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The American Way Forward

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Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it can also be a sneaky way of stealing your business. Surprisingly, though, the strategy doesn’t appear to have been successful in terms of American beer.

US brewersThat became obvious this month when a deputation of US brewers flew into London for the Great British Beer Festival.

I mingled with brewers from Hardywood Park and Lickinghole Creek in Virginia, Maui in Hawaii, West Sixth in Kentucky, Three Weavers and Fifty Fifty in California and Samuel Adams over an excellent beer-pairing lunch at Shoreditch's highly-rated Brat restaurant, hosted by the Brewers Association’s executive chef Adam Dulye.

The food was stunning and the beer spectacular but what struck me was the bullishness all the brewers exhibited when talking about their products.

It may be an innate American trait to push forward but these brewers clearly have great belief in what they’re doing and in the strength of the market for their beers over here, despite increasing competition.

Global Inspiration

This comes after a decade or more during which the influence of US craft brewing has raced around the world, inspiring brewers in other countries to embrace the American way of making and presenting beer – from the use of pungent, citrus hops, through efficient kegging and canning processes to the use of growlers for take-aways.

Such influence raises the question of whether, in places like the UK, the public is still keen to seek out a genuine US import when there are so many fine breweries and excellent beers replicating the experience. And the answer to that is very clearly ‘yes’, given that over the last year exports of US beer to the UK were up a healthy 7.1%.

This places the UK – with 10.5% of the export share – as the second most important market for US beer after its next-door neighbour Canada.

What’s even more surprising is that this growth has come at a time of economic challenge.

In 2016, immediately on the result of the EU referendum, the pound crashed against the dollar. It’s been up and down a little since that time but has never recovered its former value and that means the cost of importing goods into the UK has risen.

Beers sold in dollars are more expensive for UK importers and this has translated into price increases over here.

Clearly, however, if the growth figures are correct, this is a hurdle that has – to some degree – been cleared, perhaps because the craft beer drinker is already conditioned to paying a premium for their drink, whatever the provenance. 

Increased Competition

But the way in which US beer has overcome increased competition is perhaps more impressive. The battle for space on the bar and in the cooler, with more and more UK breweries entering the market, should surely pose an existential threat to foreign imports, particularly when so many of the new breweries are focusing on pale ales and IPAs loaded with fragrant US hops.

US beersBut the US brewers don’t see it that way. ‘We are delighted to see so many high quality, well made and innovative beers being produced by UK breweries,’ says Hardywood’s Richard Miller. ‘To the extent that the quality bar is always rising, it will only draw more devotees to craft beers.’

A rising tide lifts all boats, seems to be the thinking but, if you listen again to the US brewers, there’s one further factor that is also driving the export growth and that is diversification.

Recent years have seen Americans turn their attention to less hoppy beers, with sour beers, strong stouts and crisp, fragrant lagers changing the global perception of US output.

Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Brewers Association, told me last year that ‘we are seeing a rise in sessionable, lighter styles that appeal to those beer drinkers coming into the market for the first time.’ He added that ‘American brewers are always looking to explore and innovate,’ which means they also cater for the more experienced, curious drinker who is constantly seeking variety.

His words are now echoed by Richard Miller, reflecting on Hardywood’s own success over here. ‘We are very encouraged by the reception our beers have received,’ he says. ‘Particularly exciting is the reception our Pils, VIPA and The Great Return flagship beers are getting, coupled with the following we are gaining for our specialty Roots and Barrel series beers such as Gingerbread Stout.’

So there it is. The formula for continued success for US exports here in the UK is simple. According to Richard Miller: ‘Ultimately it all comes down to quality, coupled with innovation, plus a collaborative, supportive environment for craft beers and breweries’.

That could easily be taken as a glib response that is driven by marketing rather than based on fact, but the sales statistics prove otherwise.

US beer is now well established in the UK and seems to be taking an even stronger hold.



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