Imagine a Martian couple scrimping and saving for a two-week trip to Earth. They know virtually nothing about our planet before arrival. During their stay, they make it a point every day to read a respected international newspaper and tune into the news. When they return home and are asked about Earth from their friends, they say that Iran, Israel, and North Korea must be the world’s most powerful nations and that Earthlings love to look at ads.
All of us know that reality can shift markedly depending upon where you’re standing and what you’re focusing on.
Over the summer, I met my brother in Italy. He showed up a couple of days before me, so I advised him to keep his eyes wide open for certain Italian microbrews I’d had the pleasure to sample at home in Thailand. Surely if I could tipple Birradamare’s Ambrata and Chiara beers in Bangkok, he’d be able to find them blindfolded walking around Rome, right? Birradamare’s headquarters are in Fiumicino, spitting distance from Rome’s major international airport.
My brother could have brought binoculars with him for all the good it would have done. When I arrived a few days later, I began my own search. The only Italian microbrew that overlapped with what I could drink in Thailand was Menabrea 1846, and I was able to locate this beer just one time the entire time I was there.
I returned home, he continued onwards to other European locales, one of them the Czech Republic. It just so happens that as he landed in Prague, I was popping the bottlecaps on a few different bottles of Two Tales, a Prague microbrewery founded in 2007. These he was able to find upon my recommendation but not without visiting a half dozen stores and asking around about them.
My mistake, in both instances, was using Martian logic. I’d observed Birradamare beer for sale at nearly all the upscale Italian eateries in Bangkok. On the back of the import label on the Two Tales’ bottles in Thailand, I noted that the import company was Two Tales Trading. So the thinking went: If Birradamare was showing up in Southeast Asia, they must have already proven themselves as serious contenders first back home and in many other elsewheres more important than Thailand after. If Two Tales had its own trading company bringing its brews into Thailand, the home brewery back in the Czech Republic must be minting serious coin and channeling that into expansion.
Really? Must such logic make sense?
In the paradigm of macrobrews this logic does hold firm. Asahi happens to be one of the top selling beer producers in Japan. Its signature Asahi Super Dry is distributed or brewed under license abroad by similar giants – Molson in Canada, Boon Rawd in Thailand, and Carslberg in Malaysia. Singha is the most well known beer in Thailand. Who distributes it in North America but a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boon Rawd, the giant parent corporation.
The more apropos logic is that birds of a feather flock together. Conglomerates from one nation team up with conglomerates from another or own them outright. Small breweries from one nation are left to seek distribution and export opportunities from small beer importers from another.
I should only have concluded that Birradamare and Two Tales were powers to be reckoned with in their homelands if those beers were being distributed in Thailand by a giant like ThaiBev. Exporting and importing beer isn’t a complicated field like rocket science. All it takes is the willingness of a brewery to export and the willingness of at least one person in the destination country to import and market it.
For small breweries, the export-at-all costs principle can be the key to success in a crowded marketplace at home. Scottish craft brewer Brewdog’s exports account for 60% of its turnover. There is little question that foreign awareness of the brand helped bring it more recognition at home which, in turn, helped fuel further expansion abroad. It is estimated that there are over 400 craft breweries in Italy. Any wonder now why I couldn’t spot Birradamare as far as the eye could see while in Italy? In Thailand, only four of those Italian microbreweries must compete for name recognition. You only get a Martian’s eye view of the Italian microbrew scene.
A sale is a sale, whether that sale is happening back home or whether it’s happening abroad. A benefit of selling your product in distant locales is that you’re perceived as more exclusive and luxurious the further away you go. In Italy, Birra del Borgo is another craft brewery most Italians have probably never heard of located in a village called Borgorose most Italians have probably never heard of. In New York City, off ritzy Fifth Avenue, Borgo is a partner with three other breweries in an Italian eatery called Eataly, serving pricey brews off a rooftop with spellbinding vistas of the Flatiron and Empire State Buildings. Ask a New York yuppie about Borgo, and he’s liable to think of it as an Italian luxury brand. If mainstream Italian producer Peroni can burnish the reputation of its macrobrew Nastro Azzurro outside Italy, craft brewers must be having a field day re-inventing their brands abroad. Sorry – inventing their brands. You can only re-invent a brand if people have heard of it first.
For a vacationing Martian traveling Earth on the fly for two weeks, beer would be described to his fellow green folks back home as a pale lager going by the name of Heineken most of the time. Ignorant? He’d be more right than wrong. A Martian’s view proves remarkably accurate when you’ve never stood anywhere else.