Baltimoreans aren't exactly foaming over Belgian brews

February 20, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Contributing Writer

Baltimore merchants report Belgian beers have made a steady, if modest, impact around town.

Belgian beers are sold at Wells Discount Liquors in Cedarcroft, Morton's in Mount Vernon, the Wine Merchant in Greenspring Valley and other area stores. Sisson's South Baltimore Brewing Company in Federal Hill recently held a tasting of more than a dozen Belgian beers, and occasionally brews a raspberry wheat beer inspired by the Belgians.

"They have a following," says Joe Falcone, beer manager at Wells, which carries nearly 500 types of beer. He says Belgian beers show "excellent repeated sales."

Mr. Falcone says the store sells about 60 cases of Belgian beer a month and stocks almost 20 varieties. The average four-pack runs about $10, while single beers, often sold in corked bottles resembling champagne bottles, average $7.

The Duvel cork-style beer is the store's best seller, and Mr. Falcone says he sells about 10 to 15 cases of it a month. The second best seller is Chemay, the first Belgian beer to hit the Baltimore market, and Mr. Falcone adds that Lambic beers, yeast-heavy brews flavored with fruit, sell especially well to women.

The burgeoning interest in Belgian beers has its roots three or four years ago, Mr. Falcone says. Micro-breweries and brew pubs began opening nationwide, especially in the Pacific Northwest, and began to stir interest in exotic beers. Beer buyers became more adventurous and tried both micro-breweries and obscure imports at the expense of the big four breweries -- Coors, Stroh's, Anheuser-Busch and Miller -- whose sales have dipped.

The explosion of varieties encourages beer drinkers to "self-educate," says Mr. Falcone. "They are going into different styles they never really thought they'd try."

Belgian beer consumers are roughly the same clientele as Wells' other upscale European imports, German Weizen (wheat beers) and English ales: students, upscale professionals, and young couples come into the store regularly looking for Belgian beers, Mr. Falcone says.

"I think people are drinking less but they're drinking better," says Dave Schroeder, co-owner of the Wine Merchant.

Pressure against drunk driving has encouraged people to invite friends over for beer at home instead of bar hopping, Mr. Schroeder says. These drinkers know that $20 might get them 6 or 7 beers in a bar, or an entire case at home.

Not all merchants have had success with Belgian, though. Jeff Wiles, beer manager at Pinehurst Gourmet & Spirit Shoppe, no longer stocks Belgian beer because the high price keeps it from moving.

While Belgian beers have a loyal following, Mr. Falcone says they will never match the appeal of Canadian imports. "Something that expensive is not going to turn like a $13.99, $15.99 case of O'Keefe or Labatt's."

While fads and exotic beers come and go, Wells' best seller is still Coors Light, which moves about 200 to 250 cases a week. The best-selling import is Heineken, which sells 150 to 200 cases a week.

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