Once upon a time, imports were the envy of the beer industry. They had it all: prestige, taste, elegance and mystique. For consumers, an import was a symbol of sophistication; it showed that you weren’t afraid to spend the extra money for quality. Then, the combination of the down economy and the unstoppable growth of American craft beers ended the fairy tale. Imports lost their luster; sales stagnated so significantly that category growth was down 9.8% in 2009, according to figures from the Beer Institute.
Well, that’s not the end of the story. Settle in and get ready to read the next chapter. Imports are getting their groove back: Sales are on the upswing, and growth is flowing from a tap.
Pouring import draft beers properly matters, something bartenders at places like Theory in Chicago know boosts sales.
A New Focus
Without a doubt, the major import brands increasingly are focusing their attention on draft. Heineken USA, for example, is putting out four seasonal releases of Newcastle draft and running Amstel Wheat on tap in select test markets. Such moves are welcomed by bar operators in tune with beer trends. Peter Killen, owner of Irish pub The Local in Minneapolis, says, “In general, imports do very well for us. They have a loyal following and really fit in with our concept. It’s interesting — all these European imports are responding to what’s going on in craft. We’re one of the test markets for the new wheat beer coming out from Amstel.”
One of the biggest recent import launches is Heineken Lager on draft.
“Based on current market conditions and trends, we felt this was the right time to grow the world’s No. 1 premium draft beer here in the U.S.,” comments Heineken USA Director of On-Premise and Draught Strategy Trade Marketing Patrick Libonate. “We tested Heineken draft in three markets in 2010 [New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago] and saw positive results that bottle and draft can successfully coexist.”
“In Europe, Heineken on draft is huge, and it was about time to do it here. We just put it on at three of our four [Minnesota] locations,” Killen says.
Each location goes through about three to four kegs of Heineken Lager on draft per week, according to Killen.
“I only see it continuing to grow,” he says. “The biggest challenge we had was to get customers to try it, but once they do, they love it. We have converted a lot of Stella drinkers over to Heineken draft. I was nervous at first as I thought it would be a ‘flash in the pan,’ but Heineken seems to be very focused on making this a core draft selection; they seem to be in it for the long haul. From a business standpoint, I Iike it, too, because it’s considerably less expensive per keg than other leading import drafts.”
Belgium Sets the Bar
One thing is certain: Belgian beers are hot, and perennial favorite Stella Artois is leading the pack. The beer known for its sleek chalice has done phenomenally well for the past few years and only continues to grow. Kip Snider, beverage director for the Irvine, Calif.-based Yard House chain, which serves all of its beers on tap, remarks that although Stella is the No. 4 beer companywide, Belgians are big all around: “Imports have always done really well for us. Some of the Belgian styles from Europe are on fire. You used to see five or six Belgians [on the market], but now there are hundreds — they’re the hottest thing in imports.”
Among popular styles are Trappists, fruit lambics, tripels, whites and saisons.
South of the Border
Overseas imports aren’t the only ones getting busy: Although Mexican beers traditionally are sold in bottles, more and more of them are expanding to draft as well. John Utter, senior vice president of on-premise for Crown Imports, notes, “The fact that up until 2008, we were strictly a bottle-and-can organization and less than three years later we now have four draft brands in our portfolio, exhibits our increased focus on draft.”
Additionally, Crown Imports, which counts Negra Modelo, Pacifico and Victoria among its imports available on tap, implements comprehensive on-premise server training/education programs.
Heineken USA also is placing a strong emphasis on its Mexican beer, Dos Equis. “Dos Equis is one of the hottest import brands in the country that has produced some great results in the first six months of the year, and we continue to see opportunity to grow, especially with Dos Equis Lager, which is a fantastic liquid in draft format,” Libonate says.
A Little Luxury
Times are still tough, but people are growing weary of never-ending budget-tightening and are on the lookout for inexpensive ways to treat themselves. Adam Oakley, director of import brands for Anheuser-Busch, which carries Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe, says, “As some consumers have cut back on avoidable expenses, people still are looking for small ways to indulge affordably. That is exactly what beer offers, especially imports. When the beer’s taste, heritage and glassware come together perfectly, it is an eye-opening experience for consumers.”
Of course, there’s always the cachet factor. “A true import/craft beer drinker isn’t necessarily looking for a cheap pint,” Utter says. “Most consumers expect to pay more for an imported draft beer because of the quality of the beer.”
Snider from Yard House observes that despite the economy, curiosity reigns among beer drinkers. “Right now people are stepping outside of the box; they’re willing to pay a little more to try new things.”
Beyond the Basics
In addition to tapping into draft renditions of powerhouse imports, bar owners and operators should consider offering some of the more esoteric, craft-styled imports that appeal to the American craft enthusiast.
Sarah Herles, general manager at Marikka’s Restaurant and Bier Stube in Lexington, Ky., says, “Customers at Marikka’s are offered a wider array of styles on draft, allowing each individual the opportunity to experience different types of beer at a better value. With daily draft specials and an extensive beer menu, customers may be more apt to try a higher-quality beer than they normally would, in part because we can offer better beer at a reasonable price.”
Better can be Cheaper
Customers love getting a good deal. Sure, $2 domestic drafts are great, but an import on special can be uniquely enticing.
“Marikka’s always offers monthly pitcher specials on three or more import drafts,” Herles says. “Normal prices on import draft pitchers [60 ounces] are $15, and our pitcher specials range between $8 and $10. By regularly varying the styles and types of import draft specials, we can offer an opportunity for patrons to experience beers that they might not normally try.”
Happy hours are another great way to attract customers. “The biggest opportunity to reach new drinkers is when people are sampling during our daily happy hours and the prices drop down,” Snider says. “We also have a reverse happy hour from 10 p.m. to close Sundays through Thursdays.”
Bottle vs. Draft
Of course, draft isn’t for everyone, which begs the question: How do you woo a bottle drinker to buy an import on tap? Utter has the answer: “Informing the diehard bottle fan that light never penetrates the keg and delivers a freshness story compared to a bottle of beer that is hit by ultraviolet light constantly. More liquid for your dollar and the presentation of a well-poured draft into an attractive glass have merit, as well.”
A Glass Act
The standard pint glass of yesteryear is a thing of the past. From goblets to chalices to imperial pints, the vessel in which a beer is served is almost as important as the liquid itself.
“In Belgium, beers are served in their own unique glass designed to highlight the beer’s special flavor, and Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe are no exception,” Oakley says. “Ensuring each beer’s unique glassware is available and bar staff are trained on the proper pouring techniques are two main focuses for our import portfolio. When a consumer is served a Stella Artois in the Chalice, other consumers take notice. We’ve heard this directly from retailers. When retailers switch from serving Stella Artois in pint glasses to the Chalice, they see an immediate lift in volume.”
Chris Myers won the Stella Artois World Draught Master contest in 2010.
With the exception of Guinness, pouring a draft beer used to be a one-step process. These days, it’s been elevated to an art form. Heineken’s Passion for Beer initiative focuses on proper pour techniques (see “Passion Play” sidebar). For its part, Stella Artois encourages bartenders to implement its 9-Step Belgian Pouring Ritual and holds an annual contest during which consumers compete in a “pour off” for the title of “World Draught Master” and a year-long stint as a brand ambassador.
In a gloomy economy, imports on tap can provide a ray of sunshine to brighten your bar program. Not only are they profitable, rich in history and full of flavor, they offer customers an affordable way to indulge. NCB
In conjunction with the release of Heineken on tap, Heineken USA (HUSA) launched its comprehensive Passion 4 Beer (P4B) educational program. HUSA Director of On-Premise and Draught Strategy Trade Marketing Patrick Libonate explains the concept: “We instituted the Passion 4 Beer program first to educate our entire company on core fundamentals of general beer knowledge that included courses on the history of beer, brewing and ingredients, tasting and describing and pouring and presentation. We brought over brewmasters and sensory experts from our breweries in Holland, United Kingdom and Mexico to act as professors for our courses. These experts also took us specifically through the brewing, tasting and serving of HUSA’s beers so that we can better market and sell our world-class brands as a liquid and not just a case on a pallet. Every employee in our company was required to complete the training and received a P4B certification upon completion. The program was met with such great enthusiasm that we recently took it on the road to 11 markets, where we presented P4B to our distributor partners and key retailers, and again the positive feedback was overwhelming. The P4B platform is certainly something that Heineken USA will continue to expand on as we move forward in the years to come.”