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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Where Do the Imports Come From?

If you're a beer geek, you pine for beers from places like Belgium and Italy. Of course, you like a nice German or Czech lager or the occasional British bitter, too. But do your preferences mirror import sales? They do not. I was glancing through the annual Beer Institute numbers and was surprised to see which countries and regions were the main players in the market--and which weren't.

To contextualize it a bit, 13% of American sales are imported, for a total of roughly 27 million barrels (2.5 times the amount of craft beer). If you think about it a minute, it will occur to you that the biggest importer is Mexico (50.4%). Canada, at 10%, is number three. Care to guess who's number two? Well, you don't have to--your eye has already glanced at the list below. A bit of discussion follows the numbers.
By Country
50.4% - Mexico
20.6% - Netherlands
9.9% - Canada
4.5% - Germany
4.1% - Belgium
3.1% - Ireland
3.0% - UK
0.8% - Jamaica
0.7% - Italy
0.4% - Poland
0.4% - Czech Republic (1k fewer than Poland)
2.1% - All others

By Continent/Region
60.3% - North America
2.2% - Caribbean, Central America, & South America
37.1% - Europe
0.7% - Asia
0.001% - Africa
The Netherlands commands a 21% share of imports? That's a lot of Heineken. Conversely, the Diageo borg (Guinness, Smithwick's, Harp) sells relatively little. Give me the two countries and the two numbers and I would have reversed them (preference bias). Belgium looks fantastic until you consider Stella Artois--so don't think this number is based on Cantillon Iris. Britain, no matter what you consider, looks terrible. How is it we get and drink so little good British ale here? A travesty. Finally, are you as shocked as I am that Poland, with no serious national brand (apologies to Zywiec, Boss, and Okocim), outsells the Czech Republic, with Pilsner Urquell?

Worth noting: Mexico, buoyed no doubt by Grupo Modelo (Corona, Pacifico, and Modelo), only had about a quarter of the much smaller import market 15 years ago. In 1994, Mexican breweries sold only 1.6 million barrels; in 2010 they sold 13.6 million. That's where the real action is.


  1. As a British beer enthusiast, I'm pleased to see some appreciation for our brews. Though I share your disappointment that so little of it makes it over there.

    Last I heard there were plans to get Sharp's Doom Bar and St. Austell Tribute (two excellent and very popular British ales) distributed widely in the USA. Have you seen any/much about this?

  2. Here in CA, and probably elsewhere, Tecate and Dos Equis are also quite popular (including one of my all time favorite crappy lagers, Sol).

    As for Poland, I'm not that surprised. I had a friend study abroad there a few years back and she told me everyone there drinks Żywiec (I think it's misspelled in your post). Ever since she mentioned it, I see it turn up everywhere, including some large grocery chains in CA.

    Finally, I'm really curious why we don't get more beer from Australia. Sure Fosters sucks and no one drinks it, but with their solid wine industry and European roots, you'd think they'd have at least some beer distribution to the US.

  3. Wikipedia knows all! Here is a list of Australian brewers: not bad for a country of 22M people.

  4. Kaplan, thanks for the catch--that was a serious butchering.

    Your comment about Australia is one that I considered mentioning, too. They sent just 5,000 barrels in 2010--the same as a small craft brewery. It boggles the mind that a country so associated with beer--and one that produces one of my favorite stouts, Sheaf--exports such a wee quantity.

  5. Fuller's ESB. Worth every penny it takes to import.

  6. Good call, Nigel. Fuller's best beer, in my opinion.

  7. Given that industrial lager in the US has (I would guess) 70-80 percent market share, it would not surprise me if 70-80 percent of the imports fall into the same category.