Parallel import beer taste test

How do premium imported beers shape up against the locally brewed versions?
 
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01 .Introduction

beer

We've tasted Peroni, Stella, Heineken and other imported favourites to find how the premium imports match up against their locally brewed versions.

About the taste test

  • Imported brands and their locally brewed counterparts were purchased from local bottle shops around Sydney.
  • Experts were presented with unlabelled pairs of local and imported beers and asked to arrive at a score out of 20 for each, taking into account appearance, aroma, flavour and technical composition.
  • We bought beers that were on the shelf, whatever the best before date, to replicate what is generally available to the consumer at any one point in time.

How do parallel beer imports work?

Each franchised brew comes with its own brand manual outlining the intrinsic properties of the beer, right down to equipment, raw materials and even the composition of the water used at the brewery.

When you order an imported beer off the menu at your local restaurant, it would seem reasonable to attribute the premium price to the cost of shipping Peroni from Italy, Stella from Belgium or Grolsch from a canal-side beer hall in Holland. But this isn’t always the case.

International beer giant SABMiller, which took control of the formerly Australian-owned Foster’s in December last year, brews a handful of European beers right here in Australia, including Grolsch and Peroni Nastro, both of which are brewed at the Bluetongue Brewery on the NSW Central Coast. 

Danish Carlsberg and French Kronenbourg 1664 are brewed under licence by Foster’s. Lion also has a share of the market, responsible for the local brewing of Dutch brand Heineken and German Beck’s.

Head brewer at the Bluetongue Brewery, Paul Feasey, says there are many factors beyond country of origin that can influence the flavour of a beer. Each franchised brew comes with its own brand manual outlining the intrinsic properties of the beer, right down to equipment, raw materials and even the composition of the water used at the brewery. 

“We do everything we possibly can that is in line with the brands in their home countries,” says Feasey – including shipping in Italian maize to brew the local Peroni Nastro and European hops to ensure Grolsch remains true to its Dutch heritage. In order to uphold his commitment to authentic flavour, Feasey tastes the beers every day and sends monthly samples to the home breweries for feedback.

To welcome the beginning of spring, CHOICE enlisted a panel of seven beer experts who brew, buy or imbibe for a living to bring imported European beers face to face with their brewed-locally- under-licence counterparts.

Fresh is best

“Age makes a big difference,” says Feasey, who argues little can be done to prevent flavour degrading over time. 

“If you drank a fresh Peroni here today and then flew to Italy and drank a fresh Peroni in Rome, they would taste identical. The problem is, a container can take eight weeks to get here and spend three to six weeks at the docks in temperatures that can reach 70-80°C at certain times of the year.”

Panellist Ian Watson told CHOICE that beer starts deteriorating shortly after bottling and tastes best at the seven-day mark, although Feasey believes ideal consumption time can be stretched out to three months. 

The Australian industry standard requires that all beers brewed for consumption here be labelled with a best-before date of nine months after the date of bottling, although Feasey says a six-month shelf life would be preferable to get more fresh beer into the market.

 
 

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Taste test results
Label Country of origin Number of judges who preferred locally brewed version Number of judges who preferred imported version Australian brewer
Grolsch Holland 6 1 SAB Miller
Kronenbourg 1664 ** France 6 0 Fosters
Carlsberg Denmark 5 2 Fosters
Heineken Holland 5 2 Lion Nathan
Stella Artois Belgium 3 4 AB InBev
Becks ** Germany 3 3 Lion Nathan
Peroni Nastro Italy 2 5 SAB Miller
TABLE NOTES: ** One expert was undecided between the imported and locally brewed versions.

If you like the taste of European beer but don’t like the idea of a globetrotting brew, you should have no hesitation about purchasing a beer brewed locally under licence. Of the seven beers we compared, there was no unanimously preferred brew, with local brands on par with their authentic counterparts.

Of the local brews, NSW-produced Grolsch achieved the highest score. Six experts preferred the local brew’s lively full flavour over the import, which they said was “stale” and “hard to love”.

The Carlsberg and Kronenbourg 1664 local brews also scored better than their imported siblings, although in the case of Carlsberg only just. Panellists commended the local Carlsberg for its solid characteristics and good drinkability, while Australian Kronenbourg was commended for its balanced flavours and ability to display the qualities typical of a European lager.

Lion’s Heineken scored just ahead of the Dutch version, and there was an overall consensus that the two were the closest match of the day.

The real deal

If you think lasagne tastes best in Italy and chocolate best in Belgium, you’re no doubt an advocate for authenticity. So what did our experts think of the authentic brews of these two countries? In our test, five of our seven experts preferred the imported Peroni Nastro, despite it being closer to its best-before date than its local counterpart.

AB-InBev’s Stella Artois and Lion’s Beck’s both split the panel, so if you want to bring a bit of Belgium to your backyard or beer hall spirit to your BBQ, let your tastebuds be your guide.

The parallel debate

Our experts also sampled two bottles of Corona, with best-before dates within two weeks of each other, brewed by AB-InBev in Mexico. The only difference: one arrived on our shores courtesy of the official importer via the traditional route, while the other was parallel imported via non-traditional channels. In this case, five out of seven experts preferred the traditionally imported product, although experts said they were overall a well-matched pair and that parallel imports can offer consumers competitive prices and fresh characteristics if handled correctly.


Please note: Local refers to locally brewed versions of the depicted beer; Imported refers to imported versions of the depicted beer; The number in brackets refers to the amount of judges who preferred that beer. Please see the results table for more details.

Meet our experts

 
ian-kingham
 
 
ian-watson
 
neal-cameron
Ian Kingham
National Merchandise Manager, ALH Group/Woolworths
Richard Adamson
Director, Young Henrys Brewing Company
Ian Watson
Brewer, Murray's Craft Brewing Co.
Neal Cameron
Head Brewer, The Australian Brewery

 
sarah-turner
 
matt-donelan
 
david-lipman
Sarah Turner
Restaurant and Events Manager, 4 Pines Brewing Company
 Matt Donelan
Owner, St Peters Brewery
David Lipman
Publisher and Managing Director, Beer & Brewer Magazine








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