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May 10, 2008 08:36 AM

The Import Imposters

What are people's thoughts on the ongoing trend of imported brands being contract brewed and sold under the original name and packaging? One of the more famous and more disastrous examples of course was Miller Brewing's LOWENBRAU fiasco...with their ads touting beer brewed under the strict supervision of the German brewmasters while conveniently neglecting to mention that the ingredients, taste, balance were entirely different. It almost killed the brand.
These days the shelves are graced with FOSTER's made in Texas, WHITBREAD ALE made in Cincinatti...both sold at import prices... and GUINNESS (and a host of other European brands) now being brewed in Canada. Even that KIRIN you enjoy in your favorite Japanese restaurant actually comes from Canada.
Is BASS next, now that Coors has such a large investment in the brand?

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  1. First it was cars (Volkswagens made in Mexico, Hondas in Kentucky etc), now it's beer. As you pointed out, nowadays it's getting harder to tell who's making what and where they're doing it.

    The thing that matters most to me as far as beer goes is of course how it tastes. I don't know if it has anything to do with who owns or brews Bass now, but in days gone by I really enjoyed it very much. Then I went a couple years without having it and when I went back to it I couldn't believe how poor it was. It seemed watered down and had a wet cardboard taste to it. I figured maybe I had a bad bottle, but have gone back and tried it several times since yet it still seems to be a shadow of it's former self. Perhaps my tastes have changed or something, but I really don't think so.

    1. If any of these beers were really that interesting, I'd probably care more. I'm much more interested in drinking local craft brews.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Josh

        Ha. Touche!
        A good point, although really the question I posed was more academic than anything else.
        Believe me, I'm as big a beer snob as anyone...and have been one for 40 years. I love craft beers but there are a LOT of really crappy ones cluttering up the shelves these days. Just because a beer is a local or craft beer doesn't automatically guarantee that it is going to be a superior product (I have been let down a few too many times especially by ineptly brewed brewpub beer). There are still a few imports that I reach for regularly...and I always wonder if one of them will fall prey to the dreaded "license arrangement" that even Guiness is now a part of.

        1. re: The Professor

          Sure, craft doesn't automatically mean it's good. I'm lucky to live in a part of the country where the local beer is uncommonly good, nearly across the board. Consequently, that's mostly what I drink.

          1. re: The Professor

            "...the dreaded "license arrangement" that even Guiness is now a part of."

            "Now?" I'd say Guinness was a *pioneer* in contract/license brewing and establishing sites outside of their "home" brewery. They opened a UK brewery in the 1930's, were contract-brewing in the US by the late 1930's (eventually taking over that NYC area brewery after WWII ), established a brewery in Africa in the 1960's and today brags on their website that Guinness stouts (there are something like 17 of 'em) are brewed in 50 nations around the world.

            Other early "international" brewers were Heineken (apparently they tried for a time to import Asian-brewed Heineken into the US after the start of WWII until the Japanese cut off that supply) and Carling, which had breweries in Canada, the US, the UK and (IIRC) South Africa and was the brewer of the US's first notably successful "under license" beer, Tuborg - which predated the Miller/Lowenbrau deal in the 1970's.

        2. Hasn't Pabst won the large brewery at the GABF for the last few years and they don't own a brewery, all contract brewed. It makes so much sense from a business point of view.For the owner of a brewery that is not working 24/7 you're losing productivity so contract brewing is win-win. If the recipes stay the same it's all OK

          1 Reply
          1. re: niquejim

            I agree, but I think that when it comes to imported beer, part of what people are buying is the 'imported' part. And it seems that most of the bigger beer brands are sold as brands more than as beers, i.e., for their brand status and not for their sensory qualities.

          2. Most Japanese beers are now brewed in Canada. The Canadian versions are IMHO skunky compared to their original counterparts. Lowenbrau - Swiss Lowenbrau - I think may have eventually been killed by Miller's version. I loved the Swiss version.

            3 Replies
            1. re: bulavinaka

              Beers get skunked based on how they are handled (exposed to light, particularly if they are bottled in clear or green bottles) rather than how they are brewed. For some reason, the use of the green or clear bottles is due to the triumph of a marketer's vision for visual appeal rather than the brewmaster's vision of a quality product.

              There may be other reasons to prefer the original to the replica but a European beer in a green bottle can get skunked with the best of them.

              1. re: bulavinaka

                The Munich based Lowenbrau that licensed it brand name to Miller in the 1970-90's had no connection to the "Swiss Lowenbrau", which was labeled "Lowenbrau Zurich" in the US. Simply the same name (Lions and Eagles have been popular beer names around the world)- can't really be called a "version" of the German Lowenbrau (which is now just an InBev brand, brewed at another Munich InBev-owned brewery IIRC).

                As I recall, the Swiss brewery (now closed) was purchased by the giant Swiss firm Feldschlösschen at some point (maybe via Hürlimann?), but while still open the beer was being sold in the US during Miller's "Lowenbrau" era.

                1. re: JessKidden

                  I know that the two are different and wow were they different. Version to me in this example is Brand to you - sorry for the confusion. Again, I am highly aware that these two brews are vastly different and were brewed in two totally different countries by two totally different breweries. I think the confusion to the average beerdrinking consumer in the US in having the same name, coupled with the much higher price for the Swiss product (justifiably so) made selling the Swiss product more difficult. I did notice a huge decline in distribution of this product, with the inverse happening with the Miller version at the same time. Now if it was eventually killed because of the takeover that you mention, that would explain why you can't even find it anymore - I'm guessing for the past 5-7 years.

              2. The Bass brand is owned by InBev, not Coors. Coors bought the *brewery* in Burton on Trent, not the brand (tho' there was an interim period, since ended, when they brewed it under contract for InBev). The complicated deal's explained in the NYT here-
                Current US version of Bass in labeled being from "Luton", which is merely InBev's UK office (no brewery there anymore IIRC). UK Bass is made by Marston's, again under contract for InBev.

                This subject's been discusses on CH several times (under "Japanese Beer", "Guinness" and "Bass" titled threads) and, while I'm interested in the international brewing industry, when I'm chosing a beer to *drink*- I'm with Josh- who cares? I don't drink Foster's- didn't drink it as an Aussie import, didn't care when it became a Canadian brewed "imported beer" and my chances of drinking it now that's it's a Miller-brewed brand haven't gone up or down.

                9 Replies
                1. re: JessKidden

                  Thanks for the clarification on the confusing Coors/Bass deal.
                  Again, while there are a few imports that I still reach for on ocassion, the question I posed was more academic than anything; in truth, the beer I enjoy most is homebrewed stuff anyway...I don't even purchase so called "craft" beer all that often except out of curiosity, or that rare time I find a truly outstanding one.
                  I only raised the "import" issue at all because of the confusion some folks have expressed about it.

                  1. re: The Professor

                    Whoa, whoa, wait a minute now. What do you mean when you say 'so called "craft" beer'? If you mean fake ones, like Wild Hop, Stone Creek, or whatever those AB/Miller brands are, then I understand, but it sounds to me like you're questioning the legitimacy of craft beer in general.

                    Where I live, not only is there amazing craft beer, but the brewers who make it all got their start as homebrewers, and often come up with their commercial releases by first experimenting with homebrew versions of their product.

                    If you're only finding outstanding craft beers on rare occasions, then it sounds like you must live somewhere where there's a short supply.

                    1. re: Josh

                      I'll drift off topic here just to clarify ... No shortage of craft brew where I live; this area arguably has one of the largest available selections in the country.
                      Anyway, you seem to misinterpret what I was trying to say. The point I really wanted to make (albeit clumsily) is simply that while there is certainly some good "craft" brew out there, there is also an awful lot of really, REALLY bad "craft" beer out there. I'm certainly glad your local homebrewers-turned-commercial are making good beer that is so accessible to you. That's a nice situation to be in.
                      I've had some terrific small brewery craft beers...but I've had quite a bit of swill as well. Same with the category you call "fake". There is nothing at all fake about the good ones, since to my mind, "craft" denotes the skill in the making, not the size of the company. I don't care WHO makes the long as it's good.
                      My first taste of beer was 40 years ago and it happened to be a Bock Beer, so my palate from the beginning has always sought out the unusual. Maybe I'm just more particular than most. Although I am a card carrying beer snob, my motto has always been "drink what you like!"

                      1. re: The Professor

                        Yeah, I've had some bad craft brew. I'm fortunate to live in a part of the country where that's a very tiny percentage of what's available. Thanks for clarifying, I understand what you mean now.

                        1. re: The Professor

                          >>"craft" denotes the skill in the making, not the size of the company

                          True. If you throw out as "fake" the larger "craft breweries, that means Sam Adams for sure. True, their basic Boston Lager is a vat of swill, but they still push the envelope in trying to persuade average drinkers into trying non-average beers, and accomplish some (though not all) pretty well.

                          1. re: Loren3

                            I wouldn't say Boston Lager is swill. It is actually a fairly well made beer.

                            1. re: Loren3

                              "True, their basic Boston Lager is a vat of swill"

                              I strongly disagree

                              1. re: Loren3

                                Surely you jest!! The Boston Lager is, I think, a very, very well made beer. I think perhaps the problem is that the company has grown too mainstream and as a result, the beer lacks real snob appeal. It is made by what has become a fairly big company, but it is absolutely a "real" craft beer. I think it's great that really good beers like Sam Adams have become so mainstream...even if it's not particularly one's favorite, at least it increases the possibility of having a good beer to "settle" for where your favorite micro isn't available.. Even many places that would have been "beer deserts" in the past now have Sam.

                                1. re: The Professor

                                  Sam Adams is often the only craft-y beer available. That and Sierra Nevada, while not earth-shattering, are solid beers with good flavor that you can find a lot of places.