Why Ingredients Don't Appear on Beer Labels

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- It's going to take a lot more than a few days of online outrage to make brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, MolsonCoors, SABMiller and Boston Beer divulge a complete list of ingredients on every bottle of beer they produce.

Beer labeling is a complex, heavily regulated process that doesn't tend to change unless it absolutely has to. The big brewers have the labeling game down to a science and smaller brewers have the label approval process timed so tightly that last year's government shutdown almost scrubbed a few batches off of the calendar completely. A blog entry from last July and some ensuing hashtag activism resulted in Anheuser-Busch InBev and MolsonCoors divulging brief lists of general ingredients, but did nothing to compel the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to change the way it labels beer or its ingredients.

Since 1987, the TTB and its predecessor -- the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- have been responsible for regulating the labeling of any drink that falls under the "malt beverage" definition laid out by the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. A little memorandum of understanding between the then-ATF and Food and Drug Administration left it up to the former to decide exactly what information needed to be on a beer bottle or can and what didn't.

Also see: Scare Tactics Won't Brew Better Beer

In the TTB's view, the beer label must-haves are as follows:

1. Brand name: A beer has to have one, and it can't mislead the public into thinking it's something it isn't. Basically, you can't call Budweiser "Happy Fun Juice."

2. Size of the container: 12 ounces, 22 ounces, 40 ounces, etc.

3. Type of beverage: Is it beer? Is it wine? Is it cider? Is it a fermented malt beverage?

4. The name and address of the brewer: It can be the full name and address or something as simple as Blue Moon Brewing Co., Denver, Colo., as long as you explain it to the TTB. If it's an import, the name and location of the importer has to be included.

5. Alcohol content: This is optional unless it's required by state law or prohibited by it.

6. Alcohol terms: "Low alcohol" or "reduced alcohol" can be used only if the beer is 2.5% alcohol by volume or less. "Non-alcoholic" applies to 0.5% ABV or less, while "alcohol-free" has to be 0.0% ABV.

7. Additives: FD&C Yellow No. 5, saccharine, sulfites and aspartame need to be disclosed.

8. Health warning: "GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems." This has to be included.

TTB specifies the size of the type, its legibility and where it needs to be included on the label, but that's it. Brewers don't need to tell consumers about hops, malt, yeast, water, corn, rice, coriander, orange peel or anything else that appears in the beer, though some will include such information on labels or websites just for credibility's sake.

Beyond that, they don't have to disclose any of the maltose used in making milk stout, the sugars used in carbonation or anything else. But there are some beers that fall beyond TTB's jurisdiction and require a little more food-like oversight. When a brewer completely substitutes barley for ingredients such as sorghum to make their beers "gluten-free" or leaves hops out of the process to make a gruit or other hop-free beer, that product is no longer considered a "malt beverage" and falls under FDA jurisdiction. That requires disclosure of ingredients including sorghum, water, rice, yeast, molasses, FD&C Yellow No. 5, ascorbic acid, added coloring, spices, and natural or artificial flavors. In some cases, it even requires a complete listing of nutritional data.

Also see: Craft Beer Goes Commercial

If a brewery decides to call its beer "organic" and label it as such, that's where the Department of Agriculture gets involved. While qualifying as organic is difficult given the farming and sourcing issues involved -- and insects' undying love for hop vines -- it isn't impossible to get that organic certification, as Portland, Maine-based Peak Organic and Berkeley, Calif.-based Bison Brewing have.

Amid concerns about brewing supplies used since the 19th Century including corn and isinglass -- fish swim bladders that clear particulates out of beer and are scooped out entirely after fermentation -- bloggers and others have asked for a bit more transparency from beer brewers. In response, Anheuser-Busch InBev opted to list ingredients on its site -- TapIntoYourBeer.com. Those it listed: 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.

Small "craft" brewers, meanwhile, have varied on their approach to ingredients, but not so much on their approach to labeling. The Brewers Association craft beer industry group makes it abundantly clear what brewers need to include when submitting labels for their Certificate of Label Approval and dedicate an entire page of their site toward navigating brewers through TTB's proper channels.

Since TTB requires a base beer formula, full ingredient information and laboratory analysis for each label approved, it's by no means a rubber stamp. Critics argue that almost all of that information should be shared with consumers on a label rather than on a website or not at all. With a $100 billion beer industry in the balance, though -- including $14.3 billion in sales from more than 2,800 craft brewers -- changing that process and clearing space for said information is going to require a lot more pressure and urgency than less than a week of hashtags provides.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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