The Ambassadors

Ferment’s European correspondent meets the American brewers quietly wooing the continent’s beer elite

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Tree-lined boulevards hiding multi-storey villas. Security on the door. Art deco electrified candelabras. If the invitation I received from the US embassy in Berlin wasn’t clear enough, all these signs were indications that I wasn’t going to your usual craft beer and food matching evening. I was, in fact, in deepest suburban Berlin - Dahlem in west Berlin to be precise - on the invitation of the Brewers Association, the representative body of the US craft and independent beer industry. 

And once I had navigated several metros and a bus to arrive at the residence of the US embassy’s deputy chief of mission, I was set fair to enjoy an evening of freshly shipped beers from three of the founding breweries of America’s craft beer residence, while the BA attempted to sweet-talk me and a gaggle of other industry representatives - beer writers, brewers and business figures - of the merits of US beer. You would think this isn’t much of a hard sell given the importance of American beer in influencing Europe’s own recent resurgence in craft brewing, but the lure of beer from across the Atlantic is not what it once was. At a time when domestic European craft beer markets are exploding and others maturing, selling US craft beer to European drinkers is not the slam dunk it once was a decade, or even five years ago. 


Embossed menus, table service

Otherwise I wouldn’t have found myself in the midst of the glitz and glamour of an ambassadorial residence, sitting at linen-clothed tables alongside American brewing royalty, talking about the state of the industry on both sides of the ocean to a gentle soundtrack of golden-age Motown, chowing down on a specially-designed menu embossed with the US presidential seal. 

This dinner, and others like it organised across Europe in the past couple of years, are the latest expression of the BA’s Export Development Program, an initiative launched in the early 2000s by the BA and backed with US government funding, the purpose of which is to support and encourage US breweries with ambitions to sell their beers abroad. Of the 5,000 or so members of the BA, around 150 of them are members of the programme, which targeted growth initially in early adopters the United Kingdom and Sweden, and subsequently in continental Europe, South America, and the Asia-Pacific region. Since the program’s inception in 2004, American craft beer exports have increased 1,400 percent, with a 2018 value estimated at $74 million.


Ambassadors for American brewing

You may never have heard of the programme, or even the BA, but if you’ve ever been to the Great British Beer Festival or events like BrewLDN, then you will have seen the fruits of their labour in the American beers being poured. But, as its traditional markets mature, the BA is having to re-evaluate its approach to promoting American craft and independent beer, and reassess where on continental Europe there is still growth potential for its members. Enter Lotte Peplow, and an invitation extended by her to me for dinner at the deputy chief of mission’s Berlin residence.

I’m looking at how to educate the trade… and how to elevate the image of American craft beer

Peplow has worked for the BA in various different positions since 2006, starting with a beer and food matching evening for American breweries at the legendary White Horse pub in Parsons Green before moving on to support the BA’s outreach to pubs, wholesalers and craft beer drinkers before being appointed as the BA’s craft beer ambassador in Europe in 2019, the third person to take on the role. Peplow has criss-crossed Europe, giving seminars, working on consumer and trade education, and generally digging US craft breweries. For her, the purpose of the BA’s export programme is threefold. “I’m looking to…facilitate connections between craft brewers and importers,” she says. “Then I’m looking at how to educate the trade…and I’m looking to elevate the image of American craft beer.” 


Beers in Berlin with the Ambassador

It’s the latter of these three priorities that has led to initiatives like the high-level Berlin dinner, and similar events over the past two years in Paris and in Kiev. Peplow and the BA’s strategy for swaying European drinkers to American craft beer is pragmatic and uncomplicated. “We want to show beer drinkers in these countries that a really classic example of an American IPA in perfect condition, fresh as a daisy, is the benchmark that they should be aspiring to,” Peplow says confidently. “The more beer we can get over to continental Europe in good nick, the more we feel there is an audience of craft beer drinkers that will appreciate it.”

For most of the time Peplow’s milieu is not diplomatic hobnobbing, as she traipses around the warehouses, shops, and cold storage rooms that make up Europe’s beer import infrastructure. But occasionally, Peplow is able to pull out what she and the BA are betting on as their secret weapon in the full-court press of continental Europe’s brewing cognoscenti. No, not pyramidal towers of Ferrero Rocher gifted by the US ambassador. No, the big draw of the night is rather the people behind these beers, because Peplow and the team at the US embassy have gathered together in Berlin a small slice of American brewing royalty. Seating separately across three different tables are Steve Grossman, co-founder of Sierra Nevada and godfather to the US draft brewing industry; Jennifer Glanville, head of brewing at New England behemoth and owner of the Sam Adams brand Boston Beer Company; and Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at California brewery Firestone Walker. 

These are three of the most consequential breweries in contemporary American beer history. Grossman and Sierra Nevada were right there at the dawn of the US craft beer industry in the early 1980s. In between holding forth on the state of US brewing today, his own business interests in being at the dinner, and revealing a love of road cycling inculcated by his brother’s time as a professional cyclist on the European circuit in the 1970s, Grossman is clear on the value of these dinners - his second, after participating in the 2018 Paris edition. 

“Events like this are a good way to get the press talking about what we’re trying to accomplish,” Grossman says, adding that in the wake of the Paris dinner sales have gone quite well in what is now a “really vibrant market” for Sierra Nevada. He tempers his enthusiasm by repeating that export sales are not at the core of Sierra Nevada’s business model - he reckons they make about 5% - but for breweries like his own without the ability to massively scale up on their own, the BA’s export programme is valuable for building incremental growth. “We don’t know the market very well,” Grossman says of Germany, “[so] it’s good to get the feedback from those that do.”


Market research, with a twist

At another table is someone who does know the European market well enough but who, like Grossman, enjoys the face-to-face contact with brewers and other people in the industry. Matt Brynildson is on a “beer sabbatical” as he calls it, spending time at the headquarters of Firestone Walker’s Belgian parent company Duvel Moortgat (of the eponymous Belgian strong blonde ale), a part of which is understanding what beers in his brewery’s range would work in Europe, and where new beers could fill gaps in their offering. “Part of my curiosity is how to build these more robust flavour-stable beers,” Brynildson says of the styles that could travel well across the Atlantic. “An 8.5% beer that’s bottle-conditioned is going to hold up better than a delicate flower of a session IPA.” 


Matt Brynildson

And like Grossman, it’s the personal time spent with a city or country’s brewers that’s most valuable to Brynildson. “The fact that the embassy and the ambassador are going to support getting our message out, is great,” he says. “And the BA has been good at getting us craft brewers together to network, to tell our stories and support our cause, and get that message out there. Here we had a captive audience of just the right people, so it was perfect.”

And it’s not before time. As the BA’s figures themselves state, the novelty and the shine of American craft beer - a movement and its beers which, let’s not forget, were responsible for stimulating the revival in small-scale and independent brewing across Europe - is starting to wear off as the movements that it inspired mature and drinkers start to question why they should drink a New England IPA brewed in southern California when there is one made by a local brewery just around the corner. The longer-term trend is one of decline, and while US craft beer exports are still growing, that growth is stalling. According to a Brewbound article in 2018, global export growth rates for US craft beer exports have dropped steadily from 35.7% in 2014 to 3.6% in 2017 (the latest available figures). 


The quiet Americans

And Berlin itself is a fascinating choice for one of the BA’s dinners, it being the site of the recent and high-profile failure of another American craft beer pioneer to establish a foothold in a relatively conservative, or at least insular, beer-drinking country. In April 2019 Stone’s founder Greg Koch offloaded his Berlin outpost to Brewdog, three years and $30 million after opening it, citing German disinterest in the world outside of the Reinheitsgebot. 

Which is why having such persuasive voices participating in Peplow’s dinners and jetting across Europe is so important for the BA’s push into continental Europe. “It shows that the American craft brewers are serious about the market,” Peplow says. “If the brewers come along, that’s who people want to talk to [and] to have the real luminaries…It really helps because it makes people sit up and take notice.”

It shows that the American craft brewers are serious about the market

And in contrast to the brash pronouncements of their predecessors, that they are not there to take over, but merely to take part. “Hopefully the take-away [from the dinner] is American beer is entering into Germany and the German people will start seeking it out and enjoying it,” Peplow says.

Judging from the reactions after the dinner, she and the BA at least succeeded in convincing one corner of suburban Berlin. We’ll have to wait a little longer to see if the rest of the continent follows.


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