There was a time when walking through the import section of a liquor store was a bit like travel. You encountered exotic looking labels from foreign places; places you may have visited, or that you decided you must visit some day. You felt a connection to these places through the beers. The bottles themselves may have had funny shapes, or were made of thicker glass, and were sometimes considered collectable. The beer inside the bottles was just as unique, and you didn’t mind spending a little extra on these beers from faraway lands.
Well the beer world is constantly changing, and while it’s hard not to notice the rapid growth of craft beer as you walk down the aisle, other changes are more subtle. You have to read the fine print. Many of your favorite imports are now being brewed right here in the U.S. and Canada.
The concept is not necessarily new. Miller brewed Lowenbrau here in the U.S. for a while in the 70’s and 80’s., and it seems like most folks know that Foster’s (brewed in the U.S. since 1993) really doesn’t come from Australia. But the consolidation of various breweries into the folds of the corporate giants like Inbev (Budweiser, Stella Artois, Bass Ale and Becks,) Diageo (Guinness, Harp and Red Stripe) and SABMiller (Fosters) has led to a rapid change in how and where beers are brewed.
Consider these brands:
Guinness Extra Stout bottles, brewed for over 200 years in Dublin, is now brewed in Canada. (Draught cans still come from Dublin)
Harp Lager, originally brewed in Ireland since 1960, is now brewed in Canada.
Sapporo, brewed in Japan since 1876, is now brewed in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
Kirin, brewed in Japan since 1888, is now brewed in Los Angeles and Williamsburg, VA.
Asahi, brewed in Japan since 1873, is now brewed in Toronto, Canada.
Foster’s Lager, brewed in Australia beginning in 1888, is now brewed in Fort Worth, Texas, after a stint in Canada.
Red Stripe, brewed in Jamaica since 1938, is now brewed in LaTrobe, PA.
Trumer Pils, originally brewed in Salzburg, Austria since 1601, is now brewed in Berkely, CA.
Becks, originally brewed in Bremen, Germany since 1873, is now brewed in St. Louis, MO.
Bass Ale, brewed in Burton on Trent since 1777, and at one time the most exported beer in the world, is now brewed in St. Louis, MO.
Many of these beers are still brewed in their original countries, we just don’t get those versions here. We get what are supposed to be exact copies of them. But how close are these copies, really? Since we don’t get the originals anymore, it is hard to tell. Some loyal drinkers may notice a difference. This happened with Becks when it moved its production to St. Louis. A loyal Becks drinker in the U.S. actually sued InBev over the change, noting the beer tasted quite different from the Becks he had been drinking (from Germany) for years. Some of the breweries are forthright about the change in brewing locations, such as Trumer. Others are much more subtle about letting you know where the beer is now brewed.
Beer, unlike wine, is not as dependent on terroir, so in theory it is possible to duplicate a beer in a different location. The things that made beers unique to certain countries were the grains, hops, yeast and water used. Sure climate and soil conditions make a big difference in the quality of the barley and hops. Yeast strains differed from each region and country, imparting a unique flavor to each beer. In the past, these ingredients were almost always indigenous to the area near the brewery, and gave each beer different qualities. This made them desirable to people outside of immediate markets, and thus exportable. Now grain (barley and wheat), hops and yeast are easily transported. Maybe some of these beers are using those original ingredients. Trumer does advertise that it imports the same ingredients still used in Salzburg to Berkeley. Water is a bit different. Many beers became famous because of the water that was indigenous to the area. Pilsner Urquell and Bass are both famous for the soft water that came from Pilz, Czech Republic and Burton on Trent, England. Water science has come a long way. Perhaps breweries are able to duplicate the exact chemical makeup of the water from the original area. But you have to wonder just how far these corporate breweries are going to duplicate the original beers.
The reason for the changes in where these beers are brewed is obviously monetary. It is expensive to ship and import beer. It is much cheaper to brew beers closer to their markets. But how many of these breweries are being totally honest about the changes, or passing along that savings to the consumer? The beers that are now being brewed in Canada still say Imported on them, but you have to read the fine print to see where they are imported from. Red Stripe advertises “The taste of Jamaica” (brewed in Pennsylvania), and Becks is still “brewed according to the German Purity Laws” (in Missouri). And, importantly, the savings that these breweries are experiencing by brewing closer to the market are generally not being passed along to the consumer. We still pay the same wholesale prices for Red Stripe, Bass and Becks as we did when they were truly imports.
So these questions now come up:
Should we as retailers address this issue?
We really can’t drop the prices when our wholesale prices have not dropped, but are we continuing a deception by not informing our customers of the change?
Should we still market them as Imports and put them in the Import section?
Should we carry them at all?
Does the consumer really even care?
If you are one of our customers, and you do care, I’d love to hear some feedback!
West Vail Liquor