Do beer drinkers get what we pay for?

When I buy a bottle of fresh orange juice, I can be confident I am getting what I pay for. But when I buy a bottle of pale ale, I can’t be so sure.

Product labelling laws here in New Zealand are protected by the Commerce Commission. The Fair Trading Act (FTA) requires manufacturers to describe their products accurately in advertising, packaging and labelling. Breaching the FTA can lead to fines and imprisonment, but more often, the Commerce Commission simply requires companies to correct their ads and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

For some reason, the fruit juice industry has attracted a lot of Commerce Commission attention. Since 2002, the Commission has investigated at least 12 juice manufacturers. As a result, many agreed to change their labels, often over claims that the juice was freshly squeezed, rather than made with pulp. The Commission has also reached settlements with wine makers, typically over regional labelling.

The two major brewers have both breached the FTA in the past. In 2001, DB Breweries changed Tui and Monteiths labels after it admitted its claims they were brewed in Mangatainoka and Greymouth were liable to mislead consumers.

The same year, New Zealand Breweries admitted a similar breach of the FTA over claims Speights was all brewed in Dunedin. As part of the settlement it was required to change labelling, publish corrective newspaper ads, and provide retailers with point of sale notices clearly informing the public that canned and bottled Speights was made in Christchurch and Auckland. Remember them? I don’t.

While place-of-origin labelling has been challenged, I am not aware of any challenge made to the misleading use of beer styles. It seems to me that it is possible to label a beer as anything that will sell, rather than providing consumers with an accurate description of the product they are paying for. We all know of labels that are completely inaccurate descriptions of the beer within.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not suggesting that all beer should be made to a specific style – innovation is good. I am not suggesting that every beer should have to be labelled with a style. I’m just saying that when a beer is advertised or labelled as a certain style, it should be an honest effort at that style of beer.

In a settlement with a winemaker, the Commerce Commission said: “Wineries need to ensure their labelling is accurate – not only regarding place of origin, but also in relation to varietal, vintage, and general representations made about their wine.” Are comparable standards applied to beer?

In 2007, Consumer magazine raised the issue of misleading labelling. This came after a beer tasting where beers were categorised according to their label, rather than letting brewers choose the appropriate category. This is standard Consumer practice, and is similar to the approach it takes in testing wine and other products. (I was a judge at this tasting, as was Geoff Griggs).

Some brewers told Consumer that their ‘ale’ should have been compared with draughts rather than ales – a brave admission given Consumer’s pursuit of consumer laws. Consumer responded to say, “A beer should taste like what it’s claimed to be, regardless of how it’s brewed. We think it’s time the industry labelled their products true to style.”

Consumer approached SOBA, and it said, “We deplore the practice of blatantly mislabelling beers as different styles simply because the marketing department thinks it will assist sales. This practice is damaging to brewers who correctly brew a style, and perpetuates the long-held myth that all beer tastes the same.”

So why is mislabelling a problem? As a consumer I have a right (under the FTA) to know what I am buying before I hand over my beer money. Secondly, brewers with diverse ranges need consumers who know what to expect from, say, a pale ale, saison, doppelbock or radler. These are product descriptions, not marketing terms.

I believe brewers who enter commercial competitions in categories that contradict their advertising and labelling are facing a real risk of attracting Commerce Commission attention. They shouldn’t expect to win awards in one category while telling customers they are paying for something else. Coz that would be breach the law, wouldn’t it?

Wow of the week – Hallertau Minimus. This is one flavoursome session beer. Heaps of fresh New World hop aroma and flavour, and less than 4% ABV. Minimus sets the benchmark for delivering flavour without pushing the alcohol.

And finally, if you want to support a brewer who is making the world a better place, help Harrington’s Breweries’ Carl Harrington raise money for leukaemia research here.

Cheers!

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©Martin Craig 2010. Reproduction with permission.
martin@nzbeerblog.com



6 Responses to “Do beer drinkers get what we pay for?”

  1. As someone who is influenced by the classic styles, but by no means adheres to them, it does bug me a bit…. but it is such a difficult argument to win… no style is black and white, and some are less black and white than others.

    As a simple example, there is no such style as pale ale. BJCP has 8 sub-categories that incorporate “pale ale” in their name and there are certainly a few other sub-categories that could quite easily be classed as pale ales. The world beer cup has 11 styles using the term “pale ale” in their name and, again, allows for an infinite amount of other pale ales through the experimental categories (e.g. rye pale ale, rye india pale ale, black india pale ale).

    Would we stretch this as far as being annoyed because the Twisted Hop IPA is tending towards an India Red Ale (even if it tastes damn delicious?). I think not. I believe this argument is generally pitched at the beers people don’t like rather than the ones they do like. Is Emerson’s Pilsner really a Pilsner?

    Agree on the Minimus though! If it is anything like last year’s version, it’ll be a cracker. You might want to switch “flavour” to “hops” though. There are loads of other great low ABV beers in NZ, they just tend to get ignored a bit because they are not so hoppy.

    Stu, the devil’s advocate (as well as a staunch beer advocate).

    Reply

    • Sure nuances abound in the evolving world of beer styles, but I think it’s easy to tell when a brewer is knowingly and deliberately mislabeling a beer. I think we could come up with a rule that identifies when a brewer enters a beer in competition as one style and puts a label on the bottle that isn’t sufficiently similar.

      As for Emerson’s Pilsner – if you believe the scuttlebutt, then their process isn’t totally authentic but the result is certainly more pilsner-like than anything else.

      Reply

  2. I’ve been enjoying reading your well-written blogs Martin.

    While I can see your point on this issue, I’m becoming increasingly frustrated in the obsession surrounding beer styles.

    As a homebrewer, the concept of styles as per the BJCP has been positive in the sense that it condenses down the world of beer into several dozen categories and subcategories. One can tour the world of beer via several clicks of the mouse. And I have no doubt this style categorisation is reflected in the vast and colourful array of craft beer produced today in the US.

    But one must be careful not to take the guidelines prescriptively. This is but one organisation’s view of the beer world. In the artificial arena of a beer awards, they do come into their own and provide a framework for judging one beer against the next. However in the real world of beer, the pub, the home, etc, as far as I am concerned a beer is a beer is a beer, despite what a bunch of well meaning American beer anoraks might say.

    Back to the subject of your post, I was initially dumbfounded when I saw Monteith’s Doppelpock labelled a “Winter Ale”. Come on guys make your mind up—lager or ale? But this real world of beer (the NZ version), the common categorisation of beer goes something like:
    is the beer pale? Yes=lager, no=ale. While this reasoning is flawed in so many ways, it is the de facto categorisation here. What DB are trying to do is convey what the beer is to their target customers. By labelling it an ale, it is saying it is dark. Which it is. I would imagine many more customers would be misled by correctly labelling it a lager. Similarly if they were to enter the beer in a competition, their target market becomes infinitely more knowledgeable, and it would make sense to categorise the beer differently. And I have no problem with this.

    Now this leads to the education of the NZ beer-drinking public. Do DB et al have an obligation to educate the market on issues such as this, or should they continue to perpetuate the ignorance on such matters? My answer is education, but all in good time. They, other big brewers, and to a much greater extent, bona fide craft-brewers already are starting to educate the public by producing styles other than bland pale lager and bland amber lager. Yesterday a drinker was not aware of the style doppelbock, today they do, tomorrow they might just learn the true story.

    Reply

    • I would hate to see a descent into anorakery. One of the reasons I started NZBeerBlog is that this is a very exciting time for craft beer fans in NZ, because we are developing indigenous styles by interpreting other styles to complement NZ hops. If BJCP or WBC styles were definitive we wouldn’t have this exciting development. Brewers in other nationas are recognising NZ hops and their potential, and we are genuinely making the beer world a better place.

      That’s why I find Stu’s devilish advocacy above as missing the mark. If a beer is marked as pale ale, and it enters any of the mentioned PA categories, or any of the variations, then the brewer is being honest.

      I know as a judge that there can be big overlaps between different styles (eg, between various porters and stouts), and I have no problem if it is sold and competes in related styles.

      But if, just to choose an entirely hypothetical, fictional and non-legally-binding example – if a beer is sold as an india pale ale, and accepts awards as, say, a NZ Draught, then perhaps customers are being mislead.

      You say you have no problem if the beer is sold as one style and competes as another. I have to disagree there. I think it is wrong to represent your beer as one thing for the sake of winning awards, and as something quite different for the sake of winning sales.

      Cheers

      Martin

      Reply

      • I can see your point, but I’d reiterate it is all about knowing your consumer. Previous to the recent National Homebrew Championship, I had brewed a beer especially for an Oktoberfest party I hosted and called it “Wies’n to Live”, based on the Oktoberfest style (BJCP/NHC 3B). It went down a treat. I saved a few bottles and entered them at NHC. I performed a last ditch tasting before sending them off and decided it would be more appropriately be entered as a Vienna Lager (3A). Is this wrong? Am I deceiving anyone?

        Great blog, an interesting issue for sure.

        Reply

        • No, no deceit involved. If you generously donate beer to NZBeerBlog, then you can describe it any way you like.

          If you accept my hard-earned NZBeerBuck, then we have a commercial relationship and a different set of rules apply.

          Christmas presents accepted with pleasure, Nathan!

          Cheers

          Martin

          Reply

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