Yes, that's right. If you've recently enjoyed a frosty bottle of classy European lager, the fine print on the label might have actually read "Brewed in Australia". 

It's common practice for major beer brands to have their products brewed locally, to expand their markets, reduce shipping costs and keep the beer fresh. With strict requirements for the recipe, ingredients and brewing process, the locally brewed version should taste the same as the stuff made back in the home country … but does it?

Which brands import and which brands brew locally?

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, brews a handful of European beers here in Australia, including Grolsch and Peroni Nastro, both of which are brewed at the now fabled Bluetongue Brewery on the NSW Central Coast.

At the time of our test, Danish Carlsberg and French Kronenbourg 1664 were brewed under licence by Foster's, but since then the contract to distribute these beers locally has been won by Coopers in South Australia. Coopers brews Carlsberg locally but not Kronenbourg 1664, which is now an import only.

Lion also has a share of the market, responsible for the local brewing of Dutch brand Heineken and German Beck's, and since our test, Lion has also taken over local production and distribution of Stella Artois.

How do parallel beer imports work?

Head brewer at the Bluetongue Brewery Paul Feasey said 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," said 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.

Fresh is best

"Age makes a big difference," said Feasey, who says 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 said a six-month shelf life would be preferable to get more fresh beer into the market.

CHOICE taste test

In a 2012 investigation, CHOICE enlisted a panel of seven beer experts who brew, buy or imbibe for a living. They tested seven brands – Beck's, Carlsberg, Grolsch, Heineken, Kronenbourg 1664, Peroni Nastro and Stella Artois – to find how the premium imports matched up against their locally brewed versions. It was a blind tasting; the experts were not told which sample was locally brewed and which was imported.

Imported brands and their locally brewed counterparts were purchased from local bottle shops around Sydney. A panel of experts was presented with unlabelled pairs of locally brewed 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.

Meet the judges



Ian Kingham, National Merchandise Manager, ALH Group/ Woolworths
 

Richard Adamson, Director, Young Henrys Brewing Company


 

Richard Adamson, Director, Young Henrys Brewing Company


 

Neal Cameron, Head Brewer, The Australian Brewery

 

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

Locally brewed vs imported

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.

Five of our seven experts preferred the imported Peroni Nastro, despite it being closer to its best-before date than its local counterpart.

Stella Artois and 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.

Taste test results

Grolsch (Holland)

Number of judges who preferred the locally brewed version: 6

Number of judges who preferred the imported version: 1

Brewed in Australia by: SAB Miller

Kronenbourg 1664 (France) **

Number of judges who preferred the locally brewed version: 6

Number of judges who preferred the imported version: 0

Brewed in Australia by: Fosters

Carlsberg (Denmark)

Number of judges who preferred the locally brewed version: 5

Number of judges who preferred the imported version: 2

Brewed in Australia by: Fosters

Heineken (Holland)

Number of judges who preferred the locally brewed version: 5

Number of judges who preferred the imported version: 2

Brewed in Australia by: Lion Nathan

Stella Artois (Belgium)

Number of judges who preferred the locally brewed version: 3

Number of judges who preferred the imported version: 4

Brewed in Australia by: AB InBev

Beck's (Germany) **

Number of judges who preferred the locally brewed version: 3

Number of judges who preferred the imported version: 3

Brewed in Australia by: Lion Nathan

Peroni Nastro (Italy)

Number of judges who preferred the locally brewed version: 2

Number of judges who preferred the imported version: 5

Brewed in Australia by: SAB Miller

Please note:
Local
refers to locally brewed versions of the depicted beer. Local brewers are those that made the beer in Australia at the time of our test; some production and distribution contracts have since changed.
Imported refers to imported versions of the depicted beer.
** For Kronenbourg 1664 and Beck's, one expert was undecided between the imported and locally brewed versions.

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.