing very well, even when most draft beers are dying on the vine as on-premise sales dry up.