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2018 US Import Beer Sales

Whether you're a brewer forecasting what might be viable in the near future, a merchandiser aiming to please the masses, or just want to be the cool person at the company mixer: If you want to know where craft beer is headed, look no further than the imported beer segment. 

There are two reasons imports are directly charting the course of craft consumption. First, imported beer sales are largely anchored in traditional lager styles that truly boast tradition and the trappings of authenticity that come with it. The main exception to this rule from a market share segment is Belgian beer, but the idea of tradition and authenticity remains every bit as valid for these legendary brewers. A fledgling craft brand without a seed of authenticity is almost guaranteed to be washed away in today's tide of SKUs. 

Second, as oft stated, these overseas and cross-border counterparts in beer production are already doing what American brewers are just now catching on to, namely forsaking the molasses-laden stouts and enamel-stripping hop bombs reminiscent of the American frontier mentality that has defined craft beer for the last decade.

Doing away with these "training wheels" is like going on a date without makeup or playing an electric guitar without reverb; there's nowhere to hide your imperfections. And that's now okay, because America is learning to brew better. The future of American craft is here, and it is already written in the light, refined styles European and Mexican beer brewers have championed for ages. Let's check the numbers. 

Within total beer sales for the year of 2018, imported beer is playing an increasingly large and dynamic role. 2017 saw sales increase considerably for the category, and 2018 saw those numbers continue their upward trend. Dollar sales for the calendar year of 2018 rung in at about $7 billion, which was an increase of roughly $488 million compared to 2017 or more than 7 percent.

This puts imported beer at almost exactly 20 percent of the entire beer market share, and second to only Domestic Premium (BudweiserMillerCoors…) in total sales. While Domestic Premiums still comprise about 36 percent of total market share, sales for that category dropped by over half a billion this past year, which can be interpreted as a one-two punch from Imports and Craft. Imports are a mixed bag of high-margin, lower-volume segments like Belgian beer and higher-volume, lower price-point powerhouses a la Mexican beer, which combine into an alluring set of new experiences for the drinker that still retain an air of comfort and familiarity. They share similarities with both Craft and Domestic categories, but simply by virtue of being from elsewhere they boast a competitive edge – at least in the current state of the market.

While the defined Import category is flourishing, not all its segments are faring equally as well.

Mexican beer sales continue to dominate this category for a number of reasons. Demographically, about 17 percent of the American population are Hispanic or Latino, a number which is projected to nearly double by 2050. However, even non-Hispanic and Latino drinkers love Mexican beer, with 35 percent of non-Hispanic drinkers reporting they drink Mexican beer, according to a 2016 study by Simmons research. Considering the fact that these numbers are nearly equivalent to the 43 percent of non-Hispanic drinkers who drink craft, Mexican beer seems to have a somewhat universal appeal.

In a modern clime of escapism where everyone is seeking to “find their beach” and stay healthy with lighter beer styles that retain an element of style, Mexican beer is likely the first choice.

The Import Category

As for the segments of the Import category, just about every segment that comprises more than one percent of total dollar share is down from last year, save for Mexican beer, which currently comprises around 70 percent of the market. Mexican beer is up more than half a billion dollars from last year for a total of about $5.2 billion. In that respect, we can partially attribute the meteoric growth of Mexican beer to the dips in these segments.

The second largest segment is European imports, around $1.6 billion in dollar sales over the past year, but down about $43 million, or 2.7 percent. We see similar tales of the tape for Holland imports ($815 million in sales, down $15 million or 2 percent) and Belgian imports ($417 million in sales, down $11 million or 2.5 percent), which are the next largest segments.

Canadian imports, which totaled $212 million in sales last year, are down about $16 million, or 7 percent, and German imports, which totaled $92 million in sales are down almost $10 million, or 10 percent.

We finally see an uptick with Australasian imports, which are up one percent to about $76 million, and then see a sharp decline with UK imports, down $11 million, or almost 20 percent, to $46 million in sales over the last year.

Before we go any further, bear in mind that these are large-scale factors that do not represent similar numbers for smaller brands, which must be examined on a case-by-case basis. These numbers focus more on the largest producers and the sway they have over these macroscopic statistics. However, what we can extrapolate is that the producers of Mexican beer, largely Modelo and Corona, must be doing something very right.

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