Point of Brew: Truth in advertising for beer labels

By March 16, 2011

With ordinary domestic beers, I know perfectly well what I am getting with every bottle, six-pack and case of beer I buy. Miller/Coors/ABI products, in the mainstream, have been the way they are today for many years and hold no surprises for me. I pay my money and get what I expect, that is, what I always get when I buy a particular brand. This is a very good thing.

The label, one might say, is a kind of truth-in-advertising guarantee, and assures that the bottle I am about to open will be in all detectable ways excellent and familiar.

It is perhaps a curious fact that there is remarkably little information on the labels of such beers to tell me, were I ignorant, what I’m getting into. I do not need much information because I have been there before, I know what is in the bottle and I know what I like.

The same is not really true of all those micro-brewed beers that fill the supermarket shelves these days. Their labels send messages that the brewer intends to be informative; at least, I suppose he intends them to be informative because some labels are long on self-praise, self-congratulations and self-admiration, and a bit vague about the contents of the bottle.

Craft brewers could argue, with some justification, that they call their beers by their rightful stylistic name: It’s an Ale, they might say, or a Pale Ale or an Amber Ale or an Imperial Pale Ale, abbreviated to IPA; or a Kolsch. What could be clearer? Or a Porter or a Stout or a Märzen or a Bock in a dozen different variations.

Trouble is that each brewer interprets these traditional stylistic names in his or her own way so that one brewer’s concept of a Pale Ale, for example, is quite unlike another’s. Even if consumers understand the basic style words that appear often on beer labels, they are in for a shock if they expect every Pale Ale, for example, to have more or less the same characteristics.

There is a further trend within the craft brewing industry that persuades brewers to make ever more adventurous beers; these are not merely beers with intense palate-numbing flavors but also, in some cases, with flavors that have long been considered hallmarks of spoiled beers.

These include sour or acidic beers that are often produced by barrel aging and then packaged in champagne bottles and closed with wired corks. I call them extreme beers. They are expensive; think wine prices. They certainly are not for the ordinary consumer who would be deeply disappointed to the point of anger if he were to buy such a beer not knowing what to expect.

I told one such producer his beers should carry a red-flag warning. In a recent publication I wrote the following about extreme beers:

While extreme craft-brewed beers are fascinating avenues of brewing arts and science to explore, there is real danger of leaving the consumer far behind.

Again: “(There is) evidence that the craft brewers have already left in the lurch many consumers they should be attracting and a further dash to the extreme …. may well be counterproductive to the point of causing dangerous disaffection among those consumers who might otherwise explore the world of craft brews.”

And further: “… what concerns me is not that extreme beers appear in the marketplace, but that extreme beers become the objective or ambition of craft brewing and craft brewers in general and that this far-away, adventurous, extreme tail starts to wag the craft brewing dog.”

I was reminded of this discussion when I recently had the chance to read the six-pack carrier for one of the LTD (limited edition series) beers from Full Sail Brewing Company of Hood River, Ore. The beer is first identified as a Lager beer and “Those who love Amber Ales should consider this.” Odd, really.

The carrier has a “malt-o-meter” that identifies the beer as on the light side of medium and then checks boxes for copper color, hint of dark roast and clean, hoppy finish. On the bottom of the six-pack (a location hard to study from the beer aisle!) there are a whole lot more boxes that identify the kinds of malts and hops employed, the alcohol content (5.6% ABV = a substantial alcohol by volume), wort strength (14 degrees Plato, which tells brewers a lot and degrees Socrates which, along with special sauce, troubled water and kryptonite, is good for a giggle) and the bitterness level (28 IBU = international bitterness units) that is distinct and noticeable but moderate.

I applaud this effort to inform the consumer about what to expect and I wish more craft brewers made a similar effort. Of course the LTD six-pack is not short of hyperbole of the usual kind that, perhaps in this case, can be forgiven: “So crazy good you might convert to Lagerism.” “(This beer) is busted out with the mad brewing skills of the Full Sail Crew. Stoked to be livin’ the dream in Hood River, Oregon, making beer that will twist your cap.”

They brew better than they blurb.

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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