Over twenty-five years ago, I
sat in a bar in New York City with two friends. The bar was revolutionary then.It featured a huge menu of beers categorized by
country. At that
time, if you were to see a few foreign beers on a menu, they
were always of the international industrial variety: Stella Artois, Heineken, Beck, Kronenbourg.
Actually, this New York bar
with the huge beer selection was no different.If you wanted a beer from New Zealand, you'd get a Steinlager, New Zealand's biggest export beer. It's just that back in 1989, no one had heard of
Similarly, were you to select an Argentine beer, you'd get
these beers were or were soon to be owned by multinational
beer conglomerates. Do you think any of us cared? We were just happy to be trying
'exotic' beers from
locations far afield.
Today, of course, you can walk
into a number of bars, Bangkok included, and have more
choice in country and quality than this unusual New York
City bar from the 1980's. Many of those multinational brands I first got a
glimpse of in that New York bar are now more accessible and infinitely more local.
Let's take the Asahi or Kirin
you imbibe in a local Japanese izakaya. It's always billed as Japanese beer and a premium is
charged for it.
On menus which like to document the "origins" of a beer,
you'll often see something like "Asahi (Japan)". While it's
true that the brand names of Asahi and Kirin belong to
Japanese companies, the Asahi and Kirin you sample in
Thailand are made under license in Thailand by local
is manufactured by Boon Rawd, makers of Singha; Kirin, by
San Miguel Breweries of which Kirin already owns a 48%
stake. The only
imported Japanese beer in Thailand is Sapporo, but it, too,
is not brewed in Japan, but in Vietnam. Beers manufactured in ASEAN countries incur lower
duties than beers manufactured outside the region.
This licensing scheme is not
limited to Thailand. Big breweries have been doing this for years to
expand market share while minimizing their risks. Asahi's most famous products, its Super Dry beer,
served in the silver can with black lettering, has only been
around since 1987, but it's now a world famous and popular
brew due to strategic partnerships. In huge and lucrative markets with very little local
protection, such as the United States, Asahi will setup its
own American branches, Asahi Beer USA Incorporated. In the Chinese market, Asahi will operate via a
combination of their own breweries and joint operation with
a powerful partner - Tsingtao in this case of which Asahi
also owns a piece.In smaller markets with protected beer markets, Asahi
has its beer made under license by a local powerhouse. In
Canada, Molson produces it; in Malaysia, Carlsberg.
Now here's where things can
We're likely to think of an Asahi beer in a can and in a
bottle as identical products in two different containers.In a smaller market like Thailand, that would be
true. All Asahi
beer available in the Kingdom is brewed by Boon Rawd.If tomorrow, Asahi wanted to sell its products in
milk cartons in Thailand, Boon Rawd would be the ones behind
it. But in
larger markets, the bottled version is usually locally
produced whereas the cans are imported. In the United States, you can find Canadian Asahi
brewed by Molson as well as the real deal made in Japan. In the much smaller Korean market, right next door to
Japan, both the bottles and the cans are imported from
This knowledge of licensing
arrangements can make you question why you're paying a
premium for 'imported' brews. While visiting China and Korea, I noticed that
Belgium's Hoegaarden was being sold for very reasonable
prices though still at a premium compared to truly local
the label, I saw that this 'premium' Hoegaarden was actually
brewed under license in China.
Heineken is one of the pricier
mainstream beers in Thailand, and yet it's made in Thailand. For the Australian market, Heineken is brewed in
Australia. Is it
really Dutch beer anymore? Australia's
Fosters Lager's famous slogan in North America is
"Australian For Beer," and yet in North American Fosters is
brewed in Canada. Is it really worth paying the foreign
exclusivity premium when the beer is actually local?
I suppose that depends if
people drink a particular beer for its image or for its
taste. Among the
multinational giants, image appears to play a greater role
in convincing a consumer to purchase. In advertisements, a beer will be shown catering to a
specific market segment. A consumer who probably has very little taste in beer
to begin with will gravitate toward certain brands because
he feels they define him.
But for someone like myself
who drinks beer for its taste, I needed to resolve the
matter: does a
beer brewed under license taste anything like its namesake
in the motherland?
I expect it comes down to a
brand -- how much is that brand about the quality of the
Some brands just want to get their name out there. They could care less if the local Beer Crap Brewery
is willing to brew it to substandard recipes as long as the
beer sells. Over
this summer I was given a chance to run my own 'under license'
taste test experiment. I was visiting Japan and Korea and brought back a
number of Japanese branded beers to compare with the
Japanese brews from Southeast Asia made under license:
Japan and Thailand
Japan, China, and Thailand
Japan and Vietnam
The Asahis didn't taste
exactly the same but close enough. The Thai version wasn't a steep decline in quality. The Kirin tasted noticeably different. The Japanese version had a floral scent. The Thai version was a little less bitter and little
less fragrant, but still tasty. The Chinese version was syrupy and almost undrinkable
compared to the other two.Sapporo was also a big come down. The Japanese version was far superior to the
McDonald's is finicky that a
Big Mac produced in the USA tastes like a Big Mac produced
in Thailand despite the fact that the ingredients are
sourced locally for each. Multinational brewers could make the same stringent
requirements if it mattered to them. Most of the time, it doesn't. You're drinking a name.
If you like to sip the finer things in life and those
finer things, you believe, come from abroad, make sure the
finer things are actually fine and come from overseas before
you start toasting beer glasses and shouting "Bottoms Up!"