World-class flavours

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on June 13, 2019.
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If 28 years in beer marketing and sales at Anheuser-Busch (AB) — and then, post-merger, Anheuser-Busch InBev NV — taught Gregg Billmeyer anything, it was how to spot a trend. The St Louis native tracked the initial rise (and brief fall-off) of craft beer in the 1990s before the explosion of the late 2000s and 2010s blew a chunk out of the once indomitable market share of such heavyweight brands as Budweiser and Bud Light.

But while the Cult of Craft revolted against the King of Beers and its noble cousin, MillerCoors LLC, capturing nearly a quarter of the overall beer market in 2017, Billmeyer noticed one sector of the brewing establishment holding steady and even gaining ground: labels imported from Mexico.

In 2018, while sales of mass-market domestic brands such as Miller Lite, Coors Lite, and Bud Light declined by 4.2%, premium Mexican brands grew by 2.8%, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. The most popular names, Corona and Modelo, were up by 11.6% and 17.9% respectively. Add that to the ever-expanding US Latino demographic (now more than 18% of the population) and a seasoned beer salesman such as Billmeyer can come to only one conclusion. “Importing Mexican craft beer is the logical next step,” he said.

Three years ago, Billmeyer contacted fellow AB expat and logistics executive Mike Redohl, and started Quest Beverage. The mission was to introduce ever-more-adventurous American drinkers to the finest craft beers from the south of the border.

After enlisting another A-B vet, master brewer Dan Driscoll, and Mexicali, Baja, Mexico-based finance executive Eduardo Muniz, the Quest team met with Mexican brewers and travelled to craft beer festivals in Ensenada and Mexico City, where they applied their experienced palates to picking the best beers. Billmeyer immediately noticed the contrast between the crowded American microbrew market and the relatively nascent Mexican craft landscape.

“The craft beer scene in Mexico is much like that in the US 20 years ago,” said Billmeyer. “Demand is growing quickly at [between] 60% and 70% per year.”

Out of that burgeoning field, Billmeyer and company met extensively with a dozen local brewers to get a sense of production capacity and potential marketability. From there, they winnowed the field down to five finalists, eventually settling on four beers from two brewers to pack and export: Cerveza Urbana, a father-and-sons brewer that fuses American standards with a coastal Mexicali flair (think Pacifico meets Ballast Point), and Cerveza Rrey, a Monterrey-based brewery started by two high-school buddies that focuses on easy-drinking versions of old-world traditional styles.

Billmeyer and company were instantly leery of the omnipresent lime-spiked lagers that have not only been well covered by Corona, Modelo, Tecate and Dos Equis but have been mimicked by craft brewers across the US. “We think that people are going to be looking for other types of beer beyond those traditional Mexican lagers,” said Billmeyer.

He hopes they will be looking for something like the crisp, dry Kolsch and the bitter, brown England-inspired London from Cerveza Rrey, or the golden Blonde Ale and west-coast Crossover IPA from Cerveza Urbana. Despite the wide range of tastes, all four beers have one thing in common: a sensibility Billmeyer says is shared by most Mexican craft beers at this early stage in the movement — easy drinkability, all below a sessionable 4.7% alcohol by volume (ABV), except the IPA, which registers only a modest 6.5% ABV. This falls in line with increased consumer interest in lower-alcohol offerings as well.

Quest introduced these beers to limited markets in May 2018, and now has 250 accounts throughout Missouri and 100 in Houston. This year, it has broken into metro Chicago and Los Angeles. Even though US President Donald Trump’s latest threat of tariffs on imports from Mexico was averted, the spectre of bumpy trade relations with our neighbours to the south still hangs over the beer industry. (Constellation Brands, the maker and importer of Corona and Modello, saw its stock drop by 5.8% at the mere suggestion of Trump’s tariffs.) Nevertheless, Quest is eyeing expansion in California and Texas, where much of the Hispanic population is concentrated, then eventually tapping its two suppliers for additional styles that might translate for American craft consumers.

By leveraging its connections with A-B wholesalers, Quest has tried to steer its products into the import section of supermarket and liquor-store coolers, rather than the ever-shifting, always crowded craft shelves. Billmeyer hopes that this is the spot where Corona drinkers cross with adventurous connoisseurs to give America’s next craft-beer craze a Mexican flavour. — Bloomberg