Good Beer Hunting

Samuel Smith’s Ships First-Ever Kegs to the U.S.


[Our Coming to America series highlights upstart and iconic breweries from around the world that have been impacting U.S. drinkers for generations, and those that are just beginning to make the journey. Coming to America is brought to you by a generous underwriting commitment from Guinness.]

A 259-year old British brewery wants to reintroduce itself to American drinkers.

Though its bottled beers have been sold stateside for nearly four decades, Samuel Smith’s Brewery of North Yorkshire, England has, for the first time ever, shipped kegged product to the United States to be tapped throughout the country. Reached by GBH, the brewery’s importer, Merchant du Vin, says it’s been fielding Samuel Smith’s keg requests for “many years,” adding it now wants to build a draft footprint for the brand in light of the “explosion of the U.S. beer scene over the past 20 years.”

“It made sense to bring draft now,” Craig Hartinger, Merchant du Vin’s marketing director, tells GBH. “Both to help sell Samuel Smith’s beer and to remind American consumers about the role Samuel Smith’s has played since the first bottles were shipped to the U.S. in 1978.”

Much like Pilsner Urqell has done with its rare, unfiltered kegs in recent years, the sudden arrival of Samuel Smith’s on draft may also double as a means of reinvigorating interest in the brand. To debut its draft presence in the U.S., the brewery has delivered kegs of its vaunted Oatmeal Stout, which to date has never been available on draft, even in any of the company’s 200-plus pubs in the UK. Starting this week and throughout next month, however, it will lead off the company’s broader draft initiative in about 200 bars and restaurants across 20 states and in Washington, D.C., despite continued shrinkage in sales of the brand’s packaged counterpart.

A quick glance at the numbers: sales of bottled Oatmeal Stout across multi-outlet and convenience channels have decreased in each of the last five years, according to the market research firm IRI. In 2012, as tracked by IRI, dollar sales of Oatmeal Stout exceeded $1 million, and accounted for roughly 29% of all Samuel Smith’s dollar sales, which topped $3.6 million that same year. Fast forward to 2016, however, and things look a bit differently. In fact, last year, again from IRI, dollar sales of Oatmeal Stout continued its year-over-year downward trajectory and ultimately crested $804,000. Meanwhile, over the same five-year period, the Samuel Smith’s brand at large ebbed and flowed, but in the end, finished 2016 up 19.7% from 2012 (reaching $4.3 million). The arrival of draft, albeit in limited volume, could provide a surge, the company hopes.

“Oatmeal Stout kegs are a new package, so we certainly will see sales increases. Draft should increase bottle sales, too; nothing surprising there,” says Hartinger. “We’ll be pleased to see sales increases this year.”

That said, Hartinger adds the company is “in this for the long term,” meaning the draft rollout isn’t meant as a quick ploy to inject new life into an old brand. Rather, it’s about the whole portfolio. As such, they’re not exactly blitzing the states with draft beer, Oatmeal Stout or otherwise. And due to brewery capacity constraints, a number of key markets, including California and Pennsylvania, notes Hartinger, were skipped over for the first draft release.

“Some people in states that didn’t get [Oatmeal Stout] kegs are a bit disappointed,” he says. “Many have been huge fans for decades, and unlike UK fans, they have no local outlet for any variety of Samuel Smith on draft.”

While the draft format is new for Samuel Smith’s in the U.S., this isn’t Merchant du Vin’s first special occasion push behind the iconic brand. In fact, this past April, the company celebrated its seventh annual “Samuel Smith Salute,” a weeklong promotion in which retailers host tastings and sell the beer at discount prices, a ceremony the importer—which also carries other noteworthy international brands like Ayinger and Orval—refers to as “a call to toast the iconic British brewery that has played a prominent role in the U.S. craft beer revolution.”

As far as Merchant du Vin’s plans to eventually bring in other kegged beers from the company go, that, too, will play out methodically. In “trying to bring more draft Samuel Smith to more Americans,” the company says the second draft rollout likely won’t arrive until sometime in 2018, “once we get some kegs back to the brewery.” Future rollouts will likely remain limited by both geography and volume as well. But right now, the idea and hope, the company says in promotional materials, is to help both new drinkers “discover” and lead old ones to “rediscover” a classic.

—Dave Eisenberg