Tom Orange knew from the start that being just another player in British Columbia’s crowded craft beer market was not going to cut it, so when Fuggles & Warlock Craftworks was launched in 2015, the focus was on being different.

From the company’s name (Fuggles and Warlock are the nicknames of the two master brewers), to its tagline (Keeping Beer Weird) and the label designs and names of its beer that identify with characters in popular video games and Japanese manga comics, Fuggles & Warlock has set itself apart. The company has developed a loyal customer base, not only in B.C., but in parts of Asia as well where exports now make up about 10 per cent of total sales.

Orange, President and co-founder of the Richmond, B.C.-based company, says while demand for its beer is growing in B.C. and the Ontario market is a big opportunity that’s now opening up, it was always his intention to develop an export market.

“I was thinking about exporting from the get-go, even before we opened our brewery because I thought that while the market was growing here in B.C., I knew that in the longer term it would be important to establish export markets in order to have the ability to grow when the local marketplace became crowded,” he says.

It was a prescient move. According to Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, there were 102 craft breweries in B.C. in 2016, and 31 per cent were less than a year old and another 18 per cent had been around for three years or less.

Nevertheless, the market was thriving with year-over-year average growth of 17 per cent annually since 2010, while conventional beer sales declined 3 per cent annually over the same period.

And domestic sales are booming. According to the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch, microbrewery sales increased by 50 per cent from 2014 to 2015.

It was against this background that Fuggles & Warlock looked abroad to expand its market. Its first export sale was in South Korea, which came about through a proactive approach, says Orange.

“We flew to South Korea and interviewed different importers and distributors and selected a company that had a lot in common with ours. Since then we’ve sent several shipments over and they’ve been building the brand beautifully,” says Orange.

The company is now also exporting to Taiwan and Japan and recently opened a new market in Brazil. Orange says branding has had a lot to do with Fuggles & Warlock’s success in Asia.

“It has a very Asian appeal and a significant Asian art influence,” he adds. “We take pride in references to geek culture, so video gaming, anime, pop culture, movies, that kind of thing. It’s something that resonates in Asia.”

For example, beer names include: Raiden, a video game character in the Mortal Kombat fighting video game series; Icarus, a play on the Kid Icarus franchise of fantasy video games by Nintendo; and Ryegar, a rye beer named for Rhaegar Targaryen, a character in Games of Thrones. There are also beers named after the Japanese manga comic and video game characters Hikari, Kakeru and Kiwami.

But while Asia is a key market for the company with China now in its sights, Orange says exports to other countries are also being explored with Australia and the U.K. at the top of the priority list.

Export insights with President and co-founder Tom Orange

What were your biggest challenges when you first started exporting?

Documentation and import rules in each of the countries. Just getting to understand what the requirements were. For example, understanding that they required laboratory testing on the beers. The logistics and overall documentation were the biggest challenge.

How essential is it for a Canadian exporter to have partners on the ground, particularly in Asia?

It’s critical. In the beer world, you can’t simply dump product in a market and hope it’s going to grow. You need to be working with people who are strategically aligned with your brand philosophy and marketing philosophy, and work in conjunction with them. The one thing that we were very comfortable with was our strategic plan to build the brand with our partners in our export markets.

What would you advise a new exporter to look out for when starting out?

Protect your brand; that’s number one. We trademark our brand in all the countries that we go to. Number two, select an import partner who is very much aligned with your business philosophy.