US beers in the UK, a reflection from a Swede

I just read a article at the hop-talk blog written by maeib over at his blog; maeib's Beerblog that I thought to reflect on and try to compare it to the similar situation in Sweden.

In short the article points out 3 different reasons why there are so few US-beers available in the UK;

1. High prices compared to domestic beers.
2. US beers are seen as crap beers like Bud etc.
3. UK beer drinkers and the British palate are not compatible with the American style beers.

From a Swedish perspective you can summaries that in short we have the same situation, a few differences but in short it looks very similar.

Let’s start with pricing, as you probably know we are not trusted to buy our beers in normal shops, instead the state is controlling the sales through a monopoly situation and we can only buy the beers at our local Systembolaget. The Swedish beer tax has one single goal and that is to limit the sales as much as possible.

Otherwise the state thinks that we would drink us to death. This means that beers are expensive and the way our big breweries are trying to address this is mainly to produce beers as cheap as possible. The goal is to be able to sell beers with a moderate price so that we continue to buy them. The result of this trend is that almost 100% of all beer sales at the Systembolaget is concentrated on cheap crappy Euro lagers that mostly have the taste of the can and alcohol (we Swedes are looks for price performance regarding alcohol, so many of the favorite ones are strong beers and over 7%, which simply means that the breweries are adding alcohol to the already crappy beers and with the result that it only taste of alcohol and a touch of barley).

So you can imagine what happens to the sales of an imported beer from the US, it is simply impossible to compete, as long as we talk about the majority of the market where price performance is the only strategy.

Lets compare, one of the most popular beers simply called Svensk Starköl (Swedish Strong Beer!) comes with a price of SEK 7.60 (21.51 SEK/LIT) and then compare it to a US-import; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale SEK 22.50 (63.38 SEK/LIT). So the Swedes simply chooses the Swedish strong, simply because you can get almost 3 cans of it compared to the US-imports, they do not care that the strong beer can not be seen as a beer, just some kind of brew with alcohol added to it.

Well, now comes the message, you would think that selling US beers is useless. But that is not the case. Maeib also mentions this in his article; we will never catch the big heathens when the buy beers, but the small US-breweries that have come to the Systembolaget are actually selling a lot of beers. There is a small group of people in Sweden that is learning to drink good beers, mostly because of the available beers at our pubs.

This interest in increasing so much that small breweries in the USA is actually making money of selling beers to the Systembolaget, because you have a quite big amount of customers to sell to. This is mainly because Systembolaget is a very big buyer when they actually buy something.

As a reflection is that when Read Seal Ale at the North Coast Brewery is delivering beers to Systembolaget the whole brew that day is only for Systembolaget. The trucks are standing outside the brewery and is delivered directly and loaded to the trucks.

This now means that Systembolaget is one of the biggest buyers and is seen as a very important for a brewery on the west coast of the USA! You can imagine that when Red Seal is now sold at 100 shops in Sweden with addition of sales each month and has also spread too many local pubs that buy directly through the reseller.

This is seen as very important business for the micro breweries and has, for example BA in the USA recently reported the following in their statistics;

Recent US Craft Beer Launches in Sweden
In late 2005, North Coast’s Red Seal Ale was awarded a tender from Sweden’s retail monopoly, Systembolaget. As a result, Systembolaget has guaranteed placement for Red Seal Ale in the retailer’s top 100 stores throughout Sweden. The brand will hit the shelves in April 2006. This listing is expected to also drive sales in Sweden’s hotel and restaurant sector.

So what I am trying to say is that the US-breweries should try even further, because the markets in small countries like Sweden can be important and if you get your foot into Systembolaget it can be hit, plus that the more beers we get through Systembolaget the more our interests of such craft beers will increase.

As in GB the price is important, but with an import quality beers at the US ones this should not been seen as a problem. It is as any other quality product and imported from far places, the price will always be high, but they are not too high compared to what you actually get to drink. Myself sees it as not so expensive to buy a beer for SEK 22, because compared to the SEK 7.6 beer this such a better product and is seen as a little bargain, especially compared to buying the beer at the pub, which would probably be SEK 50-60 or similar.

How about the second thing maeb mentions; US-beer are seen as crappy beers, and the first reaction you get when you tell people that the best beer country for me is the US, not England or Belgium is that you are kidding.

The only way to change this is making people drink the beers. Because what I have seen is that if you take your friends to a pub where you can get a US beers the result very often is that they come very soon to the conclusion that this was simply great, I did not understand that a beer could be so good.

So when I have the possibility to choose a beer for someone I always tend to test a US-beer and this has resulted in the fact that next time they will test a US-beer if available (same thing if you give them a Belgian or English craft beer). And when they then go to the Systembolaget and find out that they can at least buy a bottle of Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or a Red Seal then we have suddenly succeed in getting one more to actually respect good craft beers.

So that is the idea here, get them to taste it and they will often like it. This is the same for people in the GB; as soon as you can actually get a good craft beer at your local pub, then people will actually buy it. Not the majority of people, but enough to make a market and hopefully widen what you can get at a pub in GB or Sweden.

Finally the third point that maeb is talking about. This is simply not true, same thing as in Sweden, we only like light Euro lagers and sometimes a porter or two, well if you get people to test they will almost always like it and return to better beers the next time they test it themselves.

And you are surprised when it happens and that beers seen as very difficult almost always is a hit. I remember one time when we had a company dinner with a customer around a year ago at Oliver Twist (my favorite US-beer pub in Stockholm, and the only one!); with the company card we got to the taste many of the beers from the US-beers fridge. And to my surprise the favorite one was the strongest and the hoppiest monsters like Dog fish 90 min and 120 min, plus Hops Infusion from Weyrbacher!

This dinner was talked about weeks after, and the comments I got was simply, I could not believe that a beer could be so good, that is always fun to hear. So it is not true that a palate would be built in a certain way, for example how could then the favorite beer for a person that is used with a big strong lager beer then be Dog fish 120 min!!!

The situation is not great in Sweden, but we can at least get a few beers at Systembolaget and we have several pubs that have US-micros for sales. So what can I say, we want more beers and do not be afraid to test, it can be a hit, and we will help you drink the stuff.

For reference this is the current list of US beers at Systembolaget;

Anchor Bock Beer, Anchor Christmas Ale, Anchor Steam Beer, Anchor Summer Beer, Black Jack Porter Brewer's Choice,Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout,Brooklyn Brown Ale, Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Local 1, Budweiser Liberty Ale, Miller, Miller Lite, Old Stock Ale, Red Seal Ale, Samuel Adams Black Lager, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Samuel Adams Summer Ale, Samuel Adams Boston Ale 15.60 11253 Samuel Adams Octoberfest, Sawtooth Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot.

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