Sometimes, you’re just browsing the web and you come across an essay that helps to crystallize a sentiment you’ve already been considering. Of course, in a sphere as vast as craft beer, there are many such opinions in the back of my mind at any given time, but it feels like this one has received less intensity of discussion than most. Perhaps it’s because it simply doesn’t effect the majority of drinkers, and is thus more difficult to convince them of its importance. But regardless, the fact remains: Breweries are, by and large, not required to list on their beer labels when potentially dangerous, even fatal, allergens are present in their product. They operate under a set of rules that, when compared to most other aspects of the food industry, seem increasingly irresponsible—and that’s coming from someone with no major food allergies of any kind.
One person who does have such allergies, though, is Julian Cantella over at the website SommBeer. In an essay published yesterday, Cantella makes a straightforward argument that for people like him, knowing exactly what ingredients are in their beer isn’t a matter of trivia, but a serious matter of personal health. And the more I consider it, I’m not really sure what kind of argument you could even make to disagree with him.
Cantella, who is intolerant of lactose, writes the following:
Recently-and not for the first time—I consumed lactose in a beer where I never would have expected to find it (a session IPA). More importantly, the label gave no indication whatsoever that lactose was a significant ingredient. I discovered it only after feeling some discomfort and looking up details on the brewery’s web site.
But the real problem comes when these beers aren’t labeled. You want to create a Marshmallow Popsicle Cinnamon Toast Crunch Sour Stout? Go for it – just let me know what’s actually in that thing, and it’s on me to decide whether I want to put it in my body or (much more likely) stay far, far away.
Cantella hits on the crux of the issue, which is one of responsibility. Whose responsibility is it to inform the consumer of what they’re consuming? The drinker himself? Can that person reasonably be expected to attempt to look up nutritional information (which may not exist) for every beer they drink? Is it not much more reasonable to expect this burden to fall on the brewery, as it does for pretty much all other brands you’d find in your grocery store? Especially when all it would involve is the inclusion of an ingredients list?
Likewise, we’re familiar with the fact that in modern craft beer, adjuncts often show up in places you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Sure, if you understand the meaning of “milkshake IPA,” you know that it’s likely to contain lactose. But we’ve also tasted beers made with ingredients like lactose that have no overt mention of them on a beer label. In fact, the #1 pale ale in our last blind tasting of 151 pale ales, Monday Night Brewing Co.’s Han Brolo, previously fell into that camp. It’s a delicious beer (obviously), and its page on the Monday Night website clearly notes it’s “brewed with lactose sugar” in the very first sentence. But when we first tasted it, the word “lactose” didn’t appear anywhere on the can.
To their credit, though, Monday Night then redesigned the can to include the words “contains lactose,” after being made aware of these very issues. Observe that in the image below, which I’ve cropped and rotated for simplicity’s sake.
A brewery obviously has the right to choose its own design aesthetic. If you don’t want to boldly play up that a beer has lactose or nuts in it, as part of a marketing strategy, that’s your prerogative. But if it’s not in bold type, front and center, shouldn’t that disclosure invariably show up in the fine print instead? If a consumer like Cantella is examining the can to make sure it’s safe for him to drink, he shouldn’t be able to read it in its entirety, come to the conclusion that it’s okay, and then end up sick afterward. That’s a worst case scenario for everyone involved, consumer and brewery alike.
What argument can be made to the contrary? That it’s expensive for a brewery to change their established labels, just to add a few more words? Sure, I guess. But if some breweries such as Monday Night are making the change to better serve their customers, the reply from drinkers will increasingly be “Okay, so what’s your excuse?”
Why Is This Even Possible?
By now, you’re presumably wondering why breweries aren’t legally required to disclose the presence of common allergens on beer labels, and why the decision is instead left up to their discretion. The reason, as with so many other “why the hell do things work this way?” questions in the beer world, revolves around the TTB—The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Their Beverage Alcohol Manual for Malt Beverages dictates what information must appear on beer labels on a national level, although things are complicated by some state-to-state variation.
According to the TTB’s rules, this information MUST appear somewhere on a beer label.
— Brand name
— Class designation (a very vague term that can either be a specific beer style, or simply “malt beverage”)
— Name and address of the brewery
— Net contents, in terms of the amount of beer volume
— Health warning statement (for all alcoholic products)
— Country of origin (if not the U.S.)
There are also “required disclosures,” for various additives involved in food production, which include the likes of Yellow #5, sulfites or Aspartame. As Cantella points out, this seems like the area where you’d expect to find allergens as well, but that disclosure is instead made optional. Oddly, though, the rules state that if you disclose one major allergen, you have to disclose all that appear in the beer. Writes Cantella:
Major food allergens—Section 7.22a of the Labeling Requirements for Malt Beverages is titled “Voluntary disclosure of major food allergens” and notes that labeling is “on a voluntary basis.” The only meaningful requirement is that if a brewery discloses one major food allergen that’s in the beer, they have to disclose all of them. (I guess to avoid implying that an allergen is not in a beer.)
While we’re on the topic, we also need to at least mention the patent absurdity of the fact that listing Alcohol By Volume on labels is also optional unless required directly by state law: “The alcoholic content and the percentage and quantity of the original extract shall not be stated unless required by State law.” Sure, most breweries choose to simply include ABV because it’s something that the majority of consumers expect, but that hasn’t stopped us from receiving dozens of bottles in the Paste office over the years that have no ABV listed on them. Beyond the brewery name and the beer name, it’s the single most obvious piece of information you would expect to find on any beer label, and some brewers are still choosing to withhold that information. Which, once again, is absurd.
Ultimately, and as Cantella also notes, “this doesn’t seem like it should be a controversial issue.” The downside of having dangerous, common allergens such as lactose or nuts in your beer, without clear labeling identifying their presence, would presumably outweigh any upside a brewery could offer in return. If you have an argument for why an uncluttered label is superior to potentially putting a customer’s life in jeopardy, I’m going to need to hear it. It’s simply bad business, and an unnecessary risk.
It’s not like I’m pushing for an itemized list of every single ingredient in every beer, here. For one thing, I’m still not entirely sold on the idea that every beer needs a nutritional info label, so I’ll know exactly how many calories are in every beer swelling my waistline. There are some aspects of drinking where we can reasonably say to the consumer “You don’t need a label to know the risks,” without it endangering their lives.
But unlisted ingredients that could cause someone’s throat to swell shut? That’s another matter entirely. And you shouldn’t need to have food allergies to see it.
EDIT: After this piece was published, I heard from a reader via Twitter who suffers from an allergy to tree nuts. I’m offering his thoughts below, which he graciously permitted me to share.
With the rise in popularity for beers with adjuncts (mostly in the barrel-aged Stout categories) a lot more of the beers have things like cashews, hazelnuts, and walnuts, any one of which could kill me and others with allergies like mine and none of which—until recently—one would think to worry about in a beer.
I think the issue is even more complicated than revisiting labeling standards, as many of these beers are exhibited at numerous festivals in which attendants are served from a tap in a convention setting by a volunteer not associated with the brewery itself (these folks typically don’t know what’s in the beer).
The Illinois Craft Brewing Association has a mobile app in which they list the beer lists for the festivals they sponsor, and fortunately they put up beer lists with ingredient lists. After having unwittingly tasted a beer with walnuts in it two years ago, I checked the app before the FOBAB (Festival of Barrel Aged Beer) festival this year and found no fewer than 14 beers spanning different categories that contained tree nuts.
I think there is more to be explored with this topic. I’ll defend the Brewers all day and love how creative they get, but I can’t help but feel that they are leaving themselves or the organizations that sponsor these types of events open to serious liability issues.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.