Why Sweden Loves Brooklyn Beer, and Other Weird Exports

Feb 27, 2014

America has a huge domestic market and remains the world’s largest importer, but the vibrant export sector is what really makes the economy sizzle. There’s no shortage of companies and individuals working hard to sell goods and services abroad, sometimes in the most unusual places. For instance, did you know that Wichita, nestled amid the amber waves of grain, is home to a thriving high-tech aircraft industry? Or that coastal New York is one of the biggest exporters of craft beers?

Here's a sampling of surprising exports from regions around that country:

Brooklyn’s Beerfest

There isn’t much grain grown in New York City. But Brooklyn Brewery, one of the top makers of craft beer in the country, is crazy for hops and barley. It is also one of America's leading exporters in this segment, with its brews available in more than 20 countries. Foreign sales are running at about 28% of total expected sales of $65 million this year. In fact, the company's second-largest market after New York City is...Sweden! The surprisingly strong Nordic affinity for the Brooklyn beer is so strong that the company is even building a brewery in Stockholm.

Sure, the overseas market for craft brews is fairly small, just $49 million in 2012. But with overall domestic beer sales remaining nearly flat, according to the Brewers Association, craft beers remain the bubbliest part of the market — with 15% growth. So foreign sales are going to play a key role in the industry's future, especially for craft brewers who will face an easier time charging premium prices abroad compared to mass market lagers. Mind you, Brooklyn Brewery faces strong competition from other long-time competitors in the segment, such as Boston Beer's Sam Adams. But there's plenty of room, says research firm IBISWorld, predicting that exports of fancy suds will grow by 35% percent annually through 2018. Cheers to that!

Wichita’s Air(craft) Shipments

Even though America's oceans of grain float the Midwest economy, Wichita has built a solid aircraft manufacturing industry on the prairie. The cluster of aircraft-related companies located in Kansas' largest city earned the state just shy of $2 billion in 2012 exports, more than double what it sold in wheat. You have to add earnings from soy beans and meat products before Kansas's agricultural exports match what it earns from aviation.

The industry has long roots here, dating back before the Great Depression. That’s when Stearman, an early aircraft maker, set up shop. Since then, Stearman has been joined by other leading civil aviation manufacturers, including Cessna and Beechcraft, and a host of ancillary companies. Boeing's plan to abandon its Wichita facility has some observers concerned about the city's future as a high-tech hub, but those fears may be overblown. Spirit AeroSystems, which used to be part of Boeing, is staying and will continue making airframes and cockpits for Boeing. Cessna and Beechcraft, both owned by Textron, are also staying. Bombardier, which makes the iconic Learjet, is expanding its factory.

Silicon Portland

Many people may think Portland business is all about shoes — with a swoosh. Yet while Nike’s Beaverton headquarters is just outside the city, apparel and shoes don't even crack Oregon’s top ten exports, largely because Nike makes most of its products elsewhere. In fact, those categories are easily outpaced by electronics and high-tech equipment, with exports topping $5 billion in 2012. Much of that output originates from Portland’s so-called Silicon Forest.

The local high-tech industry dates back to the '40s. But it really got going in the ‘70s, when Intel set up shop there. Today, the City of Roses has much more to offer than drizzle and a cool reputation. In fact, Portland is fast developing into a template for an export-focused urban area, with its tech and electronics industry helping make the city the second-fastest growing exporter among major metropolitan areas in the country.

Puerto Rico: Sun, Surf, Medical Supplies?

It's a prime sun and surf destination, but the territory's most valuable export earner isn’t Ricky Martin, tourism, or even rum. In fact, this Caribbean island is a major exporter of medical products, earning a cool $7 billion in 2012 from medicines — and upwards of $9 billion when all medical supplies and devices are included.

The territory is home to more than 70 medical device manufacturers. Moreover, 12 of the 20 major pharmaceutical companies — from Eli Lilly to Roche, Novartis, and Bristol Myers Squibb — have production facilities on the island. That's nothing to sneeze at.

Providence Gets Scrappy

It may not sound as glamorous, but the most important export industry in the “Biggest Little State in the Union” is scrap metal, followed by precious scrap metals, then silver powder, then...well you get the idea. In fact, the state exported more than $1 billion worth of recycled metals in 2012. One company even managed to scrap a retired Russian submarine.

There are good reasons for being so scrap-happy. First, Rhode Island is in the oldest and most crowded part of the country, so there's a lot of raw material for scrap. On top of that, docking fees are far cheaper in Providence than in either New York or Boston, the two closest competing ports. And with Providence proud of its blue-collar heritage, there's no false modesty when it comes to rolling up your sleeves and getting down to business.

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