Grey is not the new black

If you’re reading Australian Brews News, chances are you are a beer lover. As a beer lover I am sure that you are on a quest to try the many great beers that are made by the growing legion of Australian craft brewers, as well as the many excellent beers from around the world that are now available in our bottleshops.

Is it arrogant to care about your beer and want people to drink it fresh?

However, as a beer lover, did you you that the people who made many of the highly sought-after beers on the bottleshop shelves don’t actually want you drinking them?

There is great excitement about the many innovative, exciting and ‘extreme’ beers being created by brewers around the world and particularly the notable brewers in the United States.

Australian beers lovers keen to sample the beers that they hear so much about clamour to get their hands on beers from breweries such as Stone, Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada and many more.

One of the reasons beers from these breweries are so highly sought after is that the people making them are passionate – obsessive even – about the flavour of their beers and the quality that they seek from the craft of brewing.

This passion and commitment extends as far as being demanding about the manner in which their beer is distributed to market to ensure that the beer arrives at the consumer in a condition that maintains the quality that they seek of their product. For this reason, many of the beers that Australian beer lovers crave are not legitimately available in Australia. Breweries such as Stone and Dogfish Head can’t ensure that the beer gets here at the quality they demand, while still being reasonably affordable.

The great irony is that the passion that makes the beer so good the Australian beer lover would do anything to get their hands on a bottle is often the same passion that prevents them from getting it legitimately.

Many Australian beer lovers are not aware that some of the beers they drink are imported in a way that the breweries do not approve of. This issue came up when Australian Brews News contributor Pete Mitcham submitted the excellent piece published today, “Is this Australia’s most influential beer?

Pete initially included the call to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Sierra Nevada by sharing a bottle or two with your friends. Before we made that call, we checked with the brewery to make sure that their beers are sold here legitimately. Below is the answer we received from Bill Manley, Brewery Communication Coordinator at Sierra Nevada.

No, we don’t have any distribution to Australia at this time so any Sierra Nevada beer you’ve seen is in fact “grey market” product sold internationally through third party distributors.

We as a company are against the practice of grey market beer. We’ve asked our distributor partners to stop shipping unauthorized beer into the marketplace but it continues to happen against our will.

In the end, we oppose this practice due to the lack of any insurance of proper handling in how it gets to its final destination. We are zealous about quality in both brewing and distribution. We require all of our beer to be shipped cold, and we require our distributor partners to store the beer in refrigerated warehouses.

The small about of international distribution we do participate in, is done via refrigerated shippers that can keep the beer cool and in good shape when it arrives in a foreign market. This refrigerated shipping is exponentially more expensive than conventional shipping and we have reason to believe that this grey market beer is not being handled with the same care that we may like.

In the end, shipping poorly handled beer does us more harm than good. In fact, we would be better off with no beer in a market, than we would with beer that does not represent the way we designed Sierra Nevada’s beers to taste.

It is a difficult enough battle to maintain shelf-life and beer quality here in the US where we have a dedicated crew of sales staff and representatives to look after it. In a foreign market with no representation it is nearly impossible to guarantee the quality of our product. Someday we may open up a more broad network of international distribution, but until then we encourage people not to purchase unauthorized beer. Sierra Nevada has lasted 30 years because of the generous word-of-mouth support of our fans. If someone has an unpleasant experience with our beer, or suspects they’ve received a damaged or poorly handled product, we go out of our way to remedy the situation. In an unauthorized market with dubious accountability we cannot guarantee the same quality we have become known for.

Bill’s response is very similar to letter Stone Brewing Greg Koch sent to a New Zealand retailer, and posted on a forum:

Thanks very much for the reply. I only just learned that our beers were available in NZ as a result of stumbling upon a thread in which several folks were relaying their negative experiences with our beers. Unfortunately, I do not believe any of them realized that a likely reason that they did not like our beer was the fact that it was too old.

I would like to respectfully request that you discontinue importing and selling our beers at this time. When we ship beer to other states in the US, or even just across town, we ship only via refrigerated transport. Same for our limited shipments to Japan. The reason that we do not ship to NZ is that we cannot ensure fresh, properly handled beer at a semi-reasonable price. As such, we also ask that others do not do it either.

Thanks much for your consideration of this request. I hope to be able to visit your country some day and enjoy some of the wonderful beers I know are being made in your country.

Despite such a strong, clear (and polite) request from these brewers, there are still distributors who feel that it is ok to import these and other beers. Given this lack of respect for the brewers it is perhaps not surprising that the beers themselves often are not treated with the respect required to get them here in an appropriate condition – and these importers certainly do not publicised the fact that the brewers have not authorised their beers for sale here.

Importing beer in a manner that ensures it arrives at the consumer in the highest possible condition and meeting all of the legal requirements is expensive. Importers who go through the appropriate steps of getting import agreements with brewers and meeting the legal requirements often do so only to see the same beers for which they have exclusive agreements sold at cheaper prices by grey importers. Apart from making their beers more expensive by comparison, legitimate importers suffer a second blow if the grey imports are out-of-date or have been poorly handled and spoiled. This gives all of the brewery’s beers a bad name in the eyes of the consumer who is unaware of the beer’s illicit history.

What’s more, reading damning reviews of their mishandled beers online only serves to prevent many great brewers from sending their beers downunder legitimately. The end result is the ‘beer lover’ who satisfies his craving this way is actually reducing his chances of getting these beers regularly and in good condition.

If you do love beer, you will respect it – and respecting beer means respecting the wishes of the person who makes it. Australian Brews News calls on all beer lovers to boycott grey market imports.

How to tell if a beer is a grey market import:

It can be difficult to tell if beers are legitimately imported, but some clues include:

  • use-by dates and product codes are scratched off
  • bottles do not have import labels. Import labels are required to include the name and address of the importer and the number of standard drinks
  • Australian Brews News will maintain a list of beers that we know are not legitimately available in Australia. You can see the start of the list here.

If in doubt ask retailers whether the exotic beers that they stock are grey market imports and, if so, let them know that you will not buy them. Retailers will continue to sell them as long as people are willing to buy them.

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