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New Beer Regulations Raise the Question: Do You Know What's in Your Beer?

11/10/2014 12:46 EST | Updated 01/10/2015 05:59 EST
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The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is undertaking a review of its beer definition (technically, its standard of identity) for the first time since 1988. After working with the brewing industry, the federal agency opened up a consultation regarding the new proposed regulations to the public last month. The consultation period closes at the end of this week, and it is easily accessible here online. Given that it has been nearly 25 years since the regulations were last scrutinized, this may be the last chance to give the CFIA your thoughts until 2040.

There is some history leading up to this CFIA review. In the late 1980s a beer standard was created that was cutting edge for its moment and incorporated advances in brewing technology and chemistry in the years leading up to the change. But at that point in time, beer regulators were focused on making comparatively traditional beer rather than the beer made with nuts, fruit, spices, oysters, bacon, and chocolate milk that are being manufactured today. As evidenced by 1980s beer advertising, times have changed. The proposed CFIA standard of identity was designed to accommodate new types of ingredients and methods by removing red tape and to welcome new, more innovative products from Canada's brewers.

In Canada, the U.S., Australia and a few Commonwealth countries, brewers have relied on a 'carbohydrate matter' clause, a catchall clause meant to allow brewers to include non-traditional beer ingredients in the worting and brewing stage. Do you want to make pumpkin beer? That's carbohydrate matter added during the brewing process, so it's compliant. What about raspberry wheat beer? Similarly added during brewing, that raspberry content is carbohydrate matter. It's all beer and there's no problem.

Over time the CFIA allowed brewers to push the interpretation of the carbohydrate matter clause to include sugars and other carbohydrates added after the brewing process, an interpretation unique to Canada among countries that use the carbohydrate matter clause. This interpretation led to narrow distinctions in determining which innovative beers are considered beer and which are not. Beer made with holiday spice does not qualify as beer, because a spice is not carbohydrate matter, for example. Such distinctions made the CFIA grow increasingly uncomfortable, slowing applications down and waiting to make sure that it was complying with its regulations and evolving interpretation thereof, leading to the current consultation and re-evaluation of beer standard of identity.

Failing to produce a beer that falls within the regulations shouldn't be fatal - surely the CFIA could call that holiday beer something else. But brewers want their beer to be recognized as beer for one primary reason: beer is exempt from most nutritional and ingredient reporting requirements required by virtually every other product. The rationale is likely that traditional beer used all or almost all of its sugars for alcohol, so anything the consumer wanted to know was already on the bottle. But innovative products are occasionally reliant on after-brewing sugars.

Stiegl Radler is part beer and part grapefruit juice, added after brewing and it is delicious. Looking at the product, one could say that it is largely made of juice, so different standards should apply. But, by our current standards, it's beer. Beer is beer and therefore basic dietary information is simply not disclosed. And because it's always been like this, Canadians -- and most of the world -- accept their beer products without any nutritional information. This attitude is changing with respect to other alcoholic beverages.

If you're Ontarian like I am, and you shop at the LCBO as I do, you'll notice that on each shelf is a note describing the "grams of sugar per litre" for every product sold except for spirits, coolers, and beer. Would you like some Waupoos Premium Cider? You'll really enjoy it, and you can buy it with the knowledge that the product contains 29g/l of sugar, but if you're looking for something bone dry, this one is probably not the drink for you. Have a beer instead, because that's got...wait...we have no idea.

And this non-disclosure makes commenting on the new proposed beer standard difficult. The new standard limits sugar content to 4 per cent by weight of sugars. Without getting too technical about the weight of beer, it's around 4 per cent by volume as well. But, because the sugar content of beer isn't disclosed under our current rules, it makes it hard to figure out if that's a lot, a little, or a sensible amount of sugar. Under the new regulations, is a beer diluted by grapefruit juice still a beer? I can't say.

Confounded by the same problem -- but coming at the issue from the vantage of public health, The Toronto Star's Megan Ogilvie had Smirnoff Ice nutritionally tested last year and determined that it has 26 grams of sugar in a 330ml bottle -- a little less than 8 per cent by weight. So, by some abstract and unscientific comparisons, something brewed and then finished with half the sugar as contained in Smirnoff Ice will still be considered beer. Which seems reasonable, but it's tough to say.

The Royal Society of Public Health has recently mounted a campaign in the United Kingdom to place caloric labels on beer, wine, and spirits, suggesting that most people have no idea how many calories are in their drinks and that this is contributing to an obesity epidemic and increased instances of heart disease, osteoarthritis, and some cancers: all serious health claims. In response, the Society isn't asking for changes to the way alcohol is served or a change to drinking age or warning labels like on tobacco products. They're asking for the same basic information that is required on all soda, milk, and juice.

At the same time, labelling could be a win for brewers: U.K. beer blogger Pete Brown has written about a recent study that suggests English consumers actually overestimate the calories in their beer. This means that some consumers avoid beer on nutritional conjecture -- the myth of the beer belly and so on. Reaching out to those consumers with some nutritional information could actually help sell product.

Nutritional information, like the full analysis provided by Ogilvie in her Toronto Star article, takes time and costs money ($350), two classic arguments against labeling. Ironically, I think the CFIA has inadvertently stumbled upon a nice stepping stone between full dietary information and the disclosure vacuum in which we currently exist: disclosure of the sugar content of beer. The thing is, having a handle on the amount of sugar in beer isn't high science. I'm lucky enough to have a step-dad who proudly makes his own (excellent) wine from whom I have learned that even the amateur alcohol producer typically measures the residual sugars from his or her product while yeasts do their work. And if the goal is to add a few litres of juice after the brewing is finished, a brewer can easily monitor the sugar content produced after the brewing process is finished.

Changing the nutritional labeling of beer is not what this CFIA consultation is about. It's about modernizing the definition of beer so that good beers don't get caught up in regulatory black holes. The proposed regulations are clean and clear for the industry. But it is a great moment to stop and take advantage of the simplified consultation process as a consumer. This is the place to comment on the proposed changes, and where one can suggest a better solution than creating a percentage sugar by weight restriction would be to simply give the consumer a basic sense of whether a product has been diluted with sugar: it's information that the industry already has on hand and if you're not curious for your palate, at least consider being curious for your health.