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What You Will and Won't Find on Beer Labels

In the United States, the American brewing industry (along with American wine and spirits industries) is overseen by both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). As far as the production of beer goes, the ATF is more concerned with illegal diversion of alcohol for criminal purposes, whereas the TTB is now the governing body behind all the do’s and don’ts that control beer labeling and marketing.

As you can imagine, over the years, the American brewing industry has been beset by some very archaic laws, some predating Prohibition (which was in effect from 1920 to 1933). The situation is similar in the United Kingdom and Europe. The bottom line is that, despite their best intentions, governments may have managed to prevent useful information — like nutritional content and strength — from reaching you. A bizarre paradox. With the craft beer renaissance in full swing, many changes have taken place and continue to do so at a dizzying pace.

U.S. rules say that very little is required on beer labels. In fact, U.S. rules require only the basics, and they can be both incomplete and incorrect from a beer enthusiast’s point of view.

  • For domestic beers, the name and address of the bottler or packer, but not necessarily the actual brewer of the beer (or the actual street address), must appear on the label.

  • For imported beers, the label must include the words imported by followed by the name of the importer, or exclusive agent, or sole distributor responsible for the importation, together with its principal place of business in the United States.

  • The class (ale or lager) must be stated, and the type (style — Porter, Bock, and so on) may be stated. Unfortunately for consumers, the type is the more important distinction of the two.

    The law spells out — often inaccurately — which beers can and can’t be called Ale, Porter, or Stout. At least one brewer has actually resorted to deliberately mislabeling an ale as a lager or as a nonexistent style in order to conform. Big bummer.

In the European Union (E.U.), laws are similar, with a few important additions: Brewers exporting within the E.U. need to list the country of manufacture, alcohol content by volume (not done in the United States), and a best before date, something that some of the leading U.S. brewers do by choice in an effort to impress discerning fans.

By U.S. law, plenty of other statements and representations may not be used on container labels, including any statement or representation relating to nutritional analysis, ingredients, standards, or tests.

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