For consumers, the label just may be all they will ever know of a product before the first sip. For breweries, the label is a direct opportunity to attract consumer attention. For the uninitiated, deciding between the myriad choices offered in a liquor store's cooler can be a daunting experience. For beers that do not benefit from immediate name recognition, the battle for consumer attention can mean life or death for a brand.
Aside from the studies regarding the various ways a consumer approaches a beer purchase, or how visual tricks can influence purchasing, brewers can also influence consumer spending based upon the content of a label. For some beer geeks, the label should include a detailed product description, including the relevant ABV, IB., and degrees Plato. For others, as one consumer recently told me, the selection process simply focuses upon the "prettiest label".
The labeling process is not simply left to the brewer's delight. When the bottlers finish injecting fresh beer into clean bottles, brewers cannot simply slap any label they choose on a bottle and send it off to the distributor. In accordance with the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, labeling and advertising of malt beverages, including beer, is closely regulated by the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Every brewer seeking to place a bottled or canned malt beverage product on the market must subject its proposed label to the ATF's review process. In 1999, the ATF's staff reviewed approximately 68,000 applications for label approval and issued nearly 55,000 certificates.
In 1988, Congress added another responsibility to the ATF's charge. With passage of the Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act, the ATF also requires brewers, vintners, and other producers of alcoholic beverages to place the government's health warning statement on every alcoholic beverage container. The familiar Surgeon General's warning discourages women from consuming alcohol during pregnancy, and the general public from operating automobiles or machinery after drinking.
To secure label approval, brewers must meet specific requirements relating to brand name, class and type designation, brewery information, net contents, and alcohol content. In its efforts to verify that a label accurately describes a product and does not deceive or confuse a consumer, the ATF requires strict conformance with the regulations, even going so far as to specify type sizes to the millimeter, and requiring contrasting background colors for most mandatory information.
The ATF requires the name and address of a "producer/bottler" or "packer" to appear on the label. For imported beers, the name and address of the importer must appear on the label. For domestic malt beverages, the ATF allows breweries to use either the company's name plus the city and state where the beverage is bottled or packed or the city and state of the bottler/packer's principal place of business. This section is particularly important for those brewers who contract out the production of some or all of their brewing. This is the reason why Boston Beer Company and Pete's Brewing Company, among others, can list locations on their labels other than the actual production locations
The label must also include a "class and type designation". To fulfill this requirement, breweries can use the broad classification of "malt beverage", the more specific class of malt beverage, such as "ale", or a more specific type, such as "India pale ale". The ATF does not undertake to define the specific types or styles, but simply requires the products to conform to the trade understanding of the selected style.
The ATF commonly rejects labels that fail to follow the strict legibility and typeface requirements, including those with overlapping labels, or those which place the government warning statement on neckwrap labels. Violations of labeling law subject the manufacturer, bottler or importer to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per day for each day that the beverages are manufactured, bottled or imported for sale or distribution.
The ATF also allows a statement of alcohol content unless it's prohibited by state law. This rule was promulgated after the Coors Brewing Company won a landmark Supreme Court case in 1995, which held that disclosure of alcohol content on beer containers is protected commercial speech. The decision overturned a law passed shortly after the repeal of Prohibition that banned alcohol content disclosure on containers except in states requiring such disclosure.
The ATF is also very strict about the usage of numerals on malt beverage labels beyond a statement of alcohol content. The ATF reviews labels for improper numeral usage to prevent breweries from competing on the basis of alcohol strength. The department approves labels containing numbers in the brand name if they are high enough that the public will not take them as representing the beer's alcohol content. The ATF's general benchmark is that if the number exceeds 30 and the entire label does not make a strength claim, the label will be approved. So Colt 45 is acceptable, while Colt 25 is objectionable. When a label contains a number under 30, the ATF requests information from the brewer regarding the actual alcohol strength of the product. If the number reflects or is close to the actual alcohol content of the product, and the context of the usage is unclear or confusing, the label will be rejected. In a strange mixing of vices, the ATF cites the following example: "An example of a label we would be likely to approve is one for a product called "Lucky 7", which includes a picture of dice and other gambling information."
Regulation of the labeling process is not, however, under the sole control of the ATF. In fact, some recent labeling controversies have occurred during the state regulatory process. Brewers and local regulatory agencies alike use state courts and legislatures as arenas for battling over issues ranging from obscenity on labels to proper product naming.
In 1995, the Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division, an agency whose responsibility was to approve labels for products distributed in the state, rejected a label for the Flying Dog Brewery's Road Dog Ale on the grounds that the label was obscene or indecent. The label, which is part of an artwork series by illustrator Ralph Steadman, read in relevant part: "good beer . . . no shit." The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado challenged the rejection as an unconstitutional restriction of Flying Dog's right to free speech.
When the state agreed to discontinue its label oversight process in early 2001, Flying Dog and the ACLU initially agreed to end the lawsuit. Assuming the First Amendment fight to be over, Flying Dog sought and received ATF approval of the controversial label in March, 2001. But the state had one more salvo to fire in the legal skirmish. Shortly after the label received approval, the state passed a law prohibiting owners from allowing profanity in their pubs that could "lead to an altercation". The ACLU again took up the fight and the state backed down in October, 2001. The revised statute now outlaws "disorderly conduct" in bars and the label is in circulation.
State laws also give brewers headaches in the naming of their products. State legislatures and regulatory agencies require different labeling practices that sometimes even defy logic and trade practice. "A lot of the issues for naming things go back to state laws," says Grant Wood of the Boston Beer Company. "We have to be careful how we name things because states don't care what the beer is fermented with - they care how much alcohol is in it. So their alcohol naming nomenclature affects what goes on the label. A perfect example is our Cream Stout. It is an ale. It's a stout. But the problem is, in Texas we can't sell it because it doesn't have enough alcohol it to legally call it a stout. It has to have at least 4 percent alcohol by weight and ours only has 3.6 percent. So we can't sell it there."
After reviewing the various ATF and state labeling regulations, a brewery must decide what else should be added to the label. These choices allow breweries to express their individuality, and to differentiate their products from their competitors. Some breweries opt to describe their ingredients or their product in detail, while others employ freshness dating in myriad ways.
Within the ATF's guidelines, names employed by brewers can sometimes serve to confuse consumers. Some brewers employ style names in unconventional or unfamiliar ways, including Bass IPA, Widmer Hefe-weizen, and Redhook Hefe-weizen. The most widely criticized example of mislabeling might be the Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic. This beer is a cranberry-flavored beer that is not brewed with wild yeast or in the Senne Valley outside of Belgium.
While technically not a lambic, Boston Beer decided to use the name due to the beer's flavor, according to Grant Wood. "Cranberry lambic got its name because it tasted a lot like a lambic. If you taste Belgian style lambic beers, and taste ours, they are really close because of the tartness of the cranberries and the complexity of the fermentation from the weiss beer yeast gives it that clovey, banana character and then the fruitiness of the cranberries and the vanilla of the maple. There's a lot of complexity that is put into the beer without having that autoferment character. But it tastes a lot like a lambic, and so the decision was made at that time that 'if it looks like a lambic, and tastes like a lambic, what should we call it?' Not that we haven't run into our share of grief from that. But I think it's true and has been borne out by the Belgians who we've sent it to and who have ranked it highly. It tastes like a lambic."
Critics charge that mislabeling beers causes confusion for consumers. "I don't think that is necessarily good business," says Chuck Skypeck of Boscos Brewing Company. "I don't want to be negative about any particular brewery, but I do think to a large extent, you should call a spade a spade. Even though I said we don't adhere to style guidelines, we don't get real far out of whack like that. We don't name something that it isn't. I mean, with something as traditional as a lambic, I think it might be somewhat, not quite kosher, so to speak. There are some things that are beyond the pale and out of line. I don't think that is good business."
Boston Beer's Grant Wood disagrees with critics. "I wouldn't consider it mislabeling," he says. "Whenever I have served the Cranberry Lambic, I have always been really upfront about it. Is it a true lambic made in that region in Belgium? No. Does it taste like one? Yes. So it's sort of our homage to the style without the pain and agony of it."
Both sides can agree that most examples of mislabeling likely never register with consumers. "If something's in the ballpark, it is probably okay," concedes Skypeck. "If I was going to err on the interpretation of a style, I think it would be better to err in a broad sense rather than narrow it down too much. Ultimately, what is the customer going to do? He is going to try the beer, and he is either going to like it or not."
The critics, however, are concerned that mislabeling has greater consequences for those who are somewhat educated about beer and styles. "They may feel cheated if something is labeled India pale ale and they are looking for an aggressive hop character," continues Skypeck. "In that case, the brewery has hurt itself, and they are going to live and learn or they are going to go out of business if they alienate their customers."
Another labeling practice that fails to inform consumers is the use of generic names in describing beers. The most widespread example of generic labeling is the growth of the red and amber beer categories. Order an amber or a red beer and you might get a light bodied, mildly malty brew such as the Red Wolf or Red Dog products from Anheuser-Busch and Miller, or a heavily malted, higher gravity English old ale, such as the Jeremiah Red from BJ's Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado.
"I would think that in many cases they are too generic," says Grant Wood of the red and amber styles. "There's a couple of hugely broad categories, porter being one - and what's an American amber? Anything from Full Sail Amber, which is a really big beer, a lot of malt, a lot of sweetness, a lot of hops, and then something that might fit into the amber category is Killian's Red. Two completely different beers. There may be beers out there that are not so big and so it's a big category."
While broad, the trendy categories may also serve to increase consumer interest in flavorful beer. "It's a place for the consumer to start," says Wood. "I think when consumers get into it they'll find it really depends upon the brewer's definitions." Boscos' Skypeck agrees. "Those are pretty catchall names for sure, but I think that has value. If a customer is asking for a Killian's Red or a Red Dog or so on, what are they asking for? They are asking for a beer that has some color and flavor, but they don't want anything like a stout and they don't want an IPA. So in that sense, those generic terms actually mean a lot to consumers - it is this market. We have been open for ten years and we still struggle with consumer education. That is, we still are trying to get people to appreciate beer flavor and character. So we see people every day, that if they ask us for a red or amber and not Budweiser, then that's a victory."