Trade Mission to the US: WEST Brewery

Petra Wetzel, founder and MD of Scottish brewery WEST Brewery, talks about her experiences on the 2012 Breakthrough trade mission to Boston and New York.

The Breakthrough trade mission to Boston and New York involved 11 female entrepreneurs setting off to see what the US could offer their businesses. One of the delegates was Petra Wetzel, a German former lawyer with a passion for beer. The unique selling point of her brewery, WEST, is that it produces Scottish lager in a German way: every beer is made in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, known as the German Purity Law, which dictates the specific ingredients that can be used in the brewing process.

Petra was originally encouraged to join the Breakthrough programme by her accountants and her first impressions were good. “When I found out about the programme I was all ears; it sounded like the most enlightened thing I’d heard in a long time.” In fact, Petra had already attended a trade mission two years previously but admits that, “My business wasn’t ready at that point.”

This time, however, Petra was ready and eager, and she had some export experience under her belt. “I was now ready to take on the opportunity. I had been running the business for four years and had learned a lot. We were exporting to Italy, so had trialled exporting closer to home, which meant travelling to America wasn’t so much of a big step.”  

The trade mission comprised two days in Boston and three days in New York, all of which involved meeting UK businesses that were already successful in the US. Petra found this very useful. “I enjoyed meeting the people on the ground, for example, Tamara Mellon of Jimmy Choo. One of the things she said helped her was hiring a very hungry PR agent in America to push the brand,” Petra says. “I learnt what you can do on a shoestring budget when you’re a small business, in order to raise awareness of the brand”, she adds. The first days also helped her understand what Americans are looking for from a UK product. “It’s always interesting to get the perception of people on the ground. Nicki Doggart, CEO of Hotel Chocolat, had some interesting comments on bringing a British brand to the US market – essentially you need to decide on whether to use Britishness or quality as your USP.”

Before the trip, Petra did her homework on who to talk to in the US. “I approached my friends who run breweries in the UK and Germany. I know the most important thing is to find an importer. If you produce beer in the UK and export it to the States you need an importer who then sells it on to distributors. So, I researched importers and discovered Shelton Brothers, based in Massachusetts. I also contacted a Scottish beer journalist who was based in Boston, and Jim Molloy – a Scottish entrepreneur I had met on the previous trip.”

For Petra, the most effective part of the trip was her meeting with Will Shelton, of Shelton Brothers. “We spent about ten hours talking about beer and strategy and visiting bars. Eventually, there was a turning point in my perception of how we could do business in the States. We talked specifically about German-style lager brewed in Scotland, and how the branding would work.”

As far as Petra was concerned, her business also ticked all the right boxes for the US market. “The Americans were positive about everything Scottish and they also know that German lager is synonymous with quality.” However there were a couple of extra credentials that she hadn't realised her business had, and these now form the main part of the new sales strategy in the US: her all-female management and her own personality.

“I never labour on about the brewery being female managed. I think it’s quite quirky but in the US they loved this aspect of the business. I’m also quite outgoing: I wear my heart on my sleeve and I’m very blunt. This can sometimes play against me in the UK but the Americans love that directness. In the UK I’ve been conditioned to be diplomatic and understated but in America I could be myself. The bigger, the bolder, and the more out-there you are, the more the Americans love you.”

Since the trip, Petra has been busy creating plans for her US business. ”We have appointed Shelton Brothers as an importer and we are going through label registration,” she says. “We are working with distributors in five states – when the beer arrives in America it will be up to the distributors to sell it. It’s hugely exciting to have customers lined up and we’re already getting messages from people in the US asking if the beer is on sale.”

One of the other things that Petra got out of the trade mission was a new circle of friends. “Over the course of the week we became great friends, and I think those friendships will be long-lasting,” she says. Petra has also talked to some of her fellow delegates about working together. “We bought 500 bespoke bags from Julia Gash of Bag It Don't Bin It, and we're in talks with Vivienne Parry of Exquisite Handmade Cakes Ltd about baking a beer cake.”

If you're planning to take your business into the US then Petra has one piece of advice, “It’s really important to find someone on the ground who you trust, who has been in that market for a considerable amount of time and who can give you advice and guide you through the pitfalls. I’m lucky to have someone on the ground holding my hand.”

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