SBDC trade mission brings Washington specialty beverages to Korea

SPOKANE, Wash.—It’s a truism that the first sale is usually the hardest, and it’s even harder when you’re trying to make an export sale.

But a recent trade mission to Korea organized by the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) for Washington-based adult beverage producers, made the challenge just a little easier, according to trade mission participants.

Bryan Shull, owner of Trap Door Brewing in Vancouver, said he signed up for the mission with “zero knowledge of exporting,” but returned home with two strong leads for significant sales. “I would not have been able to negotiate this quickly without the SBDC staff,” he said.

Trap Door Brewing and four other businesses that either make or distribute craft or artisanal beer, wine, cider or spirits traveled to Korea with SBDC international trade advisors and a WSDA specialist to meet one-on-one with buyers and gain insights into local markets March 18-21.

Bryan Shull, owner of Trap Door Brewing

The five businesses were able to introduce eight different product brands to a variety of Korean experts including alcohol beverage buyers, social media influencers, magazine publishers and an industry association. The mission included business-to-business meetings, in-country market visits, a briefing with the US-Agricultural Trade Office (ATO) in Seoul, and a networking event. During the four-day visit, U.S. businesses learned about export regulations, selling channels, buyers and overall market conditions.

“It is exciting to see companies experience the possibilities of international trade,” said Christy Mastin, the Washington SBDC international trade advisor located in Richland. “Being in a foreign market provides new perspectives and current information crucial for success.”

Mastin and SBDC colleagues Allan Peterson and Ellie He worked with business owners before the trip to ensure they would be fully prepared for business-to-business meetings, often sat in on the meetings and were available to debrief after the meetings. Mastin, Peterson and He are continuing to assist trade mission participants as they work to keep the momentum going.

“Cultivating trust with overseas partners plays a pivotal role in achieving export success,” said He, “and that’s why in person visits are so important.”

Specialty Beverage Trade Mission Delegation in Korea

The SBDC’s participation in the trade mission was made possible by a Portable Assistance Grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration. In addition, business owners received grants from the SBA’s State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) to help defray some of their travel expenses.”

“The value of these trade missions increases exponentially when you have advance preparation and seamless support from multiple partners, as we did with the SBA, the Washington Export Outreach Team and the Washington State Department of Agriculture,” He said.

Julie Johnson, WSDA’s export development and outreach specialist, said the trip was invaluable for business owners to begin building relationships not only with importers and distributors, but also with WSDA’s Korea In-Market Representative, Danny Kim, who coordinated all of the meetings and activities in Seoul.

Because Kim set up the meetings and was with the delegation throughout the trip, Johnson said, he can provide ongoing assistance to Washington businesses as they continue building their export sales.

“Exporting takes time, and you must be patient throughout the process,” Johnson said.

Spencer White and Dustin Wales, co-founders of CraftCadia

Participants included both established businesses such as Wilridge Vineyard Winery & Distillery which has been in business for 36 years, and newer businesses such as CraftCadia Distribution, which was founded in 2021.

While several of the participants, like Trap Door Brewing, were new to export, others were seeking to expand export sales into new markets.

“Every trip we make with the SBDC and WSDA provides further in-market insight and better preparedness,” said White, who co-founded CraftCadia with Dustin Wales to market Northwest wines, beers and ciders to a global audience.

“Any business with a goal of exporting should utilize this service as an investment toward gaining in-person connections,” he said, adding that the insights participants gain about who their target market is and how to reach them are invaluable.

Teodora Baba, owner of Teinnovadora

Teinnovadora was founded by Teodora Baba in 2017 with a plan to import wines from Romania to Washington State, but also to export Washington wines around the world. Baba said she was amazed at how much she learned about the wine industry in South Korea from the four-day visit. Instead of trying to market Washington wines to specific stores, she said, she learned she needs to work with in-country wholesalers that have dedicated sales people who will promote, sell and manage distribution to department stores across the country.

Baba said she really appreciated the support she received from both the WSDA and the SBDC. “The team meticulously planned and organized everything, ensuring that every detail was taken care of,” she said. “This allowed me to concentrate fully on my business and the brands I promote.”

Specialty Beverage Trade Mission Delegation with U.S. Agricultural Trade Office Seoul, Director Lisa Allen

Vicki Mar, Asia export sales representative at Pike Brewing Company in Seattle, said her goal for the trip was to learn more about the beer culture in Korea, especially what the market is for different types of American beers.

According to Mar, the one-on-one meetings she had with potential distributors were extremely worthwhile. “We were able to present our beer, get their impressions of it and talk about possibly doing business together,” she said. “Nothing beats in-person meetings.”

In addition to meeting with buyers who had already been vetted, the group was also able to visit retail stores to see how products are displayed. “Every minute was filled with opportunities I could not have scheduled on my own,” she said.

The Washington SBDC is hosted by Washington State University and receives funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), WSU, and other institutions of higher education, economic development agencies, and business and civic groups. The Washington SBDC has three international trade specialists and more than 30 general business advisors located across the state who can assist small business at any stage of development and in just about any industry.