This beer's from where?

Cases of Rolling Rock beer speed along a conveyor at the brewery in Latrobe, Pa. The beer is now brewed in Newark, N.J.
Cases of Rolling Rock beer speed along a conveyor at the brewery in Latrobe, Pa. The beer is now brewed in Newark, N.J. (KEITH SRAKOCIC / AP)
Posted: October 11, 2013

Beer drinkers, take note.

That brew you're quaffing might not be from where you think it came from.

Red Stripe, the lager associated with Jamaica, is now brewed in Latrobe, Pa., birthplace of Rolling Rock, which is now made elsewhere, namely Newark, N.J. The Red Stripe label now says Jamaican Style Lager.

It's hardly alone.

The Becks Bier on sale here arrives on trucks from St. Louis, not by boat from Bremen.

Bottled Guinness Stout - not the draft style in bottles and cans - still carries an "imported" label, but that's only because it is made in Toronto, not Dublin. And Sapporo, the Japanese beer? Also a Canadian import.

So what's going on here?

"It's a direct result of consolidation," said Lew Bryson, managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine, who knows a thing or two about beer.

He was referring to the trend of major international brewers merging into a few firms that has changed the face of the beer industry in the United States.

For example, Anheuser-Busch and Coors, the makers of the nation's biggest-selling beers, are owned by foreign companies, leaving Yuengling with the title of being not only America's oldest brewer but also the biggest one entirely U.S.-owned.

Rich Wagner, a brewing historian, said the trend dates to the second half of the 20th century, when regional brewers, including Philadelphia's C. Schmidt & Sons, bought smaller brands before being gobbled up by even bigger companies.

Before Schmidt's was bought by G. Heileman in 1987, its line of beers included Erie, Coqui, Knickerbocker, Classic, Reading, Rheingold, Ortlieb's, Kohler, Valley Forge, Duquesne, and McSorley's Ale.

"Big fish have always eaten smaller fish," Wagner said.

The story of Rolling Rock offers a dizzying view of the shifting landscape.

The Latrobe Brewing Co., which was founded in 1893 and brewed Rolling Rock, was sold in 1987 to Canada's Labatt Brewing Co.

Eight years later, the Belgian conglomerate known as InBev bought Labatt.

In 2006, InBev sold the Latrobe Brewing Co. and its Rolling Rock brand - but not the brewery in Latrobe - to Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser.

Anheuser-Busch moved Rolling Rock's operations to its Budweiser brewery across from Newark Airport, a move that made sense, Bryson said, because that facility was the only one in the company to have glass-lined tanks, like those used in Latrobe.

Also in 2006, Wisconsin-based City Brewing Co. bought the brewery in Latrobe from InBev.

But without any beer to make, the plant was in limbo and its employees were out of work for about a year, until City Brewing lined up a contract to brew beer for Boston Beer Co., maker of the Sam Adams line.

That arrangement, however, did not last. In 2008, Boston Beer bought its own brewery in the Lehigh Valley - it used to make Pabst - and the Latrobe plant laid off its workforce, shuttering the plant again.

Rolling Rock's familiar green bottles, in the meantime, remained on the market, but with one major change.

Their pledge of bringing good taste "from the Mountain Springs to You" was now preceded by a statement that the original words appeared unchanged on the bottle "To honor the tradition of this great brand."

Wagner also noted that the horse head on the Rolling Rock bottle now looks more like a Budweiser Clydesdale than the thoroughbred of the past.

Rescue for the Latrobe brewery came in 2009, with a contract from Pittsburgh's Iron City Beer, followed by other deals with Southampton beers from Long Island; and Stoney's, another Western Pennsylvania beer.

Last year, City Brewing signed a contract with the alcoholic-beverage conglomerate Diageo to brew Red Stripe at Latrobe.

Carl Bauer, a brewer who has worked at the plant for 33 years, says it is busier than he has ever seen it.

"We're making a lot of stuff," he said, adding that included bottled ice teas and doing some work again for Sam Adams.

The plant is now operating six or seven days a week and regularly employs about 400 people, more than when it was making one beer.

"We have more [products] than we had then," Bauer said.

In 2008, Anheuser-Busch merged with InBev, from which it bought Rolling Rock in the first place. The company is now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev.

And in 2005, Coors merged with Canadian-based Molson to become Molson Coors.

The question, of course, is what, if anything, does this mean about the beer we drink.

Plenty, says Bryson, when it comes to taste - or expectations of what a beer should taste like.

Water, malt, and hops come from different places and influence a beer's flavor.

Brewers may try to tweak the taste, but they do not always succeed.

Even when they do, other factors come into play.

"The psychological thing is huge," said Bryson, noting it is not unusual for drinkers to report a beer tastes different after discovering it is being brewed somewhere else. "Don't downplay perception. . . . When you see a label, you have certain expectations."

But, on the plus side, Bryson said, beer that is made closer to the market is fresher and can escape mishaps associated with transportation, particularly in the case of imports.

Proximity appears to be one key factor working in the favor of craft brewers, he said.

So, it all comes down to personal preference.

If a beer's origin really matters to you, be sure to check the label before you get to the cash register. If it doesn't, then bottoms up.


jgambardello@phillynews.com

856-779-3844

@jgambardello


 

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