It was a good thing Robert Fabbrini kept up his Italian.
The general manager at Atlanta Brewing Co., the company behind Red Brick Brewing, had studied the language in school, but he never expected it to lead his company into an export journey.
In 2013, when Red Brick got an off-the-wall call by an Italian distributor of spirits throughout Europe, Mr. Fabbrini was able to shepherd it into the company’s first-ever overseas sale.
More telling, however, was the way it went from a one-off to an ongoing relationship.
“It opened our eyes to the opportunity, and we called them back for the reorder,” said Mr. Fabbrini.
Known for its Red Brick and Laughing Skull brands, the latter created as a house beer for The Vortex in Midtown, the company was one of the early craft breweries in Atlanta.
The business has gone through its up and down cycles, but shipping 40-foot containers filled with 1,400 cases or “KeyKegs” of beer to Europe and Asia definitely wasn’t in the plan.
Mr. Fabbrini, a former project manager at Delta Air Lines, has gravitated toward the international space, but he concedes that serendipity, not strategy, pulled Red Brick into a growing industry trend craft brews being sent from the U.S. to a thirsty world.
According to the Brewers Association, which has run an export development program since 2004, American craft beer exports increased 16.3 percent to $116 million in 2016.
It’s not always easy. Few small companies — let alone breweries — are experienced dealing with exchange rates, export credit insurance and adapting a drink for a new market, with all the language-appropriate labeling, compliance and distribution expertise that entails. Then there’s the issue of opportunity cost, whether it makes sense to focus beyond your borders when there’s so much to do at home.
But Red Brick has taken it in stride, balancing its local focus with a healthy fear of missing out on the benefits of the global market.
“It’s important for us to stay open to opportunities that come our way,” says Garett Lockhart, the company’s president and brewmaster. “We find the partners who are going to be advocates for the brand, care for the brand, and we support those people.”
One of those was a distributor in Korea who came calling with an audacious ask: Create a new beer specifically for the Korean market, in a 16-ounce can, no less — nonstandard in the U.S. but popular for single servings.
“Our first reaction wasn’t just no, it was like, ‘Hell no! You’re wasting our time,’” Mr. Fabbrini said. “Then she showed the forecast and the opportunity.”
The more they talked, the more they built mutual trust. The Korean partner traveled to Atlanta, laying out plans for a crisp brew that was somewhere between an Allaghash White and a Blue Moon. Red Brick obliged, eventually landing on the Laughing Skull White Ale, a recipe that includes orange peel and coriander.
With the help of an Atlanta Metro Export Challenge grant of $5,000, Mr. Fabbrini was able to visit the partner’s distribution center outside Seoul in August 2016 to see it first hand and learn more about the market strategy. The first order in-country came from Tesco, a British supermarket chain operating in Korea. But the brew saw such a strong positive reaction, it’s now sold here in the U.S.
Red Brick has also been able to crack into what may be considered beer’s heartland, Germany. In a country where every small town has its own brewery and national regulations keep standards high, Red Brick has done more than held its own. Last November, Red Brick won a gold medal at the European Beer Star Awards in Nuremberg with its Laughing Skull Amber Ale.
That’s particularly gratifying for Mr. Lockhart, who has participated in an American brewing renaissance and is energized by a culture of experimentation that has put a new spin on some European traditions.
“Americans have created styles like modern-day IPAs, a style that was obviously created in England,” Mr. Lockhart said. “Americans took it to another level, and now people in Ireland are buying American-style beers.”
Mr. Fabbrini concedes that it’s sometimes “psychologically daunting” to think about sending product overseas but that help is available. Red Brick has employed help from the Southeast U.S. Trade Association, or SUSTA, as well as the Georgia Department of Economic Development, along with Ex-Im bank credit insurance. In 2016, the company received Georgia’s GLOBE Award from Gov. Nathan Deal for cracking into a new market.
Exports have helped with volume growth and diversification. They’ve also given Red Brick, a relatively small player, a chance to shine in a new way beyond the crowded market of some 5,000 craft breweries in the U.S.
“That’s what the international market does for us. It gives us a chance to build our brand in markets where craft is brand new,” Mr. Fabbrini said.