Michigan craft breweries have only just started to sell their beer in international markets, but many in the industry believe exporting could soon become an important diversification strategy.
The current overseas landscape for American craft beer resembles where the U.S. market was a decade or more ago, according to Mike Stevens, co-founder and CEO of Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids.
That dynamic allows a brewery like Founders to somewhat return to its roots, hitting the pavement around Europe, sharing the brewery’s history and educating new consumers on the various styles, much as they’ve done in Michigan and around the U.S. since the late 1990s.
“Don’t expect to go into international markets and make money (right away),” Stevens said. “Much like a startup 20 years ago, you need to understand that when you go international, it’s going back old school. You have to hit the streets … tell your story, sell the brand. It’s kind of hand-to-hand combat.”
All told, Stevens said the company sold about 14,000 barrels of beer internationally in 2016, or about 5 percent of its volume. Founders expects to export about 25,000 barrels this year.
“It’s a small part of our business, admittedly,” Stevens said, adding that the brewery has a seven-person international sales team.
Given Founders’ sale of a 30-percent stake in the business to Spanish brewer Mahou San Miguel in 2014, Stevens said his company has tried to build its presence in Madrid. The brewer worked closely with a handful of bars and restaurateurs around the Spanish capital to ensure some visibility for its brands.
Additionally, the brewery provided growth financing to the owner of Roll Madrid New American Cuisine in exchange for the restaurant selling its beer and promoting the Founders brand, Stevens said. The restaurant’s online menu lists Founders Centennial IPA, All Day IPA and Dirty Bastard on its menu.
Stevens said Founders has signage in the restaurant as well.
“We’re kind of working in partnership with people like this to better tell the story to consumers,” Stevens said. “That’s kind of our focus on how to sell beer internationally: Hit the streets, sell the brand, tell the story and let the customers take hold.”
While Founders has sales and marketing infrastructure in place in key international markets, it’s still a long way from establishing any physical infrastructure — such as a brewery — anywhere overseas. Stevens concedes that Founders has tested some batches brewed in a Mahou San Miguel facility in Spain but has yet to make any available for public consumption.
Rather, Stevens said the strategy for Founders will continue to focus on selling its brand much as it has in Michigan and around the United States. The company expects only to expand when it makes sense.
“As that volume starts to grow, then we’ll start to look at infrastructure, freight cost, logistics,” he said. “Then we would make decisions.”
That’s a strategy that makes sense to Shannon Long, founder and CEO of Walled Lake-based Brew Export LLC, a consulting firm she started in 2015 that aims to help craft brewers with their exporting initiatives.
Long said she currently works with about 30 different craft breweries around the country, including three in Michigan: Marshall-based Dark Horse Brewing Co., Battle Creek-based Arcadia Brewing Co., and Sawyer-based Greenbush Brewing Co.
“The concept for some of these craft breweries that are small to medium-sized — and this can be said for a lot of businesses beyond craft beer — the international sales just look so overwhelming to them,” Long said. “There’s ways to minimize risk and you can certainly make a good amount of money. The opportunity is definitely there.”
Specifically, Long suggests that brewers — or any other business looking to establish an overseas presence — focus on minimizing risk largely through getting the best terms possible with international partners. She recommends they work closely with attorneys and other advisers with a background in international business relations. And most importantly, brewers should follow their instincts when it comes to exporting, she said.
“If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it,” Long said.
American craft beer exports hit an all-time record in 2016, according to data released last month by the Brewers Association.
The Boulder, Colo.-based industry group’s annual export report showed that craft beer exports grew 4.4 percent in 2016, totaling 465,617 barrels or $121 million in value.
However, the growth rate slowed significantly from the previous year, when the Brewers Association reported total export growth of 16 percent.
The reason for the slowdown remains somewhat unclear. However, it could be explained in part because the Brewers Association no longer counts the beer exported by craft brewers like Founders that have sold to larger industrial breweries in recent years. In addition to Founders, that’s true for San Diego-based Ballast Point Brewing Co. and Petaluma, Calif.-based Lagunitas Brewing Co., two craft breweries with an international presence.
“They’ve effectively taken out three of the largest growth movers in the industry,” Stevens said. “We’ve looked at the numbers and they change when you put them in.”
Much like other American exports, Canada makes for the craft brewing industry’s largest export market, accounting for 54.9 percent of total export volume, according to the report.
However, the report shows Asian markets also have experienced significant growth. That makes sense to Brew Export’s Long, who said her main focus area is the Asia-Pacific market.
Long added she’s heard of unspecified brewers eying the region for satellite brewing facilities, particularly in China.
“It’s in the works,” she said of American craft brewers establishing a physical brewing presence in Asia.
Despite the slowing growth of craft beer exports, Long believes the sales tactic will be a long-term play that will only continue to accelerate.
“There’s a lot of smaller brands that are entering the game, and I think it may just take a little while. But the growth will keep continuing, without a doubt,” Long said. “The breweries I work with, any time I call them with an (exporting) opportunity, they’re ready to go with it. Logically, it makes sense for any businessperson to hedge your bets and diversify your sales portfolio.”