COVID was the final straw, but the popularity of American craft beer may have doomed upmarket imports.

By Mike Pomranz
November 06, 2020
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Even if you aren’t familiar with Shelton Brothers, you likely know their beers: Though not the United States’ largest importer, since 1996, they have been instrumental in introducing Americans to products from some of Europe’s most acclaimed brewers. Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Fantome, and Cloudwater are just a few of the over 100 breweries listed on their website. But in a genuinely shocking revelation penned by writer Kate Bernot for the site Good Beer Hunting, it appears Shelton Brothers—at least as the truly brother-owned importer it is today—will be no more.

Dan Shelton explained that his company’s bank, Berkshire Bank, plans to seize the importer’s assets to cover their extensive debts. “Basically they have rights to every last paper clip that belongs to Shelton Brothers,” he was quoted as saying. “They’re going to take that and they’re going to sell it. We’re trying to get them to sell it to people who will treat it right, buy the assets—the beer we have in the warehouse—and continue the business.” At this point, the company has reportedly already laid off 25 members of its staff.

Credit: Patrick Palej / EyeEm/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic was apparently the nail in the coffin for Shelton. “Our [sales] numbers from February to March went to shit,” Shelton told Good Beer Hunting. “I mean really shit. In March, we did 15 percent of what we’d done the previous year.”

However, the company was also dealing with other issues—including a lost lawsuit and a couple of large clients moving on. And ironically enough, Shelton Brothers—which helped open up beer drinkers’ palates with its unique foreign imports, driving the start of the craft beer revolution in the process—may have also been a victim of craft beer’s success.

“Fundamentally, part of Shelton’s problem is that some of the older [imported] brands might be offering a product that’s also brewed domestically,” Paul Jones, co-founder of England’s Cloudwater Brew Co, told Bernot. “You can get beautiful Saison made in America and it doesn’t come with all the prestige or mystique of Belgian-produced Saison, but it’s just as interesting to the modern consumer, maybe more interesting.”

Regardless, the loss of Shelton Brothers—a legend in beer circles and practically a seal of quality for any brands they worked with—will mark the end of a very important era for American beer. “Shelton gave American consumers a chance to experience what beer has always been,” Jones added. Indeed, good beer won’t be going anywhere—but without Shelton Brothers, it may not have been so quick to arrive here in the first place.