One aspect of the beer community that I love in particular is the nature of the people in it.  Upsetting other writers by disagreeing with them is a rariety (unless one behaves flat out insultingly).  So, when I saw a post from Peter at Simply Beer discussing the disclosure of ingredients in a beer, I asked him whether my writing a counterpoint post would be okay.  Of course, he agreed.

I do care what’s in my beer.  I care that it’s a quality product made with malts, hops, water and good yeast.  In short, I care that the beer I’m drinking doesn’t have fillers and cheap production.  But for breweries to have to list ingredients like ginger, the reviled addition for Peter, is a discomfiting proposition to me.  The example I used on Peter’s post and the one I’m going to use here deals with Wit beer.

The exotic spices used in Wit beer are notoriously hard to pinpoint.  Some of the world’s best tasters may have a guess, albeit an uncertain one, as to which ingredients are actually used.  The mysterious appeal and subtle qualities of a Wit beer are essentially based on these “secret” ingredients.  Now suppose the ingredients of the Wit are required to be disclosed.  First off, the proprietary aspects of the beer would be revealed.  Obviously, the amounts are not disclosed but the basic structure of the beer is.  Is it fair to require the disclosure of ingredients based on what others might find distasteful?  I don’t think this is enough to dictate an ingredient list.

Known allergens are a different matter because of health risks.  In the event of those allergens, there should absolutely be a distinct and explicit reference to the said allergen.  In fact, I’m sure it’s a legal requirement.  Thus, I don’t think allergens are the real issue here.  The question is whether or not an ingredient list should be required.  For me, the answer is a resounding no.  To force this takes away proprietary uniqueness from the brewer (I noted this above).

We might think that because this is required of food that we have it on beer as well.  But even Ketchup leaves room for a unique product.  I can’t count the number of food labels that list several ingredients and then the word spices.  So, would listing two row malt, crystal malt, yeast, hops and various spices really solve the issue?  How much of a particular spice needs to be in the beer to make it a list worthy?  These are the sort of questions that we would have to ask.  Perhaps in the end we would have to have beer label that are even more specifically navigated than the Ketchup label.

Let’s be honest here, generally speaking, the drinker will only be out a beer or a six pack worth of cash.  I look at it like buying a salsa that you might not like.  Now you know you don’t like it through experience.  What’s more, we are in the internet age and while many of us beer reviewers avoid other reviews of the beer we are drinking, the information about most of these beers is out there.  The reason for avoiding the reviews is obvious.  One doesn’t want read reviews to influence how he or she thinks about the beer.  However, a beer with a disliked herb or spice that is pronounced enough to note is not really a secret in a beer review.  Therefore, the spice could be avoided.

The temptation is to think that because everyone can taste it, what’s the big deal about having to disclose it?  But I’m sure many of us know the philosophical concept of slippery slope argumentation; the problem with this type of logic is that stopping points are fluid and eventually the lowest common denominator is reached and required.

(As a side note: Matt [in the comments section] has stated that the ATF has a technical requirements for listing things like ginger but that just listing “spices” is the way that brewers get around it.  If so, I’m glad that brewers can get around it.  Furthermore, the requirement seems to extend not to labeling information but product; which of course means that it has to be somewhere but not necessarily on the label.)

Another point that Peter brings up is that he would like to see ingredients that are not common for the style listed.  This is exactly what I don’t want to see.  The reason I don’t is that what makes the beer not “common for the style” is the uncommon ingredient.  So, what makes the beer different and unique?  Uncommon, if you will, is that is has a specific ingredient.  I could personally see the listing of the unique ingredients as being detrimental to experimentation and exploration.  Instead of searching for one’s own unique path, there might be a temptation of act based on what other unique additions others have done.  The point it obvious.  The very thing that makes the beer unique for the style is the very thing that will be required to be listed…?  I’m not a fan.

However, these are all dwarfed by what I see as the biggest problem with the line of argumentation.  In the comments, Peter notes that he thinks ABV should be required on all beers.  However, the reason for the disparity of listing, listing over certain amounts, or listing at all is the fact that individual states are allowed to legislate.  The real problem of forcing the listing of ABV, unusual ingredients that pose no danger of allergy, or encouraging uniformity across the board is that there is only one entity that could make this happen.  I’m sure you know who I’m talking about.  I think that last thing we need is more government involvement.  This is the same government that put the three-tier system in place.  Yes, I’m arguing guilt by association.

Thomas makes a good implicit point (and Matt’s explicit point) in the comment section when he says breweries don’t have access to a lab.  The implicit point is higher cost of obtaining various points of information.  This is the other side that would come with government requirements or even voluntary involvement, more cost for the brewery which will be passed on to the consumer (this would be yet another competitive edge for the big boys as they already have labs, which are figured into their product cost).  So, this requirement would not simply be a “pain in the arse,” as Lee implies in the comments section; it’s about cost and uniqueness.  Thomas’s other point that the ATF doesn’t want to imply health benefits by listing various aspects to a brew is well taken.

I want to be fair to Peter.  He says that he is against regulation.  But the only way that what he is stating is going to happen is one of two ways: either the brewers agree to do it themselves or the government makes them.  I personally don’t think either would be good for business.  After all, what about those of use who don’t like a certain hop or malt that much…shouldn’t that be listed, too?