The Week In Beer News

Weak beer, tied beer, lambic beer and legal beer.

It's been an interesting and eventful week in beer so let's look at some of the news.

The  Anheuser Busch InBev Water(ing down)gate Debacle

This is definitely one of the more bizarre beer stories I've ever heard given the reputation so many of their products have among beer geeks for being as thin and tasteless as water to start with, and also lent a strong whiff of irony when you remember that old joke about 'Why is Bud Light/Coors Light/Miller Light etc like sex in a canoe?' How, I wonder, is it possible to dilute something that's already (allegedly) fucking close to water?

Well, of course, Bud isn't fucking close to water in terms of ABV. In fact its stated strength (5%) makes it stronger than most British session ales and at least three of Jester King's beers that I can think of, so in that respect I think the American adjunct lager sometimes gets unfair criticism, at least if what you're looking for is an alcohol delivery device. Yes, it has a profound want of flavour and body but it'll get you as drunk as any 5% craft beer you can pick up off the shelf and at a lower price, so I suppose it depends on your priorities.

The lawsuit against ABI is being brought by... well, this is where you reads your news story and you takes your pick: I've seen reports saying that it's Bud drinkers, others say that it's former ABI employees, and one or two stories have noted a degree of disgruntlement among those former employees following the InBev buyout. Whichever one it turns out to be it's the former employees who are supposedly blowing the whistle, although at the moment no tangible proof has been presented and it amounts to nothing more than what they allege they've seen happening.

To me, and quite a few others, it seems a little far-fetched that a company with so much to lose as Anheuser Busch InBev would do something as damaging as thinning down their beer, leastways at first glance. Apart from potentially alienating the millions of people who drink the beers named in the lawsuit, the feds have a player in this game too in the shape of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. There are some very strict federal (and state too) regulations that have to be adhered to by brewers. The ABV has to be what it says on the label. There is a loophole though, albeit a very, very small one; beer is a naturally fermented product so there has to be a certain degree of flexibility, an amount that the brewer can go above or below and still remain within the labelling regulations. The federal rule says that For malt beverages containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume, a tolerance of 0.3 percent will be permitted, either above or below the stated percentage of alcohol. (some states follow that rule, others have their own), so 5% beer such as Bud should be able to go down to 4.985% ABV and still be legal. That amounts to 0.0018oz of ethyl alcohol per 12oz bottle, which doesn't seem like much at first glance and probably wouldn't make much difference to your beer buzz (I doubt it would even get a butterfly sloshed), but considering the volume of ABI's production it'd mean a significant saving for the company by stretching the product and filling more bottles, and in companies as big as ABI quality usually comes a poor second to the balance sheet.

I suspect what's happening (and I'm far from the only one) is that since the InBev merger, Anheuser Busch is no longer aiming for the 5% mark but for the lower end of the allowable flexibility within the regulations. Here's a quote from Gary Spedding of the Alcohol Beverage Testing News blog which seems to bear that out:

Bud has been our control beer in our laboratory… for calibrating our alcohol instruments Bud goes in after calibration to see hopefully 5.00% abv. pretty much on the nose. Not so recently. Now as low as 4.94% after slipping from 4.98% earlier in the year. Losing it graces by higher airs it may be toppling from its top spot and is no longer our control beer of choice. But it is changing. A tale of two Buds (early and late) would reveal much more. Over the years the international bitterness content has declined from about 12 in the late 90′s to 7-8 today — another parameter to watch.

Interestingly enough, one thing that has become more widely known about how Anheuser Busch brews its beers as a result of this story is that they do indeed water down their beer, but not for the reasons you might think. They brew their beers stronger than is necessary and then dilute them to achieve the desired ABV, which not only helps in producing a consistent product but also saves a whole lot on the space needed for brewing it.

The consensus of opinion, even among those who are deriving a degree schadenfreude from this story, is that the lawsuit is going nowhere unless the plaintiffs have something up their sleeve which they haven't yet divulged. NPR this week commissioned a test of Bud's potency by White Labs (a major supplier of yeast and a name well known to homebrewers) who found their samples to be well within the allowable range, something which ABI has wasted no time in letting us know on Twitter and in old school media.

What If There'd Been No Prohibition?

America's best known homebrewer, Charlie Papazian wrote a piece this week explaining his thoughts about what might have happened if there'd been no prohibition. It's an interesting read, and although it's never possible to say with any certainty what might have happened in an alternative timeline, Mr Papazian knows enough about the beer business to make some highly educated speculations.

One thing he mentions, although without actually naming it, is the tied house system whereby pubs and bars are owned by breweries. This was fairly common in the US before prohibition and has been the prevailing way of selling beer in the UK for more than a century; it's what I grew up with as a young beer drinker. The main arguments against the tied house is that breweries own both the means of manufacture and sale (and distribution too in the shape of the brewers' dray) and can fix prices, particularly if there are no other breweries in the locality, although that's far less likely these days with a decent road/rail system that can move goods around the country easily.

A fleet of Budweiser trucks outside the Anheuser Busch garage in 1912

It's also said that breweries might charge higher wholesale prices for their beer to the free houses (much smaller in number) who are independent and who can sell whichever beers they want to, like an American bar, a practice that would put the free house at a cost disadvantage. Although I mostly drank at tied houses because that was all I had access to (and I could choose from maybe half a dozen different breweries) there was always a thrill when we discovered a free house because we were going to see some beers from other parts of the country and brewers who we had only heard rumours of.

Nowadays the free houses are more likely to be owned a pubco – a company which owns and operates a chain of pubs independent from any brewery. They mostly came about as a result of a piece of 1989 legislation called The Beer Orders (official name: The Supply of Beer (Tied Estate) Order 1989 and The Supply of Beer (Loan Ties, Licensed Premises and Wholesale Prices) Order 1989) which was enacted because the Conservative government of the time thought that some of the bigger British brewers had grown so big that the number of tied houses they owned was adversely affecting the market. The Beer Orders limited the number of pubs any brewery could own to 2,000 – hardly an issue for most of the small breweries who might own less than 100, but the big brewers had to unload thousands of pubs. Some of them were sold off to companies in the hospitality business, but others were simply transferred to another subsidiary of the corporate owner which was set up for the purpose. The irony is that unlike the independent free house most of the pubco pubs themselves are tied to the company and the publican's hands are tied (no pun intended) every bit as much as they had been when the pub was owned by a brewery. There have been a handful of parliamentary committees looking into how the Beer Orders are working and whether pubcos are still a good thing, such as this one.

When the 21st amendment repealed prohibition the three-tier system was introduced as way to prevent American breweries from having too much power because it separated manufacture, distribution and sale. Without prohibition that might not have happened and it's possible that today we might have been faced with the ghastly choice of going to an Anheuser Busch bar, a Miller bar, a Coors bar... and nothing else. Or maybe not. Who knows exactly how much power the brewing giants might have had and what legislation might have been introduced to encourage small brewers to operate despite any attempts the corporations' may (or may not) have made to stifle them. And in some ways that isn't too different from the stories going around about certain megabrewers today. It's said that in some markets the distributors have a degree of power that was never intended because of their close ties with (or even ownership by) the megabrewers. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

A Lambic-Style Beer Brewed in Texas

Some unexpected and exciting news for Texas beer geeks came this week in a blog post from Jester King stating that they'd just filled a brand new coolship for the first time with what amounts to (or rather, will amount to in anything from one to five years) a Texas-brewed lambic beer, although co-founder/owner Jeff Stuffings says that they won't be calling it a lambic out of respect for the Belgian brewers around Brussels and Pajottenland. They haven't decided exactly what they're going to call it but the words 'Hill Country' will almost certainly be involved so that there'll be an indication of origin, something that's always been a high priority for Jester King and their farmhouse philosophy.

Jeff also mentioned that they'd been splashing sour beer around the JK barrel room in preparation for the first coolship fill so that an ecosystem of yeasts and bugs could develop in plenty of time for the first pouring of wort, and that there was a good flow of air during the overnight inoculation so that the local wild yeasts could get at the wort.

And as if that wasn't enough they brewed another batch the next day and filled the vessel a second time!

I think a brief note about coolships is called for here.

These days they're mostly associated with spontaneous fermentation as being the vessel the wort is poured into to be left overnight where it can collect wild yeasts, but there was a time when just about every brewery had them because a large, shallow flat tank was the best way to cool wort before refrigeration as we know it came along (it was also useful for separating out solids and particles before the wort went off for fermentation). In English they were simply called coolers but the German name for them was kühlschiff so it's not hard to see how that could have been anglicised to 'cool ship', perhaps via Dutch koelschip on the way.

Here's a description of the cooling room in an English brewery of the late 1800s:

Following the process, we next proceeded to the cooling house, situated on the left side of the brewhouse, and adjoining the hop stores. It is 104 feet in length, and contains four open coolers, commanding one another, all resting on iron columns and joists of massive construction; also two vertical refrigerators, of the most modern pattern, cooling at the rate of sixty barrels per hour. This is a very cool place, even in the summer time, as the walls are louvred on all sides, and a box louvre fixed along the centre of the roof.

  Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, volume 3, Alfred Barnard, 1890, pp 136-137.

One thing Jeff mentioned which got me salivating is a high probability that Jester King will sell some of their lambic-style beer as young, unblended lambic (or whatever they decide to name it) of the type that the local beer drinkers of the Senne Valley have been enjoying for centuries but which rarely makes it out of Belgium. I'll be bugging Jeff about that 12 months from now.

STOP PRESS: This morning Jester King posted a picture of a satisfyingly vigorous fermentation.

Beer Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

The 83rd Session of the Texas Legislature began almost two months ago, and as expected there will be beer-related content. Four bills have been introduced:

Senate Bill 515, if passed, would increase the annual production cap on Texas brewpubs from 5,000 barrels to 12,500, allow them to sell their beer to a distributor, and also allow them to sell a maximum of 1,000 barrels a year directly to retail outlets.

Senate Bill 518 would allow a brewery which produces less than 225,000 barrels to sell up to 5,000 barrels directly to consumers for consumption on-premise at the brewery. In other words they could have a taproom. Most Texas breweries do already have a tasting room or at least a small bar with a few taps, but this would allow them to make money by selling their beer instead of having to give it away, something which can do nothing but help Texas craft breweries by injecting a little extra cash.

Senate Bills 516 and 517 would amend the amount of beer a brewery in Texas can self-distribute. Currently a brewery which produces less than 75,000 barrels a year can self-distribute 100% of their production. The new bills would mean that a brewery of under 125,000 barrels a year could self-distribute up to 40,000 barrels of their output. The reason for having two bills is the distinction in the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code between a brewer who makes 'beer' (which is less than 4% alcohol by weight) and a manufacturer who makes 'ale' (which is greater than 4% ABW). Yes, despite the lawsuit brought by Jester King et al which successfully removed the ridiculous beer/ale distinction from labels, it still affects any Texas brewery which makes beers that fall on both sides of the 4% ABW line.

One thing missing from that list is being able to buy beer from a brewery to take home, and since some of Austin's best breweries don't package their beer that's a pity because I'd love to be able to go to Live Oak and take home a growler of Pilz, or some Pecan Porter from (512), Envy Amber from Circle, or some Thirsty Planet Buckethead, but alas, that step will have to wait another two years until the 84th Session, assuming the current bills pass, and it's probable that the weighty lobbying power which the distributors command will have something to say about that. Meanwhile I can go to any Texas winery and buy bottles of wine, and have been able to for several years. That ain't right.

All four are due for their first public hearing on Tuesday March 5th.

Texas Public Radio held a roundtable discussion in their Texas Matters series which explains some of the main points in this argument. It can be streamed here or downloaded as a podcast from iTunes.

Actually, there is one more bill – SB 639. This one has ruffled the feathers of the craft beer community because, among other things, it would prohibit Texas breweries who decide to go from self-distribution to selling their beer to a wholesaler from taking any kind of payment from the wholesaler for their distribution rights. I'm going to leave this one alone for now because there's a lot of stuff flying around which isn't 100% true and because most people in the business believe it has a snowball's chance in hell of passing, although stranger things have happened and we might have to look at it in the future.

And yet, for all the complaints made about how bad things are here for both the brewer and the consumer, Texas still doesn't have the worst beer laws in the country. There's no cap on ABV or bottle/can size, we're not an alcoholic beverage control state, small breweries are allowed to self-distribute, there are no restrictions on buying single bottles (see Pennsylvania), beer can be bought in supermarkets and convenience stores, you can get growler fills at bars (as long they don't sell liquor) and they're not restricted to filling only their own branded growlers, there are no restrictions on buying more than one drink at a time (which makes beer flights illegal in some places), and best of all – homebrewing is legal.