Understanding and Hope for UK Imports


Whenever I gaze at the selection in a beer store, I often wonder what happened to all the UK ales people in the craft beer community used to cherish.  I’ve had a few assumptions, but I wanted to see if there were other factors at hand.  I reached out to some breweries, distributors and retail vendors to get their input.  Most confirmed that growth in the domestic US market has had a significant impact, but there were some other interesting points, as well as thoughts on the future market.

But first, it must be said that while the change in the US market has been an obvious factor, few of those that I reached out to gave recognition to the fact that the UK market has changed as well.  The overwhelming majority of beer drinkers in the UK now drink macro lagers like Stella Artois, Budweiser and Carlsberg.  Meanwhile, growth in the craft beer sector has been dominated by breweries mimicking trends in the US (which is funny since the craft beer movement in the US itself was largely inspired by the UK).  Traditional ales have become passé, despite efforts from folks like the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).  If these ales are struggling at home, it’s certainly going to impact what they are exporting for others to consume.

Peter Scholey, from the UK’s Coniston Brewery, points to the 2008 financial crisis as a turning point in demand from the US for their product.  He notes that Coniston saw a 30% decline in exports to the US at that time.  The crisis didn’t put a significant dent in the number of US breweries, growth of which had been somewhat stagnant from 1998 to the time of the crisis, hovering around 1,500 breweries, according to the Brewers Association.  However, that number began to skyrocket shortly after the crisis.  As disposable incomes were increasing, consumers began to have many more choices than what was available before the crisis, and a new generation of craft beer enthusiasts entered the market.

Adding to this, Scholey also believes the prevalence of large brands such as Bass and Boddingtons, “badly brewed” in the US led to the “persistent notion….that British beer is poor flavourless rubbish.”  It is these larger brands that we continue to find today at English-style pubs here in the US.  Further, most craft beer bars rarely ever have UK ales available (of course there are some, and I must make a shout out to Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn that has been carrying Coniston, and many other great brands for years).

Theakston’s, brewers of classic ales like Old Peculiar, fell victim to mergers between importers.  This resulted in them no longer having a company bringing them into the United States, according to Mike Morris, their export manager.      

On the retail side of things, Bill Kuhn, Director of Operations for the beer emporium Half Time Beverage (with two locations in New York State), noted “we’ve had a hard time sourcing Irish, Scottish, and some English brands that were previously staples in both stores leading to a bit of a smaller selection…We’ve had to be much more conscious of our long term buying strategies to ensure we are putting in preorders to secure allocations when they do come to the market.”  Half Time is one of the few places in my region that carries several UK brands, and if they are having trouble getting their hand on these products, then widespread availability is not going to happen easily.

Some don’t seem to be making much of an effort to fight the trend.  Others are, and one method to bolster business is to ensure the quality of their product when it hits the market here in the US.  This means controlling and monitoring elements through the shipping process, as well as carefully selecting an importer.  Shelton Brothers, Coniston’s importer, tries to make sure kegs and bottles are filled as close to the shipping date as possible, pre-sell products that need to move fast, particularly casks, and ship “super hoppy” beers by air.  Coniston’s follows this up by periodically visiting locations in the US to ensure the quality meets their standards.

B. United International uses temperature-controlled tanks that were specifically made for them.  They are able track the product’s location and temperature from the time it leaves the brewery to when it arrives at their facility in the States.  They are both kegging and canning beer this way.  Larger brands such as Samuel Smiths and Wychwood (Marston’s) are also jumping on the canning bandwagon, though their products are canned in the UK.  Younger brands like Thornbridge are also beginning to can, but those haven’t made it to the US market yet.

Coniston has done some canning for domestic distribution, but does not believe cans would ship well, and also believes that US customers expect to see British ales in pint bottles.  Aside from believing that the quality of the canned product is “significantly inferior” to bottles.  Theakston’s also believes the market, at least in the UK, remains in bottles. There’s clearly a difference of opinion between those from the older generation making traditional ales, and newer breweries embracing the US trends and packaging.

I think the innovative methods being employed by B. United could have the ability to begin to sway some consumers toward UK imports.  With a guarantee on quality and freshness (they provide dates on the can), it gives consumers much more comfort in making purchases.  While B. United is only working with a handful of brands at this time (in several different countries), there is the potential for a great amount of growth using this model. 

Perhaps a new interest by some US brewers in traditional UK ales might spark growth as well (putting us in the cyclical motion of beer trends between the US and the UK).  Scholey believes that English style beer will be the next big thing in the US, adding that it is debatable if this will benefit Coniston’s.  Ultimately, he decides it will probably benefit them because US brewers “will be unable to resist the urge to spoil a good bitter by adding cucumber skins and something citrusy to make it bigger and less drinkable.”  That may very well happen, but there are already a number of US breweries making traditional UK ales, such as Bonn Place Brewing Company, Machine House Brewery and Yorkshire Square Brewery.

Regarding the cyclical nature of the industry, my own selfish concerns about the disappearance of British ales might be shortsighted.  Mike Morris at Theakston’s supports this by noting “we’ve been brewing ales in the UK for a few hundred years so we can wait for the fashion to change again!”  Fair enough.

(Many thanks to the kind folks at Coniston, Thornbridge, Theakston’s, B. United International, Shelton Brothers, and Half Time for taking the time to answer my questions.)

Kevin KainComment