Imported beer matters less, now more than ever
Think imported: Think expensive. For years, the brewing industry has tapped into consumers' preparedness to pay more for a brew made in romantic-sounding locations overseas. Times are changing, as Stephen Beaumont notes, and brewers are now more comfortable bringing production of their imported brands in-market.
couple of months ago, Anheuser-Busch InBev surprised some brewing industry observers – as well as, presumably, a much greater number of beer consumers – with the announcement that starting this summer, the group will begin production of one of its 'Big Three' international brands on US soil.
The brewing of Belgian lager Stella Artois has been lined up in St Louis before moving on to Newark, Los Angeles, and Jacksonville, following significant upgrades to those facilities.
Of course, this isn't the first time the brewing giant has taken a brand strongly identified with one place to a different locale. As far back as 2005, InBev proposed moving the brewing of the Hoegaarden range out of the Belgian town that gave the beer its name – before local protests and quality concerns prompted a U-turn.
And just a few months ago, A-B InBev announced its intention to begin brewing Corona in Canada, after already successfully taking production of the iconic Mexican lager to China, the UK, Brazil, and elsewhere.
Domestic brewing becomes more common
Not that A-B InBev has been the only brewer to engage in such practices. Far from it. Being Canadian, I've grown used to seeing Canadian-brewed versions of international beers marketed in the US, usually with the word 'imported' adorning the label in much larger print than 'product of Canada'.
Nor has the transplanting of brands always been well-received. In 2015, A-B InBev had its knuckles rapped to the tune of $20m after a US court ruled that domestically-brewed Beck's beer had been deceptively positioned and priced as an import. And, just last year, cheques were mailed in settlement of a class-action suit over Asahi beer brewed in Canada and sold south of the border.
The internationalisation of beer is continuing apace, and some consumers are angry about it. The question remains, does any of it matter?
Back in the 20th Century, the case could have been made that, yes, it mattered very much. All around the world, but especially in the traditionally non-brewing nations of Western Europe and most of North America, imports were viewed as superior to domestic beer, and priced accordingly.
In the latter jurisdictions, in particular, before there was a craft brewer on virtually every street corner, almost the only alternative to domestic regular or light lagers were imported brands - their consumption not only conveyed the image of good taste, it also brought status.
It was for this reason that brands like Heineken found such great success in style-conscious cities like New York and, in the late-1990s, representatives from Pilsner Urquell told me they could never market their beer in cans in the US, as they would be risking the loss of their premium appeal.
But, 20-30 years later, the question of whether place of origin really matters in beer is much more fraught.
Less import, less stress?
While it's widely-accepted wisdom among brewers that differences in equipment, ingredients and water supply make it challenging to brew the exact same beer in two very different places, one would be hard-pressed to make the case that the average beer drinker would be able to tell the difference between, say, a Stella Artois brewed in Leuven and one produced in St Louis.
In fact, given today's heightened awareness of carbon footprints, it would be easier to mount an argument that a beer both brewed and consumed in the eastern US is more socially responsible than one brewed in Belgium and carted overseas for consumption.
Thus, if it's more socially responsible and doesn't affect the flavour to a discernible degree, then it's all win-win, right? Well, yes, with one important proviso.
What prompted the aforementioned lawsuits, and others like them, was less a change in the beer than it was a feeling among consumers of having been deceived. The cure for that, as ever, is transparency.
In commenting on the production of Corona and Stella in Canada, a spokesperson for A-B InBev's Labatt division said, "It is not a regulatory requirement (that 'Brewed in Canada' is prominently featured on the labels), however we want to share our pride, with consumers, in being selected to brew these iconic brands in Canada."
That sort of honesty with beer drinkers, coupled with premium rather than import pricing of domestically-brewed beers, will go a long way towards alleviating consumer concerns that they're being misled.
So long as the flavour and character of the beer isn't changed immeasurably, it might even be enough to preclude further class action lawsuits.