Saturday, July 21, 2012

50 Shades Of Grey

I feel like I really should preface this post by making it crystal clear that these will be my thoughts on grey importing. 
Stock photo from "grey import" Google image search
Sorry to the menopausal women that have navigated here in error. Though, the name of the blog should have made you suspicious in the first place. No matter. 
I’ll give a brief outline of what “grey importing” is although now that I think of it anyone who has the inclination of reading this will most likely be well versed on what grey importing is, and what the implications are. 
But maybe my mum will read it, or maybe the erotic fiction fans who haven’t worked out that this post isn’t for them have persevered.
Grey importing in the beer market is the same as grey importing in any other market, whereby legal goods are sold outside normal distribution channels by companies which may have no relationship with the producer of the goods. Thanks to Wikipedia for the tight definition...
There we go Mum! Hi! Yes, I’m eating well. We’ll discuss it another time. 
So that all sounds pretty dodgy, right?
If the goods are not being obtained via regular distribution channels then how do we know that fair prices are being applied to these products? How do we know how much the retailers are tacking on as a mark up?
Specifically in the craft beer market it’s a touchy subject. The cogs in the craft beer machine are an honest bunch. And honesty is also what they demand.
A good example of this is the contract brewing debate that has, and continues to rage in the scene. What I have made of it is not that we don’t like contract brewing, we just don’t like people being dishonest about contract brewing and this kind of snowballed into a general distrust of contract brewing. Don’t even say the C word. 
In reality, contract brewing is a sensible way for new and developing breweries to grow without having to mortgage houses and harvest organs to purchase their own expensive breweries. 
What’s so bad about grey importing then?
With such a miniscule percentage of the beer market share, craft brewers live and die by their product. Through their nominated distribution channels they can control how the beer is handled to ensure that it reaches the end customer in the desired condition. So if a distribution channel with no relationship to the brewer gets their beers, there is no way to see how it’s being treated along the way. You see where the conflict is here. 
One of the vocal protesters of grey importing is Greg Koch from Stone Brewing Company in California. Australian Brews News spoke with Greg about the subject in 2010 and expressed his disapproval that his Stone beers were getting grey imported into Australia. 
It’s an interesting interview, Greg makes some really valid points. I’d heartedly recommend giving it a listen/watch as it’s good to hear how passionate he is about his craft even though he is publicly denying his beers to us. 
In the case of Stone, they distribute their unpasteurized stock in refrigerated freight once it leaves their refrigerated storage rooms and is guaranteed fresh for their local customer base. This is a guarantee that simply cannot be made when it’s grey imported. 
The upshot is that particularly with American beers, they are nearing their best before date as soon as they hit the shelves meaning we won’t taste exactly what we’re supposed to be tasting. Punters may taste this and think it’s typical and not be prepared to purchase local beers thinking that it’s all the same. Literally leaving a bad taste in a punters mouth can hurt the local brewing scene which needs as much help as it can get. 
It also puts independent retailers that utilize legitimate distribution channels for stock, and take proper care of their beers at a disadvantage as they will not have the stock that can be obtained through grey importing to compete. 
But you know what? While I think it’s really important for people to know the information about how their beer got from the brewery to their glass I always think the same thing:
If the people that are savvy enough to be aware of grey imported beers are craft beer nerds/ beer geeks/ informed beer drinkers then they already know these things. It’s not going to discourage them from drinking local beer or away from any particular brewery. 
It’s curiosity.
Craft beer drinkers want their beer to be in the best possible condition, and they can tell when they are and are not. 
You’ll often hear someone who has picked up something unique from Dan Murphy’s for example say “It wasn’t right, but Dan’s might not have taken the best care of their beer.”
The first thought of people is to troubleshoot why the beer might taste stale or not quite right. Not dismissing it as being a poor beer that they would not try again.
The choice is often made to buy a grey imported beer for the pure fact that it is something that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s understood that it might not taste perfect, but it’s a risk that people are prepared to take to try something new. It’s not always about finding something new either. Sometimes it might be that even though it might not be brewery fresh it’s still a cracking beer. 
In keeping with the already mentioned Stone Brewing Company, I have purchased grey import Ruination IPAs because of the great reputation it has in the States. Several people have independently told me that they have had grey imports here and fresh bottles in California and the fresh bottles are a cut above, and I believe them. That doesn’t mean that the Ruination on my shelf still doesn’t taste amazing. I know it will be better from the source. I still want to try it.
Alright, I feel like I’m starting to get ranty, I’ll wrap it up. 
It needs to be understood that the quality of the goods inside the bottle can not be guaranteed on grey imported beers, but if these things are understood then what’s the harm in letting us make the decision. 

All we want in any situation is to be able to make an informed decision, why should this be any different?

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