The Session #122: Views on Imported Beer

The SessionTalk about synchronicity — this month’s edition of The Session lands on National Beer Day! For those of us here in the United States, April 7 is the day that the Cullen–Harrison Act went into effect, effectively ending U.S. Prohibition ahead of the ratification of the 21st Amendment. It’s a great day for us U.S.-based bloggers to be writing a Session post!

This month’s topic is brought to us by Christopher Barnes of I think about beer. Christopher is the Import manager at a beer distributor here in Oregon, and accordingly he’s asking us to share our views on imported beer:

I love imported beer, specifically Belgian and German beer. They’re what I drink. My cellar is made up of Belgian beers, my fridge is full of them, and there a few stashed around in a closet or two as well. Imported beer is my life. I drink them. I write about them. I travel to experience them. In fact, my career involves working with Imported Beer. I manage several prominent import portfolios for a Oregon craft focused wholesaler. And while I have a vested interest in the success of Imported Beer, it doesn’t lessen my passion for the traditional beers of Europe. As craft beer sales have surged across America, sales of imported beers have suffered. I’m going to ask a couple of questions.

For American and Canadians: What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?

For Non North Americans: How are American beers (imported into YOUR country) viewed? What is their place in your market?

As far as I’m concerned, from the American standpoint, properly handled import beers have an equal standing in the craft beer market as domestic craft brews. Imports are just as “craft” as American “craft” is “craft” but many have the additional advantage of history and experience behind them.

(Note the keywords “properly handled” here however. I think import suffers next to (local) craft simply because much of it is older, has been improperly stored, exposed to unknown conditions. Compared to fresh, locally-available beer, the local beer will win every time.)

(This is also assuming of course the local craft beer is well brewed and handled, and there is definitely plenty of bad American beer out there. But quality is a whole different discussion.)

Where imports do suffer a disadvantage in the market is in quantity. There are simply so many American breweries in existence right now that the market is flooded with American-brewed beer. It’s the old shelf space quandary again; when there are 100 American beers for every 5 imports (I’m making those numbers up), then yes, sales will suffer due to sheer lack of visibility in a sea of beers.

They will also be disadvantaged because of the modern American drinker’s penchant for constantly seeking out the newest, trendiest beers and passing over the “old” stuff. Never mind that these imports are world-class examples of their respective styles, and often cost less (sometimes much less) than the trendy American craft beers! I’m often as short-attention-spanned as the next beer geek when it comes to new beers, but given the choice between a reasonably priced bottle of Celebrator Doppelbock versus nanobrew Blue Bucket Brewing’s Jankinator Doppelbock (I’m making that up), you bet I’m choosing Celebrator without a second thought.

My point being, even though they are overwhelmed by numbers, imports continue to have as important a role in the craft market as domestic “craft” does. In fact, everyone should take time now and again to skip over the American beers and focus on a few imports. I did it last month for The Session and my print column with bocks, and it was a great reset and re-calibration to remember how good they can really be.

Imports are critical to the craft beer market. Pick up a few this weekend and see if you agree.

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