Beyond the pond

Anthony Gladman examines the challenge facing UK breweries breaking into the US


Culture is a conversation. The exchange of ideas is how we progress in any human endeavour. This is true whether the conversation is one between individuals or one between nations. Britain and the USA, for example, have a long history of talking to each other across the Atlantic ocean. Look at music: America sent us the blues, went sent them the Beatles. Look at cinema: we sent them Bond they sent back Bourne. Look at beer. If beer is a culture, then beer is also a conversation.

American beer defines the craft beer movement, but dig down to its deepest roots and you’ll find it’s based on classic British brews. Bitters, pale ales and IPAs were playing on a new breed of American brewers’ minds back in the 1980s and ‘90s when craft kicked off stateside.

Today’s brewers head to the USA to keep on top of what’s now and what’s next in beer. Jamie Delap, managing director of Fyne Ales, has travelled from Argyll to the USA every year since he took over the brewery back in 2009. “It was always pretty obvious to me that America was the centre of the global craft beer industry. It’s where the most interesting and biggest strides in craft beer were being made. So I’ve been going over at least once a year if not twice to understand the market over there and learn what was going on.”

What’s going on, of course, is that America is awash with amazing beer. And this is driving the emergence of drinkers for whom craft beer is more than a liquid, it’s an identity. “The market out there is a bit different in terms of what people want and what they’re willing to do to get hold of it,” says Tom Hutchings, co-founder of Brew by Numbers. “I think there’s definitely a thing in America where if you’re into something, you’re one hundred percent into it. So, if you’re into beer, you make pilgrimages to your favourite breweries, and that could be a five or six-hour road trip somewhere like Hill Farmstead or Treehouse. That doesn’t really happen so much in the UK.”

Against this backdrop, how are British brewers holding their own in this brewing conversation? Exporting to the USA isn’t easy. The market is so huge, it’s next to impossible for any beer sent over to be more than a drip in the firkin. In 2017, imported beer accounted for 17.5% of total beer sales in the USA according to figures from the Brewers Association. That’s $36 billion. Yes, billion. In the same year, the UK’s beer exports to the USA were worth $180 million. Yes, million. That’s an order of magnitude smaller.

Plus, there’s the three-tier system to contend with. For those who aren’t au fait with obscure commercial legislation from another nation, these laws are a hangover from prohibition designed to separate the people producing booze from the people selling it, presumably for the benefit of the people drinking it. Brewers have to sell to distributors who then sell the beer on to shops and bars.

If you’re outside the USA, you have to appoint an importer, who then occupies the same spot in this arrangement as a local US brewer. The importer brings over a few beers and sells them on to a distributor, who also works with local brewers to sell their beers. Suddenly, brewers flinging suds across the ocean find their beers are just one among literally hundreds on John Q. Distributor’s list. How likely is it then that he will even mention theirs while making his rounds of the outlets, let alone talk about with enough knowledge and passion to get it picked up and sold in Bubba’s Bar?

Well, one way is to go all-in and build yourself a brewery out there. BrewDog is doing this and chasing the big money, but whether this will work seems hard to say. Back in 2016, when the company sought $50 million via crowdfunding, it raised just $7 million. The brand’s positioning seemed a decade out of date compared to the USA’s market. And conventional beer geek wisdom said Punk IPA was a rather average offering compared to the competition; why would anyone choose it over a more interesting, local beer? Yet as we head into 2019, the company has built its brewery in Ohio and is flying fans out there in BrewDog branded jets, so something must be working.

Canny brands play the three-tier system, by putting sales people in place to engage outlets directly and create demand from the ground up. Essentially, they pull beer through the system from the bottom rather than pushing it through from the top. No doubt BrewDog is working on this model too.

Some breweries, especially those with existing infrastructure, are able to adopt a more easygoing attitude to sending beers abroad. Timothy Taylor is one such. Bottles of its Landlord sell well in the USA, thanks to its reputation as one of the beers that inspired the first craft brewers. With distributors and sales agents already in place, Timothy Taylor’s exports flow smoothly down existing channels. The brewery can meet natural demand where it exists without having to work too hard. The Landlord exported to the USA is the same beer sold at home in the UK, just with a different label. “That natural demand is totally inconsequential to the fortunes of our business,” says Tim Dewey, CEO. “If it stopped tomorrow, we wouldn’t really even notice it. But it’s silly to say no to it if there are people who want to get hold of it.”

Of course Landlord is better known as a cask ale, and what could be more quintessentially British than that? While many Americans would love to see Landlord on cask, Dewey says there’s little chance of it happening any time soon. The shelf life of a cask of Landlord – around eight weeks – is too short, and its secondary fermentation is too vigorous for it to survive the Atlantic crossing in good condition.

The challenges involved with sending cask ale to the states are considerable, but not everybody thinks they are unsurmountable. Most of the beer Fyne Ales sends over to the USA is cask ale. The brewery has faced similar problems to Timothy Taylor and yet has decided to go ahead with exporting. “We know our beers,” says Delap. “We leave enough residual fermentable sugars in the cask and make sure they are all going to condition up well. We know they’ll drop bright reasonably quickly even after a journey like that.”

Cask ale isn’t finished once it passes out through the brewery gates. It relies on skilled publicans and proper cellaring to coax it into peak condition. Delap concedes that this part of the equation is lacking in the USA. “I don’t think you could compare it to how a really good real ale pub would look after the beer over here. I don’t think for a second that they’re being looked after with the same level of skill.”

But Fyne Ales has found this is mitigated by American drinkers’ greater tolerance for a bit of haze in their glass, and their enthusiasm for draining the cask once it’s been tapped. “A lot of places are putting the beer on as a bit of an event and are expecting to drink the whole lot in one night,” says Delap. “As soon as they put it on, they know they’ve got a dozen people who are going to sit beside the bar and drink it until it’s gone, and that’s the way we like it.”

For smaller breweries like Fyne Ales, fame and riches aren’t the focus. The market is just too big for them to take on, but it does offer other benefits nonetheless. “We’re realistic,” says Delap. “It wasn’t ever like we ever saw ourselves being able to build a really big brand out there. But we saw it as wanting to be part of the conversation, wanting to be part of the whole American beer scene and to understand what’s going on.”

Back at Brew by Numbers, Tom Hutchings takes a similar approach: “It’s like looking into the future of where we think the beer industry in the UK might end up.” After taking influences from eye-opening tastings of American beers from Russian River or Hill Farmstead, the company is looking to brew bigger bolder beers, such as would be more popular in the USA. “There will be more things that have gone through barrels, bigger beers. Those sort of things work for that market. You’ve seen it with BrewDog going over there and trying to get Punk IPA out and finding that actually everyone wants these big interesting beers. I think the more of that we can produce, the more success we’ll have in getting beer out there.”

Brewers exporting to the USA need to work hard to justify the expensive import prices their beers will inevitably command. You can’t just send another generic citrusy IPA and expect people to be interested. If beer is a conversation, then what do the Americans want to hear from us? What seems most likely is that they want beers which make the most of our British brewing heritage, expressed through our excellent local ingredients, and which marry this to the innovative, flavour-forward spirit of America’s craft beer revolution. Conversation is no good when it’s one-sided. We need to move the conversation forward. The future will belong to breweries which add an extra British twist to their beers that we can send back to our cousins across the Atlantic, and around the globe.

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