beer business

Hooray for Grey


A while ago I was able to buy from a South Coast bottlo a few beers from the United States that I figured I’d never get to try.

That would be the Maui Brewing Coconut Porter and Dogfish Head’s 90-Minute Imperial IPA (I would have loved the 120 IPA but beggars can’t be choosers). I’m pretty sure both of those beers were grey imports. At which point we should cue that scary ‘‘Dunt-Dunt-DAH!’’ music, because for some in the beer world, grey imports are very, very bad.

Essentially, a grey import is a beer that has been sent to another country without the brewer’s consent. Some of them, like Stone’s Greg Koch and, I think, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, don’t like that at all. It comes down to quality; if they’re not supervising the way the beer is shipped then they can’t guarantee it will arrive at its destination tasting great.

They don’t want to get a bad rep from someone drinking a substandard beer. It’s for similar reasons that they don’t want to do the importation themselves – to send it in such a way as to ensure quality would end up with a prohibitive price tag and to do anything less would be unacceptable.

Now, I can see their point but, at the risk of receiving a few cranky comments below, I have no problems with grey imports. With one caveat – that the ‘‘official’’ version isn’t available here. Put the real deal and the grey beer side by side and I’ll buy the real thing. But if the grey one is on the shelf, I’m buying it.

Because the chances of me getting an officially sanctioned Dogfish Head or Stone beer is pretty frigging slim. I’ve heard and read about these beers from the US and other countries for ages and so I’m simply itching to try them. If I see some on the shelf I’ll buy it, even if there’s a chance it might not be fantastic.

But really, if the beer ends up being only 75 per cent of what it ideally should be, that’s still going to make it a pretty fine beer. And, as I’ve never tried the beer before, I don’t really have any benchmark to decide whether the 90-Minute IPA I had was lacking (it wasn’t. It was an absolutely cracking beer and one that went down far too easily for a 9 percenter).

It’s not as though the brewer is out of pocket here. It’s not like CD or DVD piracy where someone makes a copy of a legitimate product and then sells it. Nor is it like those fake Rolexes and Nike clothes you can find on holidays in Bali. The grey import beer is the genuine beer made by the brewer and the grey importer has paid for the beers (at least I assume so – it’s a very different issue if the importer swiped a shipping container of beer and is selling it).

I get that it’s not really about the money, that’s it’s about wanting the control over the delivery, to ensure the beer the customer gets is top notch. They don’t want me to get a less-than-perfect beer and then form a negative impression of them.

Which sort of ignores the fact that I can barely buy any of their beers in the first place. So what does it really matter that a person living in a country where you don’t export doesn’t like a beer? It’s not like that person can then go ‘‘well, that was crap. I’m never buying that beer again’’. Well, they could but it’d be a stupid thing to say – because they can’t buy that beer again anyway. Because it’s almost never seen here.

So if a foreign brewer doesn’t export their beers to Australia, then I feel fine in buying grey imports. Some in the craft beer world support the brewer and refuse to buy grey beers, which is a stance that strikes me as both noble and a little odd. Why side with a brewer who is effectively depriving you, the consumer, the chance of trying their beer?

I also can’t help but wonder how many of these people have burned their friend’s CDs, brought home a stack of pirated DVDs from Thailand or illegally download TVs and movies online. Because those things are actually taking money away from the people who made them. Not to mention illegal. Grey imports of beer are neither.

25 replies »

  1. I’m with you on this Glen. If I want to try a beer and if I want to spend MY cash on it then I will. The beer geek in me grabbed numerous Stone beers and a Dogfish Head last year and, even though I think the 90 Minute IPA is over-hyped, I have no regrets.

    • You don’t see any logical flaw in saying I now the beer I tried is a lesser version of the beer I wanted to try, but it is over-hyped? How can you tell it’s over-hyped unless you have tired it at its best…

      It is exactly this reponse that makes the brewers not want to send their beers unless they know they will arrive in good condition…their beers get criticised as being overrated when you aren’t judging it fairly.

  2. As a consumer I have no problem buying grey, I just haven’t really had any chances to do so.

    As a retailer I don’t buy grey craft beer, because I’d rather fill the extremely limited fridge space I have with the 1 of the 50 other legit beers I can get and fit in and know is going to be properly labelled and supported by the importer with instore tastings and such.

  3. If you’re happy to drink a Stone that is “seventy five per cent of what it ideally should be”, you’re not drinking that beer. You’re drinking a beer that is 75 per cent as good as Stone. One of the things that make Stone such a sought after beer is that the guys like Greg Koch don’t compromise. If he said he’d compromise on the quality of their beer and made a beer that was only 75% as good, he would be slaughtered by beer geeks…yet those same beer geeks say, “I know this isn’t as good, but I’ll accept that because I want a Stone.”

    That’s fair enough, if that’s what you want to do. I’d rather respect the brewers who don’t compromise and recognise their uncompromising spirit…

    if you’re willing to compromise on lesser quality beer just to tick another beer off your list, where should the compromise stop? Should the brewer say…”hey beer geeks will compromise, I’ll just use fewer hops”? Or “Fuck it, I’ll put an extra 6 months on the use by date…people won’t care, and I’ll get fewer returns”. ”

    I just wonder how many beer geeks who say, “I’m happy to accept a lesser quality version of Stone” are also the people who bitch and moan that Little Creatures – or any other beer that they can easily get – has been dumbed down without any proof it has…

    There is just an inconsistency in the argument of saying I will accept a lesser beer through the distribution channel…but I don’t want brewers to make a lesser beer.

    • I’m not saying they should make a lesser beer. As I specifically stated in the blog, if the officially sanctioned import is available then I’ll buy that over the grey import. But if the grey import is my only option to ever try a beer I’ll buy grey.
      For the record, I don’t think beers like Little Creatures are dumbed down. I think they serve a crucial place as gateway beers. And I still drink them and like them.

      • Because I’m only accepting the “lesser” beer because I don’t have any access to the real thing. If I did, I wouldn’t bother with the grey import. It’s not an ideal situation, I know, but at the end of the day, if the choice is between trying an imported beer that might not be at its peak and not trying it at all I’ll take the first option.
        And I’ll take it knowing there’s a possibility it might not be at it’s peak. But in saying that, this Dogfish 90-Minute IPA was still pretty frigging good.

  4. If they only make a compromised version so you can’t get a better version you’d be ok with that? Would you say, “I’m only accepting the “lesser” beer because I don’t have any access to the real thing”? If nbot, why accept the lesser for m at all?

    With all respect to him, 250 Beers’ comment proves the point. He’s willing to say he knows he’s drinking a lesser version and he’ll accept the lesser version, but he’s still willing to negatively judge the beer on its lesser form and describe it as over-hyped. It’s a comment I hear repeatedly. If you accept that you’re knowingly trying a lesser version of it, you lose the right to comment on it it my view…you have no right to judge a beer you know is substandard.

    • Your question is flawed because it requires me to know that the brewer is intentionally making a “compromised” version. The simple reality is, I wouldn’t know. And neither would you. I can only judge a beer on what it is, not what it might have been if the brewer had more time, money, inclination or whatever.
      For all we know there are beers on the market right now that we love but which are less than what the brewer might like them to be. But we’re not aware of that fact.
      And while I wouldn’t judge a grey import because it might not be ideal quality, surely your argument must extend to all beers. For once a beer leaves a brewery – even in Australia – the brewer doesn’t have a lot of control as to how it’s stored. So I shouldn’t cast an opinion on any beer because the bottle I bought may have been stored poorly by the bottle shop, may have be treated less than ideally by the transport company or may have been sitting on the shelves too long.

      • My argument is simply if the market will accept a 75% version of their beer – which you plainly acknowledge you are willing to do – what is to stop a brewer from saying “fuck it, I’ll make a 75% version of it instead”. I’d rather support the brewers who seem to sincerely want to not compromise – they are a bulwark against mediocrity. It’s not as if there’s not enough other beers out there to try…and more than enough fresh Australian beers that I haven’t tried. The more brewers willing to be uncompromising, the better for beer. I simply choose to support that.

        Judge any beer you want, but there seems to be a serious logical flaw in saying “I know this beer isn’t what’s it’s meant to be.” and in the next breath saying “it’s over rated”.

        If a brewer subjects his beer to distribution across the Pacific, well and good – judge away. Stone and Dogfish Head seem to want to avoid doing that, I support that. Perhaps that’s why their beers are so highly regarded in the first place?

      • I think buying a grey import beer, which I know might be at less than it’s best (or might not be, I don’t know) and endorsing compromise are two separate arguments.

        What I’m doing is endorsing the idea of grey imports, with the caveat that the real thing is not available. You have then – incorrectly in my view – made the conclusion that it means I support compromise. Which is just false.

      • No more room in the reply thread! This might seem incongruous then, but it links back to your last comment about Glen..

        Compromise: the expedient acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable.

        Of course you support compromise. “I can’t get it legitimately, so I’ll buy grey instead” Compromise #1.

        “I know that the grey version isn’t nearly as good as the legitimate one, so I’ll buy a lesser version”, Compromise #2.

        If you’re willing to compromise on the quality of the beer that you’re buying, what’s to stop the brewer from compromising on the beer he’;s brewing…he knows you’ll accept a beer that’s 75% of the original…

  5. I agree with this article. As a big fan of Stone beers, I am very happy that I can regularly get something like a Ruination IPA here in Melbourne. Having had it (as well as a range of others) brewery fresh in San Diego, I can say that yes there is a noticeable difference, but I actually prefer Ruination with a bit of age on it.

    I have also had that beer when it has been legitimately imported into Sweden, and I can’t tell the difference between that and what I can find here in Melbourne. But I guess my palate isn’t quite that refined.

    On a side note, in my experience, it’s the big stouts that don’t hold up as well as grey imports, and tend to be a bit more spoiled. The AleSmith Speedway Stout being a prime example.

  6. “at the risk of receiving a few cranky comments below” hehe yep you called it.

    In my uneducated opinion…if you play the odds, roll the dice and get your hands on a grey imported beer….isn’t there every chance the beer will be the spitting image of itself? What is the likelihood or the extent to which it will be ‘lesser’ than if bought through sanctioned channels. Strictly speaking the answer is undefined, but I’d argue low likelihood, and low extent.

    I’d rather have the opportunity to try the beer in all it’s (dubiously lesser) glory.

  7. Can see both sides of this argument, but agree that if you may NEVER try a beer, like ever, because it will never be available here and you will never travel to where it’s available fresh then why not give the grey a go; where’s the harm? No one got ripped off did they?

    But agree with Matt on the judging of the beer however, if it’s grey, it’s potentially not as good as it should be so you can’t then comment on whether it’s a good beer, I think that’s where Matt’s frustration is derived.

    If it tastes bad no surprise no judging, if it tastes great then lucky you!

    • I agree with that… and I think I might have said so in one of my responses. I wouldn’t be negative about a beer I know is a grey import. That said, I liked this grey Dogfish Head quite a bit.

    • There are definitely two sides to it.

      To me it comes down to I don’t get why, when so many beer lovers anguish over the quality of their beer, they don’t spend more energy seeking out the best beer they can get, rather than just ticking off another beer from their list that they know to be sub-par. The harm in it is that it conditions the market to lower quality, less fresh beer.

      The best parallel I can think of is that when supermarkets got bigger, and they bought from fewer producers and the fruit and veg didn’t store and travel well, it drove the invention of things such as tomatoes that weren’t bred for flavour but which were bred to survive the journey and being dropped without bruising. When the market says, “we don’t care about flavour, we just want fruit and veg irrespective of season”, the market responds this way. I would rather brewers be encouraged not to compromise on flavour, rather than be sent the message that the market will accept a lesser product.

      • I understand your point Matt but I’m just not convinced that there is enough, or will ever be enough, consumer investment into parallel imported beer to send the message to the market that it’s OK to compromise, maybe I’m wrong?

        This is what I love about discussion; I’m having secondary thoughts on my feelings towards grey beer.

        Let’s strip this back to it’s simplest argument, forget about the market and the message and the judgement etc. I drink beer because I want to enjoy it, ultimately, so why would I buy a beer that I already know might not be very enjoyable? Is it just to tick a box like you said Matt? Is it to gain a unique check-in on untappd Glen? Is it because I think there is a slim chance it might be as good as it’s meant to be?

        I must admit I’m not entirely sure now!

      • Hah, sorry about that. I just love the conversation!

        We all like trying something new and different..I just really like passionate and uncompromising brewers…they usually make great beer. If they don’t want to send it over here, I’m ok with that. I’d rather support their passion in the hope that it infects others.

        That said, I don’t drink much imported beer because it is usually pretty tired…and so expensive for the ‘privilege’. Last year I did a blind tasting between Sierra Navada (which beer geeks love) and Little Creatures (which beer geeks often dismiss). LC won…it was fresher and people responded to that. Yet I am regularly told that LC is a pale imitation by people who have only ever had SN over here.

        Great discussion to be had around it all up!.

  8. Ah, I seem to have missed quite the conversation.
    Just to clarify, Matt, my comment regarding the Dogfish Head 90 Min IPA wasn’t suggesting that I was willing to drink a lesser version and that I’ll accept the lesser version. I wasn’t even ‘willing to negatively judge the beer on its lesser form’. My ‘over-hyped’ dig was a mete poke at US stuff in general. Everything from TV shows to movie stars to dumb-ass Honey Boo-Boo’s…it’s all over-hyped. It’s just beer for goodness sake. Grey or not.
    If the bottle that I drank had tasted shit but had been freshly bottled and hand-delivered to my house by Greg Koch himself within 24 hours of it being capped the beer would still carry hype – because it’s from the US.
    We should all channel our enthusiasm towards the wonders that our home-grown brewers are producing and not worry about grey…although I do ponder my grey hair. That really is becoming a worry.

  9. Having had #Ruination the other day here in Sydney. It was not fresh and a pale comparison of what it should taste like.

    Though on the other hand I do agree with all ranges of beers coming in so that beer geeks and brewers get to taste what is brewed overseas. Other than when #beermules come back from overseas these beers are quite hard to find.

    Are they fresh? NO does it suffice a need for new drinkers who haven’t tried it ? Yes. Would they likely buy it again ? NO

    Good article and great conversation piece in a growing craft beer centric country right now.

    • The funny thing is, I do believe that a lot of beer geeks would only buy these hard to get beers once – whether grey or legitimately imported.
      I think it’s more about the trying the beer – or drinking it as a special occasion – rather than considering it as a regular purchase thing.

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