The Brewers Association’s new disinformation campaign

The truth is a brittle thing (from a design by macdoodle)
The truth is a brittle thing (adapted from a design by macdoodle)

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.

Steinlager Pure ad (copyright presumably lies with Lion / Kirin)
Part of the problem

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.

JoyJoy (Mit Iodine!) from The Simpsons s05e05 'Treehouse of Horror IV'
Equally relevant

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.

Steinlager Pure's new packaging (copyright presumably Lion / Kirin)
Not helping

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.

Malk, from The Simpsons s06e21 'The PTA Disbands'
But there’s very little meat in the gym mats

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.

  1. Who are weirdly allergic to punctuation. I’d have thought it’d be “Brewers—apostrophe Association” and “Beer—colon the Beautiful etc.”
  2. 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…
  3. 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…
  4. 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.
  5. And there is. But that’s a topic of balance and moderation and sensible appreciation of risks to which I’ll return another time.
  6. 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…
  7. 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.
  8. Damnit, I’ll have my proper punctuation.

7 thoughts on “The Brewers Association’s new disinformation campaign”

  1. Whilst vitriol towards Lion and D.B. is understandable, and quite often deserved, I don’t think this particular topic warrants *quite* as much as you do. Yes, it’s clearly a marketing stunt. Yes, “99% sugar free” is meaningless. But as far as big brand marketing stunts go, this really isn’t too bad.

    The website actually goes over a decent rundown of beer/brewing, and what the provided nutritional numbers mean. Cane sugar is mentioned as being a common ingredient on multiple occasions. Clear connections are drawn between ABV and calorie content (which strikes me as something the average consumer might not be aware of). There’s even all that nice stuff about alcohol processing and moderation.

    You might say that the average consumer is not going to read all of that and will just jump on the calorie stats. That’s fair. But even the calorie numbers are pretty useful. If someone wants to buy some quaffing lager for a weekend BBQ and can easily find out that Speight’s has less calories per bottle than Steinlager, I think that’s a good thing.

    1. Everyone’s got different tolerances for these things, but I didn’t think I was being particularly vitriolic. I suppose I do call it “bullshit”, but I kinda mean that in the technical (Harry Frankfurt) sense. I don’t “hate” Lion or DB, and still drink plenty of their beer (well, mostly Lion, but DB aren’t on my short Boycott List).

      I think the danger here is that something admittedly stunty and of admittedly little use to the consumer (both of which you concede!) is pitched as something the big breweries are going to voluntarily do ― in the explicit hope that the small breweries will be compelled to follow suit. That’s crap. That’s a dick move by the big breweries and would cause real harm for no real gain.

  2. A few years ago I had a conversation with someone who worked at the ministry of food safety (or whatever it is or was called – MPI now I assume) who said that the public health people were actively against energy labelling on booze.

    The reason was apparently that they (public health wonks) didn’t want people making that health choices when comparing different alcoholic beverages. They seemed to believe that the ability to do so would make people less likely to make the superior health choice of not drinking an alcoholic beverage at all.

    Absolutely mad from my perspective.

    1. Only *some* of us are actual wonks…in general, we try our best to provide informed guidance amidst (nearly-always) unclear evidence…

      (Fabulous post, Phil!)

  3. Glad you reference the Australia campaign, it was pretty big here (Brissie) and equally frustrating. Also, with regards to labeling, I’ve noticed some diet RTDs and ciders put their calorie counts on the packaging as proof, while their big brothers do not.

    1. Er, it’s pretty obvious that they do. At least enough of them do to give rise to an obligation to honesty (see allergies, ethical / religious diets, as I mention above). You might not. But you probably should — at least about booze and kilojoules, even if you’re happily omnivorous on ingredients.

Have at it: