16 Oct. 2011

A license to print money

A few months ago I drank my very first Stella Artois. Some of you may be sneering right now, amused by my deplorable lack of worldly experience, but before you go mistaking your stubby for a long-neck you should know that it wasn't the first time I'd had a beer with the name Stella Artois printed on the label. When I say that it was my first experience with the product, I'm talking about one that was actually brewed in Belgium. It didn't sky-rocket onto the list of my favourite beers, but at least now I can say that I've tried the genuine article, rather than something brewed in an industrial complex in outer Melbourne. Perhaps now I've gone from bumpkin to beer snob in your estimation, but this isn't a pissing contest we're talking about, it's a conspiracy to make people pay for something they simply aren't getting. It's a phenomenon known in the industry as 'brewing under license', and for a large consortium the likes of SABMiller, AB InBev, or the Kirin Group it translates as a license to print money.
Visit your average restaurant and look at the list of foreign beers and it's a fair bet that eight or nine out of ten will have never crossed an international border, or at least those surrounding its purported country of origin. It's all there in the fine print, right on the bottle, but unless you actually know what to look out for why shouldn't you take the product at face value? Let's be honest about this: when this happens in the fashion industry it's known as counterfeiting, and big-name brands have a vested interest in stamping it out, simply because their worth is implicitly bound up in that label and the reputation it carries. This is something the wine industry has recognised for the best part of three decades now, and producers with a similar focus on provenance are also taking steps to safeguard this worth. Champagne must be produced in the Champagne region; Parmesan must originate in the Emilia–Romagna area; even supermarkets are taking steps to differentiate imported and locally grown produce. With such a prominent trend toward provenance and provincialism, why does the beer industry persist with a model of globalisation that peaked in the eighties?

Breweries are not merely content to allow this practice to continue, but actively make profit out of it. Securing a license to brew an international beer locally is a big-value investment, with a percentage of the proceeds going back to the original license-holder. Protestations to the effect that all such beverages strictly adhere to the original recipe simply do not hold water, even in cases where some percentage of the ingredients are actually imported. Likewise, the question of whether or not the finished product is as good or better than the genuine variety is completely irrelevant. The fact remains that a company is concertedly marketing and selling the product under misleading pretences. If the local version were good enough to stand on its own merits, without the instant brand recognition of its foreign cousin, surely it would be allowed to do so. Clearly it pays more to simply hoodwink the customer. The single concern that really puts this issue to bed is the fact that a genuine import usually ends up being cheaper than the local alternative.

Most counterfeiters at least have the decency to charge less for their deceptive wares.
"Drink Stella Artois, it's the genuine article!"