In recent years, the beer business has watched anxiously as wine and spirits siphon off market share and occasions. Among the explanations, it’s clear that the popular conception of beer—as a beverage that is affordable, unpretentious and ubiquitous, but not terribly healthy—is at odds with consumer engagement of products that are rarified, hand made, hard to find or healthy.
The most obvious beer brands to push back against market loss are those that offer some of the qualities consumers find attractive in other categories: sophistication, depth of flavor, an appeal to health-consciousness and a more welcoming image for women.
Long before the spread of American craft beer, imported beer provided variety and cachet for beer drinkers looking for alternatives to domestic lager. Now some of these same imports are shaping their message to offer compelling alternatives to wine and spirits.
Although some popular imported beers are scarcely different in style and flavor from domestic lagers, many do offer the consumer a drinking experience that has more in common with American craft styles. The terms “imported craft” or “global craft” may be a more useful way to think of these more flavorful and traditional beers—and may say more about the consumers who purchase them.
“Craft beer tends to be a segment where there is a lot of interaction with wine and spirits, particularly higher-end spirits,” according to Danelle Kosmal, VP Beverage Alcohol at Nielsen. She describes the purchase habits of the craft beer drinker as “promiscuous.”
“Craft beer drinkers aren’t just drinking beer; 71% of craft beer drinkers also purchase wine, whereas only 61% of the average beer drinker purchases wine,” she notes. “Similarly, 53% of craft beer drinkers purchase spirits, in comparison to 45% of average beer drinkers purchasing spirits.”
Changing Consumer Image of Imports
Constellation, importer of the two top-selling imports, has been monitoring these changes.
Jamie Stein, Senior Director of Communications, Beer Division, notes that more consumers are drinking across categories. “Consumers that may have labeled themselves in the ’80s as a ‘beer guy,’ ‘whiskey guy,’ or ‘wine gal,’ but that’s really no longer the case,” he says. “Twenty years ago, 70% of consumers drank beer and only beer. Today, 55% are drinking across categories. And more recently, we’ve even seen consumers drinking across categories on a single occasion—start with a cocktail, have a glass a wine and then finish the evening with beers.”
He sees premium brands as well positioned to drive growth in the beer category. “In addition to changing consumer behaviors and increased innovation, we are seeing consumers continue to trade up.”
Vikas Satyal, Senior Director, Commercial Marketing at Heineken USA, observes, “It’s true that we are seeing a growth of wine and spirits in recent years.” He attributes this to a combination of trends. “Those with more discretionary income are willing to try both wine and spirits, just as they are also expanding their taste profiles into imports and crafts, which is what is driving the growth of total beer.”
Anyone who has checked the vodka aisles won’t be surprised by another trend Satyal identifies. “The other factor is the explosion of flavors into spirits, which is generating new awareness and trial by consumers who may not have been as likely to do so in the past.”
The Belgian lager Stella Artois, now owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, has for decades cultivated an image of sophistication bordering on snobbery: its slogan in the 1980s was “Reassuringly Expensive.” But what was once anachronistic may now be a good fit for consumer tastes.
“Sophistication is synonymous with Stella Artois and it starts with our 600-year brewing heritage,” says Harry Lewis, VP. “The brand’s traditions—from our iconic chalice, to our trademark nine-step pouring ritual—are always at the forefront of everything we do.” Over the holidays, the company released a limited-edition, 750-ml. bottle suitable to “bring to a dinner party as a gift, just as consumers would bring a bottle of wine or champagne.”
At Diageo, the company sees indications that overall beer sales are rebounding, and that strong performance from import offerings could be driving this, according to Guinness Brand Director Emma Giles. As a company that is active across all beverage classes, Diageo tends to look beyond the beer category and ask what consumers are looking for in beverage alcohol in general.
“Whether it’s spirits or beer, what consumers want right now is flavor, rituals, heritage and authenticity, innovation and purpose,” Giles says. “For example, if you look at the spirits industry, it’s done a fantastic job at experimenting with flavors and focusing on mixology, where combining flavor profiles is really limitless. The craft beer and small-batch approach is comparable to this in the sense that they’re constantly experimenting with new and unique flavors in a way that commands beer drinkers’ attention.”
With the Innis & Gunn line of beers, importer US Beverage is able to appeal directly to spirits drinkers by aging some of its beers in barrels that formerly held—and retain some flavors from—those other beverages. Bourbon and rum barrels are frequently used, but Senior Brand Director Georgia Homsany reports that Irish whiskey has been the most popular choice. “Our Innis & Gunn brand recently became 100% barrel-aged (all its U.S. products will be aged in spirits barrels) and we’ll be launching an Irish whiskey stout, aged in Tullamore Dew barrels.“
Expanding the U.S. Audience
Men have always been greater consumers of beverage alcohol of all kinds than women, and this imbalance is pronounced when it comes to beer. According to Kosmal at Nielsen, “Most beer segments, including Imported Beer, still have a much stronger appeal among males than females. From a recent Nielsen Scarborough survey, only 13% of age 21+ females report that they consumed imported beer in the last 30 days, compared to 25% of males age 21+.”
Women are conventionally thought to avoid beer because it is perceived as too filling or high in calories. Appeals to health-conscious consumers, while not entirely limited to women, is often thought to increase the attractiveness of beer to that audience.
This outreach includes cider, which is increasingly mentioned in the same breath as beer. “Strongbow Cider allows us to play in a segment geared more towards female consumers, and in a segment that captures share from those who may not want a heavy beer or prefer the taste profile of wine,” Heineken’s Satyal reports. “Amstel X-Light focuses on those who want to indulge with a beer despite their focus on exercise.”
US Beverage also looks to lighter profiles to reach the female consumer. “We have two brands that have done well with bridging the gap across male and female—Moosehead Radler, and Malibu beer,” Homsany says. Radler is a traditional, refreshing German style that generally mixes beer with a citrus soda, while Malibu is a lager flavored with coconut.
There may be other qualities to appeal to the female consumer beyond skinny and fruity. There is evidence that the more flavorful brands, or those with a more refined image, might do better with women. Stella Artois’ figures are unusual and encouraging in that respect. “Beer is universal now more than ever, appealing to both males and females. The demographic of our core consumer is split, 50 percent male and 50 percent female, but to continue to grow we need to convert more drinkers,” Lewis says.
Seeking Culinary Tie-Ins
Wine enthusiasts are accustomed to choosing a variety of wine that best suits a particular type of food. It raises no eyebrows to select different wines for each course of a meal.
Outside of a few countries with strong traditional beer cultures, such as Belgium, the industry has been slow to see the potential of pairing beer with food. Now, it is not unusual to see restaurants suggesting particular beers to complement menu items or hosting formal beer dinners. This culinary approach broadens the appeal of beer, particularly when it comes to female consumers, who are (by convention) still raised to pay close attention to food and meal preparation.
Some importers are making the culinary connection a part of their brand identity. At US Beverage, Homsany sees this as a way to “tap into the emotional side and create experiences for consumers to enjoy the product in a setting they start to associate the brand with. For example, our Spanish brand, Estrella Damm is associated with chef Ferran Adria and has a following in the culinary world.” The chef has suggested serving the beer in a wine glass.
Stella Artois has incorporated food and beer appreciation into its promotions. “We’ve found opportunities to leverage The High End’s top beer educator—Master Cicerone Max Bakker—to offer upscale food pairings to provide further inspiration for Stella Artois drinkers,” according to Lewis. “Knowing that consumers want a high-quality, sophisticated taste that will complement and enhance their meal, we’ve leveraged a number of different strategies to bring that to life.”
Redefining as Occasion-Based
Imported brands are in a strong position to redefine beer and its occasions for consumers who are attuned to the sense of sophistication and more complex flavors of wine or spirits. This “premiumization,” the shift to greater perceived quality across the entire range of consumer goods, has spurred the growth of better beer brands, even as mass market brands have been stagnant.
Not all beer consumers—not even a majority—are chafing to have their beer experience elevated to wine-like heights. Many would even be put off by attempts to “fancy up” their favorite beverage. But those consumers are well catered to with established, accessible brands.
For members of the industry who are concerned that those brands are showing big volumes but little or no growth, imported beers can offer a legacy of prestige and a diversity of flavors. Consumers who have been lured away by wine and spirits, or who have never felt at home with beer, may find just what they’re looking for on the import shelves.
Julie Johnson was for many years the co-owner and editor of All About Beer Magazine. She has been writing about craft beer for over twenty years. She lives in North Carolina, where she was instrumental in the Pop the Cap campaign that modernized the state’s beer laws.