Seven years ago, I was living in Ghent, Belgium. Though I had been a fan of craft beer for years, Belgium is where I learned the hard way about the wide variance of alcohol content between different styles.
I hadn’t yet been introduced to the Belgian golden strong ale or tripel—two drinkable yet shockingly potent styles. It took a severe hangover to realize that drinking three bottles of my new favorite—Westmalle Tripel (9.5 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV)—is the equivalent of tossing back nearly a six-pack of Summit Extra Pale Ales.
I soon noticed that the Belgians I met carefully considered the ABV listed on the menu or the beer label when ordering beer, choosing a tripel (9 percent ABV or more) at the beginning of the night and a pintje (low alcohol tap beer, ordered in Flanders by holding up your pinky to the bartender) at the end of the night.
The alcohol content of beer can range from 2.5 to more than 25 percent ABV—though most styles weigh in anywhere from 3 to 12 percent. In the United States, where low-alcohol lagers have dominated the market for decades, styles with elevated alcohol content are still a relatively new phenomenon. U.S. Dietary Guidelines still define a standard beer as 12 ounces and 5 percent ABV.
It struck me when I returned to the states and had trouble finding ABV on beer menus or beer labels. Canada and the European Union require breweries to disclose this information on labels.
Many craft Minnesota breweries choose to include ABV on their labels, but when I noticed my cans of Summit Brewing Company’s Sága IPA did not, I asked Summit’s Director of Quality Rebecca Newman to explain. She told me the brewery’s labels don’t all currently feature ABV. She says whether or not ABV is included on the label has to do with when a particular beer was created and where it’s distributed (since states may have contradictory laws).
After Prohibition had been repealed, Congress passed a law in 1935 banning the practice of labeling the alcoholic content of beer. The assumption was that consumers would buy the strongest beer, and by not disclosing this information the government hoped to prevent breweries from competing and engaging in “strength wars.”
In 1995, Coors successfully challenged this law. Currently, the feds leave it up to the states to decide whether to include ABV, which has resulted in a complicated mishmash of state and federal regulations on the subject. New York prohibits labels from including ABV, for example, while North Carolina, Washington, and New Hampshire mandate labeling beers over 6 percent, 8 percent, and 12 percent respectively.
Most alcohol labeling regulation falls under the regulations of the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Distinctions are made between wine, beer, cider, and spirits. The laws are so complicated that breweries are increasingly hiring lawyers who specialize in beverage law to navigate them.
Attorney Elliot Ginsburg of Hop Law points out that hard cider below 7 percent ABV is governed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not the TTB, which means “Nutrition Facts” have to be included on the label, though inclusion of ABV is optional. Similarly, if a beer is labeled “light,” or not brewed from malted barley, it’s also subject to FDA regulations.
Since 1972, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been petitioning the government to mandate inclusion of key information on beer labels, including alcoholic content, calories and carbohydrates. In response, the TTB issued guidelines for voluntary labeling of nutritional content and ABV of alcoholic beverages.
“I think the trend is towards more labeling rather than less,” says Ginsburg.
“Most of the beer I see does have ABV listed. I think it’s because craft beer customers are sophisticated—they want to know what they’re buying and drinking.”
Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a national trade association for small brewers, acknowledges that there’s demand for more information among craft beer drinkers, particularly related to ABV.
“There is recognition, I think, that people really care about ABV and responsibility. Just about everyone I have beers with considers strength, and the growth of session IPAs is part of that. Many craft beer bars list ABV on menu boards,” Gatza said in an email.
But Gatza says there’s a risk in putting ABV on a label, particularly for breweries that aren’t automated because of the potential for variation between batches. Current regulations allow a small variance of plus or minus 0.3 percent alcohol, but still many beers fall outside of their stated ABV. In fact, nearly a quarter of all the malt beverages randomly sampled by the TTB in 2015 as a part of its Alcohol Beverage Sampling Program (ABSP) were found to be either over or under the allowable variance in ABV.
With recent efforts pushing for greater label transparency, such as the Brewer’s Voluntary Disclosure Initiative from the Beer Institute and a new regulation from the FDA that call for not just the ABV but also the nutritional information of beers, craft breweries will need to find cost-effective solutions to brewing more consistently from batch to batch.
Big breweries with in-house labs won’t have trouble complying with the new regulation. But for smaller craft breweries, it’s not as easy. The Brewers Association has been working to help craft breweries comply with the new FDA regulation going into effect this May.
Summit will be affected by this change, as its beer is available at chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and New Bohemia. Newman says the brewery is “poised and ready” for the new regulation.
Newman notes that testing beer in-house or by a third party has become a crucial aspect of process and quality control for brewers. She expects more movement towards transparency in labeling in the near future, as consumers continue to demand more information about what they’re drinking.
“If brewers cry foul about these changes, they need to take a hard look at why they’re in the business of brewing in the first place […] Brewers have to realize this is part of the cost of brewing, it’s the cost of quality—and quality matters.”