PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- There are some fairly easy ways to find out what's in your beer. Just about none of them involve half-truths and scare tactics.
Food and beverage bloggers have yet to receive that message. One such blog gave itself a hearty pat on the back after it "forced" Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) and MolsonCoors (TAP)/SABMiller joint venture MillerCoors to reveal their ingredients. That those "hidden" ingredients are known to just about every homebrewer, bottle shop owner or guest on any brewery tour in the U.S. was among its many lies of omission.
Fear is a whole lot of fun, isn't it? The accelerated heart rate, the paranoid suspicion that you're being poisoned a drop at a time, the intrigue surrounding the parties behind it. What fear isn't, however, is a measured response to a threat that's not all that threatening once you step back, unload the wording a bit and present facts.
None of that happened last July, when the FoodBabe blog unveiled the subtly titled entry "The Shocking Ingredients In Beer." Its goal was to call attention to the gap between the Food and Drug Administration and Treasury Departments Tobacco and Alchohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) that allows beer to be bottled without listing ingredients or caloric content on its label. What resulted was a complete divergence of fact and fiction that somehow led common beer ingredients to be labeled as "harmful" by the blog in question.
Transparency is always a good thing and the discussion of ingredient labels have been a long time in coming. However, blogger Vani Hari opted to start that discussion by fearmongering and baiting her way to the point. Let's start with her most damning accusation: There are fish bladders in Guinness. Yep. Guinness has used isinglass, or air-filled fish swim bladders, since the 18th Century to clear yeast particles out of beer. It speeds the process without affecting the flavor of the beer and is easily separated from the beer batch itself. Vegetarians and vegans are warned each St. Patrick's Day about faint traces of isinglass that end up in their beer, but these folks generally have a tough time with beer to begin with -- as most mass-produced beer is clarified with gelatins derived from the bones of cows and other animals.
Then there's the stunning revelation that some beers are made with corn and rice. Yes, they're called adjuncts and they've also been used here for hundreds of years. In fact, when the first German and Czech brewers arrived in this country, they used corn and rice when the two-row barley here in the U.S. didn't produce nearly as much protein as the four-row barley they used back home. It was costly, it was a pain, but it needed to be done. BeerAdvocate dedicates an entire subsection to American Adjunct Lager, while the Brewers Association craft beer industry group just changed its definition of a craft brewer to make room for adjunct beers.
But what about the scary-sounding propylene glycol, "an ingredient found in anti-freeze?" It's listed as part of the brewing process because it's found in cooling systems that bring down the temperature of beer, not in the beer itself. There are certainly discussions to be had about the presence of food colorings (which shouldn't be there if you're brewing correctly), but this blog's "what are they hiding?" approach overshadows just about all of that honest concern by playing it fast and loose with the facts.
That's done far more harm than good. Cancer surgeon David Gorski, on the blog Science-Based Medicine, not only called out most of the blogs more specious claims about beer ingredients, but called the Food Babe "the Jenny McCarthy of the food industry." David Butterworth at Forbes called the blog's approach "quackmail." Longtime beer writer Tom Cizauskas just flat-out calls it calumny, while author Maureen Ogle (who knows a thing or two about food after spending seven years writing about the history of meat in the U.S.) called in Stone Brewing's Mitch Steele, Rock Bottom Breweries & Restaurants' Eric Sorensen and others to deconstruct Hari's entry point-by-point and label it "dumbassery."
Meanwhile, when Anheuser-Busch InBev finally opted to list ingredients on its site -- TapIntoYourBeer.com -- it went with water, barley malt, rice, yeast and hops for both Budweiser and Bud Light. MillerCoors, meanwhile, took to its Facebook page and offered up water, barley malt, corn, yeast and hops for all products but Blue Moon. For that beer, oats, orange peel and coriander were added to the mix.
Seriously? Is this how low the bar for a revolution has sunk? Has the voice of the consumer grown so shrill and muted that is has moved the debate over genetically modified foods from the supermarket and school cafeteria to the beer fridge of some blogger's spouse? No, this -- like the entire campaign that preceded it -- is just lazy. There are several avenues that can be used to get far more information than this, and they're a lot less labor intensive. For starters, just about every brewer in the U.S. -- and that includes Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors -- offer tours of their various brewing facilities. They won't hand you a list of ingredients at the door, but you see the equipment (are the lines plastic?), see the materials (is there corn syrup involved?) and see the process that gets you to the finished product. Boston Beer Company's (SAM) brewery tour in Boston was always particularly adept at this process and had generous question-and-answer sections built into the tours for more technically inquisitive visitors.
The other way is to go to your local bottle shop or taproom and ask. The folks there are more knowledgeable than you can imagine and, at the very least, know what separates an adjunct lager from its all-grain counterparts. Finally, and perhaps best of all, there's homebrewing. Charlie Papazian didn't spend all that time writing The Complete Joy Of Homebrewing, founding Boulder Beer Company and laying the groundwork for craft beer as we know it just to have people wondering 30 years later what's in their beer. Homebrewing allows you to deconstruct a beer piece by piece, see the basic parts used in the process, learn the shortcuts and see which ones larger brewers just might be using.
Anheuser-Busch has invited the blogger in question down to its brewing facilities to get a better look at what's going on. While a little more transparency in labeling may have alleviated many concerns -- though GMO corn, rice and other products still aren't required to be labeled -- telling half truths and hiding behind frightening descriptions of everyday ingredients isn't going to make anything more transparent. A little more honesty from beer's concern trolls could bring more clarity to the discussion than a tankerful of fish swim bladders.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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