Foreign affairs: Globetrotting beer importers visit Asheville breweries

GRAND TOUR: The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services brought a contingent of international beer importers to Hi-Wire Brewing June 9 as part of a trade mission tour of North Carolina craft breweries. Although Western North Carolina’s beer industry is booming, very few Asheville brewers have begun exporting their products.
GRAND TOUR: The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services brought a contingent of international beer importers to Hi-Wire Brewing June 9 as part of a trade mission tour of North Carolina craft breweries. Although Western North Carolina’s beer industry is booming, very few Asheville brewers have begun exporting their products. Photo by Jonathan Ammons

By the time the nine passengers crawled out of the Sprinter van, stretched and passed through the garage doors of Hi-Wire Brewing’s Big Top on June 9, they had been brewery-hopping across North Carolina for six straight days. The delegation of beer importers had traveled from as far afield as Germany and the Dominican Republic at the invitation of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to tour the state’s diverse brewery scene from one end to the other as part of a craft beer trade mission.

“We work as an international consumer marketing specialist, and it is my job and directive to provide outlets for North Carolina producers in the ag sector,” says John Hammond, international marketing specialist with the NCDA. “What we do best is make the partnerships and make the connections. We find buyers, and we will either bring them here or bring our producers to them.”

The NCDA has consultants all over the world who help network them with importers. It also relies on the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, which has offices in most American embassies, for connections to agriculturally related groups that might be drawn to North Carolina-made products.

After organizing a trade show last year in Berlin with a handful of North Carolina brewers, the NCDA saw an interest in North Carolina beers sparked among the German buyers and facilitated a trip for them to tour the state’s breweries. “It’s just like any trade business,” Hammond says. “Most of the time, unless you’re shopping at Lowe’s or Home Depot, you don’t buy on-site. It’s about relationships, and we are here to help facilitate those relationships.”

Global demand

Internationally, there’s an increasing demand for craft beer — an obvious irony for countries like Germany, which is often credited with having defined the beer-making process, yet has a modern craft brewing scene that is still in its fledgling stage. In 1516, Munich’s Duke Wilhelm IV passed the nation’s Purity Law, a measure intended to regulate the market and cut back on the number of Germans being poisoned by sheisty brewers using toxic roots, sawdust and general garbage as shortcuts in the process of creating a beverage deeply ingrained in the country’s culture.

The law limited beer ingredients to only water, barley, hops and yeast. More than 500 years later, that law is having some unintended consequences. As a growing call for craft beer in Germany is coming up empty against a largely off-limits but burgeoning market, entrepreneurs and importers are looking to the U.S. for products, thus bringing them to the production floor at Hi-Wire.

“There are only probably 40 craft brewers in the country,” says Berlin-based import consultant Donald Burke, who works with companies like One Pint GmbH to bring in a variety of brands such as Rogue Ales & Spirits, Redhook Brewery and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. “But the percentage of craft beer drunk in Germany right now is probably 0.2 percent, and that might even be generous. If you compared that to the American market, it’s around 20 percent. There’s a lot of room for growth, but it is still in its infancy.”

Hi-Wire co-founder Chris Frosaker says exporting is an interesting side project for his otherwise locally and regionally focused operation. “We have our day-to-day business, and the majority of what we do is focused on Asheville and North Carolina, but it’s just a fun way to mix things up.”

Untapped market

While the trade mission brought the delegations to Hi-Wire and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Hammond notes that most Asheville brewers have yet to show much interest in exporting their products. “We could spend the whole week in Asheville,” he says. “But really, most of the companies that have contacted us about exporting have been around the Raleigh area and in Hickory and Greensboro.”

Burke, a Canadian expatriate who has been a strong advocate for the rise of craft beer in Germany, observes that the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild has over 200 member brewers and nearly every other state has anywhere from dozens to hundreds of microbrewers, resulting in a heavily saturated market. “If a brewery in North Carolina wants to sell their product in another state, they have all of that state’s craft breweries to compete with,” he says. “But in Berlin, there may be only, what, four, five, six microbrewers in the city? And they all started up fairly recently because the scene is really new there. So it’s an open market to get some American craft brewers in there.”

And Germany isn’t the only untapped market. The Dominican Republic has seen a spike in craft beer sales among tourists and locals alike, according to Fedor Agelan Casasnovas of the Republic’s import company Grupo AFM. “But it is so hot there that we still only want certain kinds of beers,” he says. “They like the lager, pilsner — the lighter beers.” There’s not a lot of interest in imperial stouts or heavy porters, but a brown ale or an IPA? Agelan thinks there may be a demand for that.

“Beer is so many things to so many different types of people,” says Chris Lutkowski, Hi-Wire regional sales director. “Americans tend to think one way about beer, and different cultures think about it differently. When I ask somebody from the Dominican Republic what the most popular beer is down there and they tell me Rogue, I think, ‘Really? Rogue? How did they get there?’ If they drink theirs, surely they’ll drink ours.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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