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Drink Beck's? Anheuser-Busch May Owe You A Refund

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you're the type of beer drinker who prefers imports to domestics, listen up. Your import may not be what it seems. Take Becks. This beer was brewed in Germany for more than 140 years. But for the past three years, Anheuser-Busch has been making it in St. Louis. And as NPR's Jason Margolis reports, the company wound up in court.

JASON MARGOLIS, BYLINE: The class-action lawsuit boiled down to a basic question. Was Anheuser-Busch deceiving its customers? I put that to Erik Gordon who teaches at the University of Michigan's business and law schools. We went to a liquor store on State Street in Ann Arbor.

ERIK GORDON: Here's a carton of Becks beer. Let's see what it says on the side. Well, in big letters, German quality, brewed under the German Purity Law of 1516. That would lead one to possibly believe this is German beer.

MARGOLIS: InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian beer maker, bought Anheuser-Busch in 2008. It began brewing some Becks in St. Louis to reduce shipping costs and improve freshness. But there's no made in the USA on the carton. Gordon looks to the bottles.

GORDON: Somewhere on here, it's going to say that it's actually made in the USA, but I can't actually find it.

MARGOLIS: Eventually, Gordon finds tiny white letters against a silver background that read, product of USA. Anheuser-Busch argues that's sufficient. The company sent a two-sentence e-mail saying, our labeling, packaging and marketing of Becks have always been truthful, transparent and in compliance with all legal requirements. Duncan Williams can't speak to legal requirements, but as the head brewer at the Old German bar in Ann Arbor, he can speak about Becks' claims that it's brewed the German way.

DUNCAN WILLIAMS: Is it potentially disingenuous? Yes. OK, what does brewed in the German style mean? Is the kettle fired, or is it maybe powered by steam?

MARGOLIS: He's unequivocal, though, about Becks' use of North American barley malt.

WILLIAMS: It's much, much different. The climate and everything it's grown in is much, much different.

MARGOLIS: Now, could you and I taste that difference - questionable. Still, beer drinkers pay more for imports. Six packs of Becks retail for about two bucks more than comparable domestics.

TUCKER RONZETTI: They shouldn't have to pay that price premium. The consumer should be fully informed and pay a fair price.

MARGOLIS: Tucker Ronzetti is the lead attorney in the class-action suit. Thanks to his efforts, Becks drinkers can soon recoup $12 from Anheuser-Busch - $50 with receipts. The total payout isn't yet known. The four law firms in the case could take home 3.5 million. Ronzetti defends that.

RONZETTI: We're doing our best to keep corporations honest. And frankly, it's a huge risk - big, national litigation against a powerful, multinational firm. I mean, we could easily lose the case.

MARGOLIS: Erik Gordon at the University of Michigan says he's no fan of big payouts to attorneys, but class actions serve a function.

GORDON: The idea of a class action is that it protects consumers. Otherwise, you could have somebody, you know, doing small amounts of conning over millions of people, none of whom will ever stop it.

MARGOLIS: The new settlement requires Anheuser-Busch to label Becks clearly as American-made, or they can go back to only brewing it in Germany. Jason Margolis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.