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Bob Leggett: Founder of Artisanal Imports

Bob Leggett, CEO of Artisanal Imports

For Bob Leggett, 1977 was a landmark year. It was the year he broke into the beer business, and the year he started sporting a beard. Bob's been around ever since – as a natural storyteller, he's a perfect fit for a profession where sales are based on the strength of a product's story. The beard has also remained. It's a fitting symbol of the man and his commitment to both time-honored tradition and the growth of the beer industry.

We talked to Bob about the “locals only” mentality in beer, how he helped shape the Corona bottle, and the surprising cultural exchange that craft beer has spurred.

Finding Spirit in Beer

bob leggettBefore founding Artisanal Imports, which has prided itself on bringing some of Europe and South America’s most carefully cultivated beers stateside since the turn of the millennium, Bob was fresh out of Austin-based St. Edwards University with a business degree but no particular direction.

“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” Leggett said, “and enjoyed creating stuff and diving into things, but I didn’t have any jobs lined up. I took the summer off after graduation and when I came back, my dad had just retired after 25 years of a state job … and he bought a small distributorship — Shiner of Austin.”

Leggett on his early days of business as a distributor: "Desperation drove a lot of what we did."

With nothing to lose, Bob hopped on board.

“I said ‘I don’t know anything about the beer business and I don’t know anything about beer specifically other than how to drink it, but it sounds like fun. I’m interested in business, you know, why not give it a try?’ We had one guy that drove around and one guy that made hotshot deliveries out of a van and I took care of the office and did some of the deliveries, loaded trucks and did the bookkeeping. So that’s how I got started.”

Far from the powerhouse brand it is today, the Shiner of 1977 was a small, local brand with minimal market value, accounting for roughly one percent of the Texas beer market. The going wasn’t easy for the three-person distributorship, which was just the way Bob liked things. In his words, “desperation drove a lot of what we did.” Faced with selling people on unfamiliar brands, he looked for what made them stand out most.

“We didn’t have any brands that had any real market pull,” Leggett said, “and we didn’t have any advertising or marketing money. We pretty much had to sell them on their specialty, and the only specialty Shiner had was that it was from Shiner, Texas, which is 90 miles southeast of Austin, a very little town.”

“The people that drank Shiner in Austin were basically older people from that community that moved to Austin when they were kids to find jobs so they still drank their hometown beer, or it was sort of the counterculture – we were the little guys fighting Schlitz and Budweiser and Miller and all of the big brands out there. Back then the pricing structure had the national brands at the top and then brands like Pearl and Lone Star which were statewide brands, pretty good size, were the middle tier. Then products like Shiner were on the bottom. We were the cheapest thing out there.”

In the 70s, a pitcher of Shiner was about $1.50, compared to around $1.85 for Budweiser, but as demand grew, so too did the price people were willing to pay, a trend that craft drinkers across the board will recognize today with top craft brands asking $14-$16 for a six-pack.

“After fifteen years we were basically on par with the national brands, and had that kind of reputation. What we found was that price, to a certain degree, adds a connotation of quality to a lot of consumers, so as we inched the price up the image of the brand also inched up.”

Taking the Reins

Flash back to the spring of 1978 – after about a year Bob’s father and his business partner weren’t getting along, and became disillusioned with the business, so Bob brought in a friend, Marshall McHone, and together they bought them out and took over. Very quickly, they ran into trouble.

“After the first springtime, the brewery told us they were probably going to discontinue making Shiner Bock because the only place it really sold was in Austin,” said Leggett.

 Aside from Shiner, their portfolio consisted mostly of Mexican lager – Dos Equis, Superior and Corona.

“Of course [Shiner Bock] sold pretty well for us and we were desperate for stuff to sell, particularly stuff that looked and tasted different than the normal lager beer, because at the time 99 percent of the beer, whether it was American domestic or even if it was German, was the same style of beer.”

“We went down to the brewery and begged them to continue to make it because we needed it. We were desperate to have stuff to sell and interesting things to sell, because that was our only marketing [angle], selling something different. They ended up continuing to make it for us and within 10 years Shiner Bock had become their biggest seller. So, it was fortuitous for us and them that we were so desperate, which really chronicled a lot of our history.”

1979 was a big year for Leggett’s business, marking his first foray into the world of imported European beer, along with the future owner of one of the biggest names in craft beer – the Gambrinus Company.

“Jim Houchins, a soon-to-be friend and business partner of mine walked into my office one day and plunked down a bottle of Duvel on my desk, late 78’, and said “I’ve just come back from Belgium.' He had gone to international law school and fallen in love with Belgian beer, Duvel in particular, and talked the Moortgat family into allowing him to import Duvel into the U.S. So he walks into my office and says 'I’ve got the best beer in the world and I need a distributor in Austin.'”

“It was something different – 8 percent beer that was richer and would stand out and had this funny stuff floating in it. He explained that it was yeast and it was supposed to be there, and I don’t know how many times I had to explain that [to people] when I put a bottle of Duvel in front of them. ‘What’s that funny stuff floating in it? It’s bad.’"

bob leggett

Aside from bringing some of European most storied beers to America, Leggett was an early supporter of craft in Texas.

Leggett relied on the story of the brand to introduce it to a new market, assuring them not only that the yeast was supposed to be in the beer, but that it was delicious. It was also around this time that he met Carlos Alvarez, the future owner of Gambrinus.

“We had Corona, but it didn’t really sell, it was in a small squatty brown bottle with a blue paper label and we had Dos Equis which sold very well for us, but about early ’79, the Dos Equis brewery – the Montezuma brewery out of Monterrey pulled Dos Equis off the Texas market. We were doing well and they said we were one of their best distributors – primarily because we were desperate and hungry, and we had it in every Mexican restaurant in town. That was devastating for us, and we started hearing rumors that we would lose it to another distributor, so we started thinking ‘we need to get another Mexican dark beer in the meantime.’”

So Bob called Modelo and asked for a brand to replace Dos Equis.

“We said ‘Hey, we’ve done a good job with Dos Equis but it’s off the market. We’d love to bring in Negra Modelo.’ We got a visit from a young export manager by the name of Carlos Alvarez who went on to fame with Corona and owns Shiner, Bridgeport and Trumer. He came to visit us and said ‘We don’t do any real business with the U.S. but we should, because we’re the number one brewery in Mexico...’”

Shiner of Austin became the first wholesaler in the country for Negra Modelo, and after seeing the success they were having, Alvarez gave them another challenge.

“He came back about six months later and said ‘You guys have done a pretty good job with Negro Modelo but Corona is our number one brand in Mexico. What can we do to make it sell?’”

“We needed something interesting to talk about, something different. It either had to look or taste different. Negra Modelo has an interesting bottle, which is the same as we started with in ’79. There’s nothing else like it. So we said ‘We’ve seen Corona down on the Texas border in this clear 7-ounce bottle with a painted label.’”

Alvarez liked the idea of a unique bottle, but felt that packaging in a 7-ounce bottle wouldn’t be wholly practical. So they settled on a 12-ounce version, and Corona Extra was born. For the first decade the brand relied on word of mouth, largely focused on the eye-catching bottle. Now it’s the top imported brand in America.

The Art of Imports

As business picked up, Bob continued adding more imports to the lineup, though he was also an early supporter of craft, convincing Sierra Nevada to let him bring their Pale Ale to Texas. By the mid-80s, the company had added a solid European portfolio including Chimay, Hoegaarden, Duvel and Leffe.

As luck would have it, the owners of his European importer, Manneken-Brussel Imports wanted out. In 1985, Leggett and his team took over, marking a 15-year period of expansion and experimentation that would include acquisitions and subsequent sales of other Austin distributorships, and even the founding of one of Austin’s first craft breweries in 1990 – Hill Country Brewing and Bottling, though it would be sold not long after, and folded around the year 2000.

Y2K was another milestone in Leggett’s career, the year he met Lanny Hoff at a tradeshow in Seattle. Hoff managed another importer with an East Coast emphasis, while most of Leggett’s business was concentrated in the West. Sensing an opportunity, Bob suggested they start a new company to focus on the other half of the country, and Artisanal Imports was born the following year. For the next four years, the two companies worked out of a joint office in Austin.

“In 2005 Chimay decided they wanted to be their own importer, and kinda left us no choice but to sell to [the Chimay brand] to them. We sold Manneken-Brussel to them, they still operate under that name in the same place, right next to where we are now in Austin. So Manneken-Brussel became Chimay’s importer, and also retained Schneider Weisse in the western part of US. They didn’t want our smaller brands, so we kept those and turned Artisanal into a national company.”

Cultural Exchange

A decade later, what was once a competitive marketplace has now become an all-out battle royale, creating a sort of gold rush mentality in the brewing community.bob leggett

Leggett credits American drinkers for helping to revive the dying lambic style of beer.

“What’s selling well right now is being local. But even that marketplace is getting crowded. There’s 25 to 30 craft breweries in Austin now, so even local isn’t that unique anymore. It’s all about quality and being local, which of course doesn’t make it easy for imports. We can’t sell that we’re local. What we can sell is the quality, the consistency and the tradition behind it – the fact this this brewer has been making this beer for 200 years.”
In terms of brewing tradition, America’s breweries are fairly fetal. Of the 4000-plus breweries in the U.S., more than half have opened in the past five years, compared to 1990, when the Brewers Association counted 284.

The fledgling nature of the industry combined with vicious competition leads to an all-out flavor assault on the American palate. In the land where PB&J Porters rule, a beer’s worthiness is often measured more by how many pounds of hops were used in the kettle rather than how refined the flavor profile is.

“Americans are still in the introductory stage of making beer. I love American craft beer; I drink it a lot, but I think we try too hard sometimes to be too different, and that creates a certain amount of aggression in the beer, which I think can make it somewhat less sophisticated or palatable long-term. As the industry matures, the flavors will become more sophisticated and drinkable even in their boldness –they may remain 10 percent, but they’ll be more drinkable.”

For a player in such a competitive industry, Leggett doesn’t seem too worried, perhaps because he’s seen the cyclical nature of beer culture. European brewing tradition was imported to America, and now it’s being shipped back overseas.

“The European brewers have taken notice of the American craft industry. I’ve sold a lot of imported brands over the year as a distributor, and the American craft industry grew out of that European beer style influence; English ales, IPAs, porters, German pilsners, dunkels, hefeweizens and stuff like that. That’s fostered the American craft industry and what we’ve seen in the last five years is that the American industry is so dynamic and vibrant and growing so rapidly that the world has taken note of what’s happening in America, and it’s spilling over into the rest of the world. Others are embracing some of the aggressive American styles. I’ve seen pale ales coming out of Germany, not that they sell well, but they’re seeing that there’s a serious trend in the largest consumer market in the world, it’s having a renaissance in beer that’s growing 15 to 20 percent, while their beer markets are stagnant or declining. So they’re starting to embrace it, and it’s really come full circle. We took the energy and the momentum that imports had in the U.S., we cultivated that, changed the styles and now we’re exporting not only those beers but more importantly, that enthusiasm back to the rest of the world. It’s really an amazing 360-degree cycle. We became the incubators for specialty beers, which started with imports, and now we’re exporting not only the beer but that dynamic business opportunity back to the rest of the world.”

Leggett notes that lambics, a quintessentially European style, were all but extinct until Americans took interest.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago lambic breweries in Belgium were struggling and on the decline, going out of business. It was a style that the Belgians weren’t embracing, sour beer wasn’t modern and the younger consumer wasn’t interested. We were in danger of losing that culture.”

“There were some importers, us included, who were bringing them into the U.S. The U.S. consumer is always looking for new things and willing to embrace new flavors, even 15 years ago, and they caught onto the Belgian, sour/lambic tradition. Those brands started selling a bit in the U.S., and then beer tourism caught on and you started seeing more and more Americans going to Belgium, Germany and England to visit the home of those styles of beer. I think the spontaneity and growth of the American craft and specialty beer movement 20-25 years ago eventually saved that style of beer in Belgium.”

Today, along with some of the most storied names in traditional European brewing, Bob’s riding the waves of craft beer, bringing buzzworthy craft brewers from Europe and South America to the states.

“We’re working on bringing a new craft brewery from Belgium called Brussels Beer Project. The guys reached out to me a couple years ago – at the time they didn’t even have a brewery, they just had a concept and had contract brewed some beer. I was impressed with the guys, which is part of the criteria –  who are we dealing with, do we get along, do they have good ideas… And the beer was interesting. So now they’ve built a brewery, and we’ll be bringing their beer in later this year.”

In the past few years, Artisanal has fully rounded out its craft lineup with acclaimed brands that share Bob’s passion for quality over quantity, like Brazil’s Wäls and Colorado, Belgium’s B.O.M and Prearis, and Elgood's from England, a family-owned traditional brewery since 1795 which has resurrected its age old brewing methods to produce spontaneously inoculated sour ales. 

“In our minds, ‘craft’ is not about the size of the brand or the brewery, it’s about whether the beer itself comes first. We’re not selling a commodity. As you go down the road of working with a business partner like a brewery, the relationship has to be sustainable, and that usually has most to do with the people you’re dealing with,” Leggett said.

Whether a brewery is old or new, one aspect they can all agree on is that its beer should be transported with utmost care. To this end, importers like Artisanal streamline the transportation process as much as possible, generally heading straight to America after being bottled.

“We’re particular about how beer is shipped, and it’s typically pretty fresh when it gets to us. We maintain backstock in our warehouses, one in New Jersey and one in California, so we have to warehouse the product under proper conditions. Transportation across the pond to the East Coast only takes about ten to twelve days.”

The West Coast takes a bit longer, having to travel across the entire contiguous U.S., but the majority of Artisanal’s beers are bottle-conditioned and meant to be aged, giving them a long shelf life.

Whether it’s giving rednecks and hippies something in common, or helping to revitalize a near-extinct style of brewing by taking it to the other side of the globe, Bob has made a career out of sharing the universal joy of a quality pint.

“When you can talk about various styles of beer and cultures that have created a style and its history, it creates interest for people in seeing other cultures. I think beer is a fantastic medium for bringing people from different cultures together.”

bob leggett