According to the Brewer’s Association, active breweries in the United States hit a new high of 3,040 facilities in 2014. This record-setting number encompasses brewpubs, nano-, micro-, and macro-breweries. That’s an increase of over 200 new breweries in one year. Below is an area graph that represents all of the Breweries in the US per year.
Hopefully you are wondering what that chunk of red indicates at the bottom of the graph. If you can believe it – that represents the number of breweries estimated to be out of compliance with the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau).
Let that sink in. 30% of US breweries have released beers that fail government compliance. Reread it.
For those in disbelief, you can access all of this data through the TTB website, as I did. The archive has sample program results from as early as 2008 available for download.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau was formed in 2003 when the infamous Homeland Security Act split the equally infamous ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) into two separate entities. The first Bureau was an amped up ATF focusing on law enforcement, federal offences, and trafficking. The second being the TTB which focuses primarily on TAXING and REGULATING alcohol and tobacco.
To put legal talk simply – breweries are required by the TTB to label their packages with a number of regulated texts (government warning, artificial flavors, natural flavoring, etc).
The only scientific metric federally required for beer is the Alcohol by Volume (ABV). It’s important to note that not even IBU is required. In the days before prohibition, alcohol testing was called “proving” (which eventually became “proofing“), where pouring alcohol on gunpowder would be set ablaze and the length of burn would indicate the amount of alcohol – flaming up too quickly meant a higher proof. Eventually science turned its head to beer which meant that more quantitative analysis could be conducted (hydrometers, refractometers) – so ABV on bottles became a norm.
As beer enthusiasts, we know that brewing doesn’t always produce perfect brews, and the TTB recognizes that as well. Beer alcohol is still considered “within federal guidelines” if the product matches the label. Say you have and IPA with a 6.5% ABV label. According to TTB beer can differ from the label by 0.3%, so if the beer inside that bottle is between 6.2% and 6.8% ABV, it is federally compliant. This means that breweries only have to be accurate within a range of 0.6%. A task which is insanely easy when you consider that our current technology allows for ABV to be measured by increments of 0.01%. That extra place beside the decimal point adds 10 times the amount of precision. [confused? precision vs accuracy]
When breweries have beers they find to be outside of federal regulations, before distribution, what can be done? There are a lot of other solutions, but here are a few.
- Relabel with new ABV data
- Blend with a complimentary beer (eg. low ABV beer with a high ABV beer to average out)
- Create a “new” beer with a new and different label
- Dump the product before it goes to packaging (or send it home with employees only)
- Determine the step in brewing where mistakes were made, then rewrite SOPs to prevent them from happening again.
- Sell anyway [not an actual solution]
Not all of these solutions are easy, or cheap, but taking these steps to provide quality beer for your consumers is a no brainer. This community is growing incredibly fast and the number of breweries to choose from is getting crazy – but the number of beers to choose from is even more absurd. In this day and age the only way your brewery will stand out is if the utmost quality product is produced.
On the TTB website they assure consumers that they “take several types of actions to address compliance problems. In most cases, [they] notify the industry member about the violation and work with them to bring the product into compliance.” A quick search of 2014 beer recalls leads to an extremely disappointing trend. Publicly announced recalls are only done if the bottle itself is visibly deformed, has glass shards, or is over carbonated. All of these breweries deserve to be highly commended for issuing a recall, because it means they are keeping their promise of quality to their consumers. Yet no recalls were issued regarding the beer itself and not a single brewery in 2014 publicly recalled a product due to ABV inconsistencies. It’s not surprising that the rate of non compliance is so bad seeing as the stats jumped from 20% failure in 2012 to 30% in 2013, then remained at 30% into 2014.
Ok, so I’ve identified through TTB that roughly 30% of the beer tested in 2014 were outside of government compliance regarding ABV, and the rate is increasing since 2011. I’ve deduced that staying inside compliance is easy and getting easier. I’ve also described a number of solutions available to help breweries prevent non compliance. And lastly, it’s clear that breweries are not recalling TTB failed beer. So the question remains:
Why are 30% of beers on the market failing the one and only government required metric?
We have data showing 30% failed beers. This data shows an increasing problem since 2011. Beer consumer knowledge of ABV regulations and recalls are zero. And since the TTB says “It is each industry member’s responsibility to comply with all labeling and advertising regulations” one can only conclude that industry members are not, in fact, complying with labeling and advertising.
30% are failing because of no government repercussions.
30% are failing because of no consumer repercussions.
30% are failing because of no industry member repercussions.
How does this affect the average beer drinker? Think about it – if you purchase a variety 6 pack with 6 different beers (statistically speaking) 2 of those beers are non compliant. A mislabeled beer is the difference between an IPA and an Imperial IPA. A mislabeled beer is the difference between an honest brewery and a money driven one. And most importantly: a mislabeled beer could be the difference between a safe drive home and getting pulled over for a DUI.
As an avid beer drinker I’m not ok with this. Are you?
If not, TTB now has an anonymous Tip Line. Call 855-882-8477 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your concerns. I encourage all beer brewers, sellers, distributors, marketers, packagers, and drinkers to utilize this important service that hold our breweries responsible for the product they make.