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Bob Leggett: Founder of Artisanal Imports

Innovators Series Issue 24
Bob Leggett, CEO of Artisanal Imports


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.

“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.”

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

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.”