Beer Laid Bare: Labels That Tell All

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By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Beer drinkers who read labels might have a glut of new information to digest.

The Tax and Trade Bureau, the division of the U.S. Treasury Department that regulates all malt beverage packaging, has floated a proposal to require a "serving facts" panel on all alcoholic beverage containers. The panel would list alcohol content by volume, calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein, serving size and servings per container. Fluid ounces of alcohol per serving would be optional.

As far as beer is concerned, the proposed rule represents a sea change on the part of the federal government. Until 1995, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (the agency that used to police alcohol labeling) prohibited any mention of alcohol content on beer labels, fearing that breweries might engage in strength wars, flaunting the potency of their brews. (A few did that anyway, using suggestive names such as Maximus Super and Powermaster and imagery such as the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull leveling a brick wall.) Coors finally dragged the bureau to the Supreme Court to win the right to post alcohol content.

Such information would have been less important a generation ago, when almost all beer fell into two categories: weaker "3.2 beer" (actually 4 percent alcohol by volume), popular in Bible Belt states, and full-strength beer (5 percent alcohol by volume). With the proliferation of brands and styles, however, the alcohol content of commercial beers today differs widely, ranging from Anchor Small Beer (3.3 percent) to the cognac-like Samuel Adams Utopias (an amazing 25 percent).

An increasing number of breweries do list alcohol strength, but the practice is far from universal. Dogfish Head Festina Peche (4.5 percent) lists the alcohol, but Rogue Shakespeare Stout doesn't (although the latter, oddly enough, gives a full disclosure of ingredients, down to the "free range coastal water"). Anheuser-Busch lists the alcohol for its specialty beers (like its 8 percent alcohol Wild Blue), but not for regular-strength brews like Bud or Michelob.

U.S. breweries also had to fight for their right to list caloric content. In 1967, the defunct Rheingold Breweries Inc. introduced Gablinger's, an early brand aimed at weight-conscious drinkers. The brewery quickly found itself in a Catch-22 situation, according to Philip van Munching's book "Beer Blast." The Food and Drug Administration demanded that Gablinger's list the number of calories per serving because it billed itself as a diet product. But the Federal Alcohol Administration Act at the time banned any listing of calories on beer containers on the grounds that that would constitute a de facto health claim (something traditionally forbidden for alcoholic beverages). Rheingold spent two years in court overturning the ban on listing calories.

Commercial beers differ as greatly in caloric content as in alcohol, with craft beers occupying the heavier end of the scale. The Web site Realbeer.com http:// lists the calories in dozens of beer brands per 12-ounce serving. Miller Lite registers 96; Budweiser weighs in at 143; Corona Extra, 148; Pabst, 152; Samuel Adams Boston Lager, 160; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, 171; Redhook ESB, 179; and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine -- yikes! -- 330.

Might health-conscious drinkers stop drinking fuller-bodied beers if they realized they were more fattening?

Maybe, says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, the small breweries' trade organization. Being able to list "0% fat" (no beer contains fat), though, might offset the damage.

"The public does have a right to know these things," Gatza says. "The information showing up is not an issue for us. But how it appears is an issue." Many small breweries would have to add a back label to make room for the new information, he says, and that could cost the craft beer industry tens of millions of dollars. Gatza says he will lobby for the right of small brewers to list the information in linear form, rather than a box format.

When can we expect the serving-facts panel to start appearing? The Tax and Trade Bureau has given the public until Oct. 29 to submit comments. The government will review those comments and perhaps amend its proposal. Once final regulations are published, the bureau will give brewers three years to comply.

"Sometimes they sit on things, and sometimes they move very quickly," Gatza says.

Greg Kitsock's Beer column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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