More information always seems like a worthy idea. But the truth is a complicated thing and some people are very skilled bullshitters — able to spin a rare species of lie from saying something entirely accurate, which carefully exploits ambiguities in someone’s question or levers off errors in their background understanding. ‘Beer the Beautiful Truth’, a new campaign launched by the Brewers Assocation,1 is sadly just this kind of bullshit. It’s the opposite of what beer needs right now.
The idea is simple enough, and appears initially laudable: both Lion and D.B. (the Assocation’s two New Zealand-based members)2 are undertaking to voluntarily add a bunch of “nutritional information” to the packaging of (some of) their beers. The pitch is that this is in response to customer demand for these things and to fill in gaps in consumer knowledge. I might be being cynical here ― though I suppose a cynic is just a skeptic who is bored of being proven right ― but I call shenanigans. This just stinks of big breweries bullying their smaller competitors, and further muddying the waters to their benefit.
Let’s not forget that the woeful state of public understanding here is mostly their fault. If Lion and D.B. are upset that “most people” don’t know that beer is (usually) low in sugar and free from preservatives, they’d benefit from a look over their own history: these are the companies who market a few individual beers as “pure” or “low-carb” in a way that quite-obviously leaves room for the assumption that other beers aren’t. If you’re losing sales because you’ve miseducated a generation of customers, then that’s your damn chickens coming home to roost ― you can’t expect the rest of us to help clean up their shit. But sadly, there really is a built-in hostility to non-participants, here; when you say something about these beers, you inevitably imply something about those beers.3 It happens at the small scale ― where Steinlager Pure suggests weird (and untrue) things about what superscience or witchcraft might be involved in the making of Steinlager Classic4 ― and it happens at the broader level: the big breweries are here leaving room for people to assume nasty things about beers that don’t carry these labels. And I suspect that’s intentional.
Think of it like this: if I started up a little food truck and its slogan was “Our burgers aren’t radioactive!” that’d just come across as a weird attempt at humour. But if McDonald’s and Burger King launched a flashy and coordinated international ad campaign that said the very same thing ― especially in a world where people misunderstood their burgers as much as they do their beer in ours ― then that’d be a very different dynamic.
The claims in ‘Beer The Beautiful Truth’ are similarly empty nonsense or distorted beyond any usefulness. “99% Sugar Free!” is true enough, but not really at issue ― it’s like when confectioners put “Fat Free!” on their candy. To the extent that there’s a problem with candy, it isn’t fat; to the extent there’s a problem with beer,5 it’s the booze and the kilojoules, not sugar as such. The B.A. knows this, of course. It’s not rocket surgery. If you want to educate, then do so. As it stands, this effort is indistinguishable from pandering to ignorance for profit. You can see it in how they use calories front and centre when the metric standard unit is kilojoules ― but kJs give a superficially bigger number for the same amount of physical energy. The broader explanatory guff deftly minimises sugar as an ingredient and patiently explains that bubbles and booze come from fermentation ― meaning that the “99% Sugar Free” claim amounts to “It’s Fermented”, which just beautifully parallels the famous story of Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted” slogan, the absolute paradigm case of a shallow piece of marketing wank that doesn’t mean a damn thing.
And look at what isn’t included in the campaign: ingredients. The B.A. here just hide behind the line that ‘most beers contain just four ingredients: water, malted barley, hops and yeast’. Which, again, is true so far as it goes ― but a) masses of those previously-misinformed consumers care (perhaps wrongly, but sincerely) about whether beer is made with sugar,6 not just if it’s in the final product, and b) there’s a whole lot of other relevant things that people definitely care about and deserve to be able to easily know: vegans want to know if your beer is fined with isinglass and various allergies might mandate avoiding beers with lactose or wheat or whatever, just to list the blindingly obvious. I can’t see any good reason not to include a full (if generalised, to protect the actual recipes) accounting of ingredients, but it’s all too easy to reach the ungenerous conclusion that this campaign just isn’t what it says it is.
So what should we be doing, instead? I think it’s definitely the case that beer is under-labeled in this country (and probably most others). I’ve rambled on for years about how I think brewery and company of origin should be discoverable from the package simply because it’s a thing that enough people give a damn about and deserve to be able to factor into their purchasing decisions. So it is with ingredients. And I think it’s fair enough that energy content should be presented just as the level of booze is disclosed: both are about moderating your intake and balancing your life, after all. If this was the requirement ― or if it was the B.A.’s campaign, for now, to lead the way and raise the rules question later ― the hostility towards small breweries would vanish. Requiring every small-batch release to go through ten rounds of nutritional testing to figure out its dietary fibre levels to some ludicrous level of accuracy is obvious nonsense.7 The compliance costs would vastly eclipse any benefit and anyone proposing such a thing is plainly just wagering that their deeper pockets and more-stable product ranges will seem them come out ahead. So how about that? My official policy prescription is that beer should be required to show: its ingredients, its alcohol content (as a percentage, and as “standard drinks”), and an estimate of its kilojoule content (perhaps with the usual “%RDI” measure).
As it stands, ‘Beer: the Beautiful Truth’8 fails in two ways; by doing too much (pointless other nutritional information like dietary fibre and carbohydrates) and too little (by refusing to declare what the individual beers are made of). Even if it’s not a calculated bullying tactic ― and that’s a massive if ― it’s nothing praiseworthy and you should be looking distinctly sideways at the people who proposed it and are now eagerly awaiting your applause.
- Who are weirdly allergic to punctuation. I’d have thought it’d be “Brewers—apostrophe Association” and “Beer—colon the Beautiful etc.”
- The B.A. is not to be mistaken for the much-much-wider Brewers Guild and actually only consists of Lion (Kirin), Carlton & United (AB-InBev), D.B. (Heineken), and Coopers (who are still just Coopers). Independent (Asahi), the often-overlooked third member of “big beer” in New Zealand is not a member and not participating in B.T.B.T.. And the comparable (by which I mean carbon-copy) campaign in Australia is presented as only coming from Lion — I’ve asked CUB and Coopers why they didn’t want to join in…
- There’s a little graphic that’ll go on the new packaging that says “This beer is 99% sugar free” ― the this really leaps out when you read it and say it out loud; demonstratives like that really stick in our brain given how our language works. I had a little dig around to see if they’d trademarked the phrase and/or the graphic, and I couldn’t find it registered. I wonder how they’d react if non-members just borrowed it…
- Or, to return to an old favourite from the other participating brewery, it’s like when Monteith’s droned on and on about how they were packaging ‘Single Source’, leaving me wondering how little they cared about their other dozen beers.
- And there is. But that’s a topic of balance and moderation and sensible appreciation of risks to which I’ll return another time.
- I asked the B.A. if Lion and D.B. are happy to comment on how many of the 29 beers featured on the ‘Beautiful Truth’ website have sugar as an ingredient, just out of curiosity…
- Which the B.A. spokesman specifically cited when quoted in a recent article. And ― with the proviso that I am very-definitely not a chemist ― it seems to me reasonable to think we could come up with a formula to derive an accurate-enough kilojoule estimate from the ingredients and the usual measurements taken during brewing; actual lab testing of every new beer seems gratuitous.
- Damnit, I’ll have my proper punctuation.