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The real thing?

SIX months ago, if you ordered a Peroni Nastro Azzurro at your favourite pizza restaurant, or bought a slab of the well-known Italian brand at the bottle shop, what you got was a real imported beer, brewed in Rome. If you go into your favourite pizza place tonight and order a Peroni – or pick up a slab on your way to a barbecue tomorrow – the bottles will look the same, but the contents will probably have been brewed in Warnervale, on the NSW Central Coast.
Peroni Nastro Azzurro is the latest premium European lager brand to be brewed under licence in Australia. It joins Stella Artois, Kronenbourg and Carlsberg (all of which are brewed here by Foster’s), Heineken and Beck’s (brewed by Lion Nathan) and Grolsch (brewed, like Peroni, by Pacific Beverages, a joint venture between Australia’s Coca-Cola Amatil and the giant multinational SABMiller).
Most everyday beer drinkers are blissfully unaware that their favourite fancy “imported” lager is brewed down the road rather than in some romantic European city. But some passionate beer drinkers think these “fake imports” are a disgrace: not only do the local brews taste different, say the critics, but the way they’re packaged and marketed borders on the downright misleading.

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Anthony d’Anna found out the hard way that his favourite Italian beer had changed. “The family went out to dinner late last year and, being good Italians, ordered Nastro Azzurro like we always do. But when I tasted the beer I thought, hold on, this doesn’t taste right. It was only when I looked really carefully at the back label that I realised it was brewed here under licence. I couldn’t believe it.”
The d’Anna family owns a suburban bottle shop in Melbourne, and Anthony decided, after what he calls his “fake Peroni” experience, that he would only sell real, Italian-brewed Nastro Azzurro. And to do that he would have to rely on parallel imports: small batches of beer brought in by businesses other than the big breweries that have the official licence to distribute the European brands.
Parallel importing of beer isn’t illegal but it is a grey area, accounting for between 10 and 20 per cent of the market for premium beer, so the practice is particularly loathed by the big breweries.
D’Anna has also set up a blog calling for people to avoid “fake imports” and drink the “real thing” instead. It’s not only the difference in taste that annoys him: according to d’Anna, when Pacific Beverages changed from importing Peroni to producing it locally, they didn’t tell their retail customers that what they’re now selling wasn’t quite the same as what they were selling.
This was confirmed by the experience of my local independent wine merchant. “Late last year I noticed the Peroni that Pac Bev, our regular suppliers, were selling me tasted different,” said the store manager (who asked not to be named). The retailer was not informed that the beer was now locally brewed. So he started stocking the parallel import stuff instead. “And you know what? We found we can buy the real imported stuff cheaper than the locally brewed version.”

The case against
Anthony d’Anna and my local independent bottle-o are not alone in their outrage. Beer lovers – particularly the online brew-head community – have been arguing about “fake imports” ever since Foster’s and Lion started brewing the big European brands in Australia more than a decade ago.
One of the main complaints is that the locally brewed versions don’t taste as good as the genuine article. There is, of course, only one way to put this to the test – which is why I organised my own tasting (see breakout, opposite).
Another complaint is that the way the brewed-under-licence beers are packaged and sold can easily lead the casual consumer to assume the beer was indeed imported. Peroni’s labels are all written in Italian; the Beck’s packaging describes it as the “No.1 German Bier”; Kronenbourg is “La Premiere Biere Francaise” – and so on. This isn’t helped by the fact that these locally brewed brands often appear on restaurant wine lists under “imported beers”, and that the beer fridge marked “Imports” at my local Dan Murphy’s is full of Australian-made Peroni, Grolsch, Carlsberg, Heineken...

No wonder the issue has attracted the interest of the Australian Consumers’ Association, publishers of Choice Magazine. “We are very keen that there is full transparency in country-of-origin labelling,” Choice spokesperson Christopher Zinn told me. “And at the moment, that transparency is not straightforward with these beer brands.”

The case in favour
The big breweries – and quite a few brew-head bloggers – point out that the locally made “international” brands are made under the supervision of the European parent company and should, therefore, be identical in flavour profile to the imported versions.
“The Peroni we make here goes through up to 200 tests to ensure its quality,” says Peter McLoughlin, CEO of Pacific Beverages, local brewer of Peroni Nastro Azzurro. “We import ingredients that the brewmaster at Peroni believes are crucial. We use local malts that meet their specifications. And every batch we brew is sent back to Italy for testing by a tasting panel of 12 before it is approved.”

The strongest argument for brewing locally, though, is that it ensures a much fresher product than a beer that has to be shipped halfway around the world. “Beer is best the day after it leaves the brewery,” says McLoughlin. “Part of the problem with having to import beer to Australia is that it crosses the equator and you can get oxidation and degradation if the beer isn’t handled properly. That’s why we have such a big problem with parallel importing: the consumer just can’t be sure that what they’re buying has been subjected to the same quality controls as we are able to bring.”
Another good reason for brewing locally, says McLoughlin, is that it enables the brewer to sell the brand on tap in pubs. “Twenty-five per cent of the ¬premium beer market here is ¬consumed in draught format. Importing kegs of Peroni is not feasible, so brewing draught Peroni here helps us build the brand substantially.” And once the brand is big enough, says McLoughlin, the cost advantage to the brewer of producing a beer locally – as opposed to shipping it out ready-made – can be “significant”.

Cultural product
But no matter how fresh a locally brewed “international” beer is, or how similar it might taste to the imported version, there is still the issue of authenticity. “This is the flipside of globalisation,” says Christopher Zinn. “A beer brewed under licence might be chemically the same as the brand brewed in Europe. But beer is a cultural product as much as anything. If a consumer chooses to buy an Italian beer, they are entitled to expect it comes from Italy.”
Or, as Anthony d’Anna puts it: “Stella brewed here might taste fresher, it might even taste better – but it’s not Stella!”

18 Feb. 2011

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