This summer, the tap lists at Stone Brewing’s World Bistro & Gardens in San Diego and Escondido, Calif., featured both expected IPAs (Delicious, Tangerine Express) and an unexpected “experimental lager.”

What was the experiment? The pale light lager lacked Stone’s favored levers of cutting-edge hops or culinary ingredients. Instead, the R&D beer was a trial batch of Sapporo Premium Beer, the classic Japanese lager.

Securing U.S. production capacity was one reason why Sapporo U.S.A., a subsidiary of the Japanese brewery, acquired Stone for $165 million last August. The parent company planned to shift lager production to Stone’s bicoastal production breweries in Escondido and Richmond, Va.

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Customers caught on and flocked to the Stone-brewed Sapporo, says Sean Monahan, Stone’s chief operating officer. Stone brewed another pilot batch to meet customer demand, eventually dropping the linguistic cloak. “We started calling it Sapporo,” Monahan says.

Depending on the week, Sapporo might be a top-three seller across Stone’s taprooms. “The winking and nodding is over,” says Robert Kuntz, Stone’s senior director of brewery operations. “People are coming in looking for it.”

Before craft breweries carpeted America in IPAs, import beer deliciously contrasted domestic lager. British oatmeal stouts, German pilsners, and Belgian tripels bobbed across the Atlantic Ocean and stamped passports prior to settling in bars and bottle shops. Provenance and stories about time-creased brewing traditions sold bottles and pints.

With skyrocketing shipping costs and more than 9,000 breweries and taprooms, foreign breweries are ditching import status and producing beer stateside to better compete on freshness and price. Heineken-owned Lagunitas Brewing makes Newcastle Brown Ale, a British beer, at its breweries in Chicago and Petaluma, Calif., while Anheuser-Busch InBev shifted production of the Belgian lager Stella Artois to America in 2021. And global breweries such as Guinness and Trumer are opening taprooms and brewing small-batch beers, muddying the lines between import brands and trusted local breweries.

A Beer’s Birthplace Is No Longer the Be-All and End-All

Breweries once waged courtroom battles over beer’s provenance. In 1977, Anheuser-Busch, then an American company, sued Miller Brewing for implying that it imported Löwenbräu, an all-malt German lager (Miller was producing a domestic version).

Shipping beer across oceans is a process measured in weeks and months. International craft breweries need a more nimble approach to stay current with the market’s capricious desires.

Beck’s, a German brewery now owned by ABI, ribbed Löwenbräu in a television commercial. “Are you drinking a well‐known German beer that isn’t really German?” the ad asked, according to The New York Times. (The commercial’s closing line: “Beck’s, the leading German beer that’s really made in Germany.”)

Import status once permitted a higher price tag, but today’s premium prices are reserved for overly hopped IPAs and fruited sour ales. To get fresher beer to market faster, in packages and prices that consumers desire, breweries and importers are getting creative.

Since 1994, Connecticut’s B. United International has imported august brands such as Germany’s Schlenkerla and the U.K.’s J.W. Lees. The importer ships draft beer from Europe in temperature-controlled metal tank containers until arriving in Connecticut, where the beers may be refermented or dry hopped before being packaged in kegs or cans.

Rob Fink founded the U.K.’s nonalcoholic Big Drop Brewing in 2016 with no brick-and-mortar presence. Staying unanchored meant the brand could be sold anywhere around the globe. “As soon as you start talking about provenance, you limit yourself,” Fink says.

Big Drop contract-brews its NA beers in the U.K., Australia, and the U.S. at Destihl brewery in Normal, Ill. Big Drop’s Pine Trail pale ale and Galactic milk stout can radiate from the Midwest to all American directions where there’s a market. “If you want to go bigger and sell wider, you have to be more creative,” Fink says.

Shipping beer across oceans is a process measured in weeks and months. International craft breweries need a more nimble approach to stay current with the market’s capricious desires.

Pooah Alon founded Beerternational to connect international breweries such as Israel’s Schnitt, and Brazil’s Japas Cervejaria to American craft breweries like Great South Bay in Bay Shore, N.Y., and Against the Grain in Louisville, Ky., to produce their beers, then distribute and sell them nationwide. “I could adapt to the local trends and the way that people prefer to drink the beer,” Alon says.

Take Japas. The female-run brewery blends Brazilian and Japanese traditions in beers like Matsurika, a jasmine pilsner, and the wasabi-infused Wasabiru pale ale. Beerternational launched Japas in America in 2019 with those brands sold in 12- and 16-ounce cans in around 10 states, from Colorado to New York.

“Showing up with a beer that’s ready-made to be a flagship is a recipe for disaster,” Wagner says. “We needed to understand the behaviors of beer drinkers in the city.”

But 12-ounce cans were declining, and the wasabi pale ale wasn’t resonating. Japas switched to 16-ounce cans and swapped Wasabiru for Oishii, a witbier with orange and ginger. “Had I needed to import the beers, it would have been much more complicated,” Alon says.

Foreign Breweries Need to Cater to New Local Tastes

Brewery taprooms both humanize a brand and provide drinkers with opportunities to try new beers, perhaps finding a new favorite. To facilitate face-to-face interactions, foreign breweries are opening taprooms with brewing systems and tailoring beers to local tastes.

This September, Guinness debuted its second stateside Open Gate Brewery in Chicago. The taps partner Dublin-made classics like the iconic nitro stout with locally brewed beers like the Corn Maize Cream Ale, featuring Illinois-grown corn, and the Kinzie Street Pale Ale that’s named after the brewery’s location.

“Guinness Draught Stout is a gateway into everything else that Guinness can be,” says Ryan Wagner, the head of marketing and national Guinness ambassador for Guinness. “It’s more than just one beer; it’s a brewery.”

No Chicago-brewed beer occupies a corporate-mandated permanent perch. “Showing up with a beer that’s ready-made to be a flagship is a recipe for disaster,” Wagner says. “We needed to understand the behaviors of beer drinkers in the city.”

The 400-year-old Austrian brewery Trumer opened a production brewery in Berkeley, Calif., in 2004 with the goal of creating a single beer, Trumer Pils. The pilsner was packaged in green glass bottles, the default for many European imports. “Even after 20 years, sometimes people didn’t realize that we’re a local beer,” says master brewer Lars Larson. “There was some sort of mistaken identity.”

The brewery had a small tasting room, but serving one beer isn’t a very big draw. This fall, Trumer opened its first full-fledged taproom with a beer garden and pilot system producing lagers including a dark schwarzbier and both highly hopped and unfiltered pilsners. Don’t expect a hazy double IPA.

“We’re going to stick very closely to our European roots,” Larson says.

American breweries are also finding fertile ground overseas. St. Louis brewery Urban Chestnut also makes lagers in Germany’s famed hop-growing region of Hallertau, while Wisconsin’s Great Dane Pub & Brewing is building out a Japanese location. Outer Range Brewing of Frisco, Colo., is creating its second location in Sallanches, France, where alpine ski resorts and Mont Blanc — the highest mountain in the Alps — climb into the clouds.

“These American flavors are hard to find in France, so people around here are intrigued.”

“The taproom evokes the same feeling of escape and return to nature that our Colorado location features,” cofounder and chief marketing officer Emily Cleghorn wrote in an email.

Early on, Outer Range sent IPAs overseas and did brewery collaborations and events across Europe to seed interest and stoke customer trust. Building camaraderie was easier than a brewery. A plumber disappeared. A coffee roaster caught fire. “And like any small mountain town, it’s hard to find contractors who can meet your timelines,” Cleghorn says.

The brewery plans to open in November with a list of lower-strength IPAs, pale ales, and lagers, plus a Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant. “These American flavors are hard to find in France, so people around here are intrigued,” Cleghorn says.

Popular brands and recipes don’t always translate to audiences accustomed to a different drinking language. German giant Paulaner built an NYC brewery in 2013 just in time for the hazy IPA craze; the brewery closed in 2018. Guinness shuttered its Baltimore-area production facility, opened in 2018, earlier this year. (It kept the small-batch experimental brewery and taproom.) Stone opened a brewery in Berlin in 2016 before selling the facility to BrewDog just three years later. And Scotland-born BrewDog has a choppy track record with its far-flung taprooms and business culture. Moreover, the sales and stylistic influence of maximalist American beer seems to be waning across Europe.

Now Stone sits on the flip side, producing a Japanese lager for an American audience. But what’s really so different? The Sapporo yeast strain is the same, as are the ingredients and exacting processes. “You go process block by process block,” says Kuntz, the senior director of brewery operations.

The end result is a fresher, more floral Sapporo Premium not dulled by time and transport. Its birthplace is rendered moot in a world driven by omnipresent global brands. “People say, ‘Well, if you’re gonna start brewing Sapporo, is it still an import?’” Monahan says. “I don’t think people think of BMWs as being an American car just because they happen to be made in [South Carolina].”