Monday, 7 May 2012

Beer, Ingredient List Or Not?

Ingredient List Or Not

Views: Beer, Ingredient List Or Not

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Whether you're gulping mouthfuls of 'Spotted Dick',
slurping down a thick juicy 'Cock
Soup', or perhaps even dumping a steaming dollop of 'Shito Hot Chilli Sauce' into your cooking, you are still making an informed choice upon ingredients.
We can choose to avoid chemical additives, because each of those products has to, by law and by pain of death, include an ingredient list. Everything we drink or eat has this type of legal binding ingredient list except, that is, for alcohol drinks.
Why not?

Most beer, especially quality beer, is made from four wholesome, pure and tasty ingredients. Using just Barley, Hops, Water, and Yeast, it’s been possible to make many thousands of beautiful and very different beers, and proper brewing is still mainly a noble art. There are though, some underhanded brewers that are chemically disguising cheap insipid ingredients such as rice, maize corn, etc. by shovelling in colouring, sugar, sweeteners, flavourings and thickeners until their beers are mutton dressed as Lambic.

OK, you can now relax.
I’m not gonna get too technical and bore you with the science behind additives.
I won't be rattling on about chemicals such as propylene glycol alginate, and the way it adds a snotty, gummy, Vaseline like, gluey, meringue head on those indoctrination corporation McLagers and McAles, as that would be boring.
Neither am I going to rant on about reports of E150 colourings having circulatory system toxicity, or carcinogenic (cancer causing) properties. I promise not to weigh down this piece by going into why the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to revoke the GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe) status of the E150 colourings. I’d also be sending you into the land of slumber with the mere mention that many drinks using the E150 colourings exceed the NSRL (No Significant Risk Level) by 1063% per 500ml bottle, and thus dive headlong, way beyond the Significant Risk Levels. 
Many Drinks Are Loaded With Over 10 Times
The Significant Risk Level For E150 Dyes
Yet believe it or not, that is not my main gripe here and the science is boring (believe me, I know just how boring because I've waded through shed loads of it). Anyway we also consume other food and drink products that further add to those risk levels. The BIG difference is in the knowledge we are given about these additives.

We are kept in the dark about the science of unnatural chemical additions to the food and drink that we put into our bodies, and hear many conflicting reports as to their safety. From childhood, we learn about the dangers of smoking, of drugs and of excessive alcohol consumption and can make educated choices regarding these. Alcohol drinks must legally exhibit their ABV, as well as scientifically documented medical guidelines regarding our intake. We can then set an informed benchmark for our own consumption. We have little or no education, though, when it comes to the dangers and/or side effects of consuming chemical additives, flavourings, sweeteners and E-Numbers etc. Even if we did know about this oily rainbow of additives, we still couldn’t possibly make an informed choice upon whether we want to ingest them or not. That's because there is seldom a full ingredient list on beer, wines or spirits. When a brewery does volunteer an ingredient list, those illusive and almost secretive additives are rarely on. Just try looking for them on brewery websites, literature, labels, etc. I have hunted these (invisible to the naked spy) ingredients down and it gives me a headache just thinking about it. Perhaps the Vogons have them filed somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.
Vogon's Filing System
If one Christmas, a friend gave your child a 'Dr. Frankenstein Jr. Chemistry Set' and the ingredients list read; rho iso-alpha-acid (RIAA), protease, E150c ammonia caramel, E220, beta-glucanase, silicone, E290, amyloglucosidase, E405 propylene glycol alginate etc you'd probably be concerned. Would you be concerned if you found out that a few underhand breweries were quite legally hiding them right under your nose? Hiding them not under the carpet, but IN YOUR BEER!! Hidden in the beer you believed to be pure of body and spirit. Beer that you just paid your hard earned money for. It's an ugly looking list to see on a beer label, and maybe that's why a full disclosure of beer ingredients is as illusive as unicorn shovellings.
I hasten to add here that most of the smaller breweries are doing the right thing and are lovingly brewing liquid art using purely natural ingredients in the time honoured tradition. I applaud them and feel their pain that they have whilst competing against a loaded deck.
To quote Jamie Oliver, "If it reads like a chemistry set, you shouldn't put it in your basket", but we need that same choice that food consumers have.
Whether it is expensive beer, costing three figure sums, or beer libelled as 'premium' there is still more respect given to a penny chew sweet label, than to a beer libel.
You, the beer buying public are given less respect than those buying cat and dog food.
So, what do you think?
Ingredient list, or not?

What's in your beer?


  1. It is worth noting that iso-alpha-acids like cisisohumulone transisohumulone are very much something you want to see in a beer - they come from the hops being boiled, that's when the alpha acids are isomerized - they are literally the bitterness of a beer. There are lots of other weird and wonderful chemicals in beer like humulone, adhumulone, cohumulone, posthumulone, and prehumulone (all hop alpha acid compounds) Monosaccharaides, disaccharaides, trisaccharaides and dextrines (all sugars from malt), that's before we get to chemical additives like polyphenols (which one might have reasonable objections to) or protein agents like carrageenan and anhydrogalactose (which are the principle ingredients of irish moss). I've not even touched on the things added to the water prior to brewing to improve the beer in a perfectly reasonable way (e.g. burtonisation).

    I can fully understand why there is no ingredients list, trying to differentiate between the additives which have been around for centuries, and those which are chemical aberrations requires a serious understanding of the process - I'd suggest a limited approach where certain common unpleasant additives are listed - but not a full ingredients list, because it would baffle the majority of people more than most processed foods do.

    I brew at home and I know what goes in, but I doubt I'd tell people about the things used for water treatments if they asked what was in it, because it sounds all scary and chemically, but it's just things that are found in tap water in other places, but not where I live...

    1. Cheers Doug
      Fascinating comment Doug. There are of course chemicals in everything and 'natural' doesn't always mean harmless, as unnatural doesn't neccessarily mean dangerous. We do though expect beer to be produced by normal brewing processes and not in laboratory test tubes.
      Also, when judging a beer against others, what use are appearance, mouthfeel, taste, head retention etc etc etc?
      What would a beers colour tell us about it?
      What would a thicker mouthfeel tell us?
      What would a big meringue head say about the beer?
      Beers are adding corn and skipping on the colourful, rich, sweet malty barley for a healthier spreadsheet and lighter grain bill. The resulting gnats pils beer is then being supplimented with all kinds of things the aren't produced in a brewing process.
      Every food and drink from Cola to Baked Beans has to have a list of ingredients. Why not beer?
      If a straight ingredients list is logistically too much for some breweries, then maybe including a list of stuff outside of a form of Reinheitsgebot would work. That way, if a smaller brewer has the technology to be adding chemicals etc, they will have the technology to list them.
      Surely that is only fair to the consumers putting them into their bodies.
      An informed choice.
      The same informed choice we have when drinking Cola.

  2. It seems easy enough to me. You don't have to quote transisohumulone because it's covered by the ingredient "hops". Sugars derived from malt are covered by the ingredient "malted barley" (or other grains). But if you pasteurise your beer and then add CO2 you should quote "CO2". If you add E150 you should quote E150.

    Not sure about water treatment chemicals, but I guess if the end result is water that contains chemicals in levels that are acceptable for presence in tap water, maybe they don't need to be quoted.

    Of course what I really think is that all beer with artificially induced carbonation should be required to quote the liquid content as "carbonic acid", no-one would drink it then ;-)

    1. The phrase 'nail on the head' came to mind as I read your comment Phil.
      A lot of brewers already volunteer an ingredient list that reads; water, malted barley, hops, yeast. Even with that though, the less honest breweries can be even sneakier, as they don't have to include the less popular stuff on that list. So those beers can look pure by a list's exclusions. Yeah sometimes our tap water's chemicals need balancing, and not all beer has to be naturally carbonated. In fact, I know a lot of delicious beers that aren't naturally carbonated.
      People still drink many other drinks that are legally bound to a list. The Appletiser I'm drinking now reads, 'carbonated apple juice from concentrate (100%)'. That sells a lot less than a Coke that reads like a chemistry set, so people will still buy beer with chemicals. It's having that choice I think is important.


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