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Thirst for premium imported craft beer rises

Just as COVID-19 has helped boost sales of packaged Australian craft beer it’s caused a “massive spike” in demand for premium imports as well.

The rapid move by many to buying online, bottle shops offering mixed pack subscriptions, the increase in some people’s discretionary spend and the fact we’re at home more often are seen as the major contributing factors for the uptick by Australia’s most established craft importer and distributor.

Johnny Latta from Experienceit Beverages, who have been in business for the best part of a decade, told Beer & Brewer they had seen incredible demand for their premium and ultra-premium beers in the last four months. As just one example, he said their portfolio of brands from the United States had tripled since April and they were looking to expand it further.

“As a local, independent brewer myself, we want people to be buying local and supporting the local industry. That is 100 per cent important. But it is just one of those inevitable things, that the more people get into a movement the more inquisitive they get about it,” Johnny said, who along with wife Kerrie Abba launched Nomad Brewing Co on Sydney’s Northern Beaches back in 2014 after the couple established Experienceit whilst living in Italy.

“So what we’re seeing more and more of is the punter buying a six pack of local craft beers and then they’ll buy one or two of these new premium imported beers at the same time – and that’s the consumer wanting to try the new styles emerging from overseas or to perhaps compare the imported version against the locally produced one.

“There’s always been a market for it, because a lot of these are quite extreme and at the cutting edge of styles or new ingredients. But because people aren’t spending as much money going out to the likes of pubs anymore, they are using that discretionary spend on other things. People jump online to buy their beers for the weekend so they can just stay home and relax and not have to worry about the hassles of the outside world.

“And we’ve seen a massive spike in our premium to ultra premium category because of it and we’re ramping up our portfolio with more of them.”

Johnny said Experienceit’s range still boasted the likes of heavyweight American breweries Rogue Ales, Stone Brewing and Deschutes Brewery, but he was more and more looking to take on smaller, up-and-coming breweries from overseas.

“People love some of these emerging brands and will pay good money for them. That’s not showing any signs of slowing down,” he said.

“We were bringing truckloads of Stone into the country not that long ago because West Coast IPAs were their thing and there was a huge demand for it here in Australia. But as the Australian market moved into brewing its own IPAs our Stone volumes suffered quite dramatically because of that. Drinkers weren’t prepared to pay a premium when the local brewers were doing them well and obviously a lot cheaper.

“But now, with say Orange County’s The Bruery for example, we tripled our volume with them the moment they went into cans and we’re doing full containers of their stock on a monthly basis now. And that’s because their styles are so different to most breweries you see in Australia outside of a very small handful.

“Or take Amundsen out of Norway. They are big for us because of their big, creamy, juicy dessert beers and stouts. And one of our biggest brands, in terms of volume sold, is Deep Creek out of New Zealand and that’s probably because they were awarded best medium sized international brewery at last year’s IBA Awards.”

WHO’S BUYING PREMIUM AND ULTRA-PREMIUM IMPORTED BEER?

From footy fans to fully fledged beer geeks, and everyone in between, it seems.

“We’ve got a guy who comes in (Nomad sell Experienceit’s range at their Brookvale brewpub) once a week and he always buys one or two of these beers that are between $35 and $50 and that’s his little treat for the weekend. He’ll sit at home and watch the footy and he’ll just crack one of these and just, you know, enjoy it.

“There are other guys, and they’ll come in on a weekend and between them they might buy seven different beers and they’re all these ultra-premiums and they’ll just sit there and drink them and post them to social media or review them on Untappd or whatever they do.”

Those people have been around for years but due to COVID new audiences are emerging and part of that is being driven by bottle shops pivoting to online subscription models of mixed boxes.

Many have sprouted up across the country in recent months as bottle shops look to diversify their revenue streams and capture the spend of those forced to stay home and looking to expand their horizons via different means.

“All of these bottle shops are saying the sales of their mixed packs are growing and that they’ve all grown their databases in terms of subscription members who are getting their boxes once a month, once a fortnight, once a quarter, or whatever,” Johnny said.

“Some of them just focus on local business, which is great, but others will do 80 percent local, and then they’ll have that smattering of internationals in there as well.

“Every retailer is now realising that by supporting local you don’t need to forget about imports. If you’re a good wine retailer you’re going to have wines from Italy and France and South Africa or California and the same goes for craft beer.

“We’re seeing more and more of these traditional bottle shops saying ‘ok, actually give us an American beer, or a Scandinavian beer, and we’ll see if it works’.”

WILL THE TRENDS CONTINUE?

Experienceit has grown, in terms of volume sold, year-on-year since it was first established as an importer and distributor of Italian wines to Australia before adding craft beer to its business model.

Its portfolio currently features 15 per cent of what are widely considered the world’s top 100 craft beer brands. They have approximately 300 different beers active in the Australian market in any one month but of these only 15 or so are from a brewery’s core range. So they are more often than not unique, cutting edge products and Australians seemingly can’t get enough of them as they continue to support the local industry.

“I’m not planning for it to be declining at all. We’re growing our portfolio, we’re expanding our focus. The evolution from here will be more diversity in our range and looking at working with the bigger retailers to drive that international craft portfolio. And we’re seeing solid growth,” Johnny said.

“As more and more people become interested in the movement I see them wanting to experiment which will just drive our business even further. And I think the challenge for any of us, whether it be a local brewer or an importer or a distributor, is how do you stay relevant to the drinker? And relevance is really hard right now because drinkers are getting so fickle with their beers. I mean a lot of drinkers will only try something once no matter how good it is.”

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