Sunday, June 02, 2013

Decades later, Bert Grant wins the argument. Beer IS food, Feds say.

Bert Grant was one of the pioneers of the American 'craft' beer industry. A veteran of the 'mainstream' brewing industry, he left that, disenchanted, in 1982, to open the nation's first brewpub, the Yakima Brewing and Malting Company, in Yakima, Washington. When and where there had been no prior examples, it was Grant who established the brewpub paradigm, including removing government obstacles.

Today's growing fascination with the concept of 'session' beer was predated by decades by Grant's Celtic Ale, a 3.2% alcohol-by-volume dark bottled beer, with a hefty slug of a finish: 38 International Bittering Units. (By contrast, Budweiser, containing about 5% alcohol-by-volume, is, maybe, 10 IBUs.) At the same time he was brewing small, Grant was going the other way, creating high-alcohol beers, one of the nation's first Russian Imperial Stouts, and one of its first 'craft' IPAs.

Never reticent to promote his beer or resume, Grant was always a feisty showman. Presiding at his brewpub, and elsewhere, attired in a kilt and tam o'shanter, he would challenge:
If you don't like [my beer], drink something else. I make it for me. I don't make it for the masses. But a lot of people seem to like it as well as me.

Grant also took on the Federal Government. As he —and we fellow maltworms— knew, beer is liquid bread. So, he asked, in 1992, why shouldn't there be nutritional information on beer labels? In answer, he put nutritional specifications on six-pack carriers of his Scottish Ale.

Unfortunately, the government didn't agree with his assessment.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) determined that putting nutritional information on a beer label might confuse consumers into thinking that beer actually had nutritional value, just as, say, a Twinkie might, which is required to have a nutritional label. Specifically: "any reference to vitamin content in the advertising of malt beverages would mislead a substantial number of persons to believe that consumption of the product would produce curative or therapeutic effects." The Bureau ordered him to cease and desist forthwith.

Grant died in 2001, and his brewpub followed, in 2005. But now, two decades since the original decision, Bert Grant has a new legacy. He's won the argument.

Last Tuesday (28 May 2013), the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) —the successor to the the BATF— ruled that breweries, wineries, and distilleries can indeed put serving size, servings per container, calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat per serving on their labels. The ruling is voluntary. A brewery (winery or distillery) does not have to do this, but may, if it wishes to.

The distilled spirits industry has longed pushed for this change, but, ironically, breweries (and wineries) not so much. Printing the information would take up valuable 'real estate' on a bottle label and incur additional costs, and they worry that the ruling could become mandatory, as the TTB had proposed in 2007. But the ruling does contain one other significant change that breweries do commend. Labels can also list alcohol content as a percentage of alcohol by volume, rather than as a serving size.
“We applaud the TTB’s conclusion that rules be based on how drinks are actually served and consumed,” said Joe McClain, president of the Beer Institute.

The photo, above, of the Grant's Scottish Ale nutritional label is re-printed here, courtesy Lew Bryson (all rights reserved), from a story of Bryson's 1997 trip to Washington hopfields in 1997, which included a stop at Yakima Brewing and Malting Company, where he met with Bert Grant. If you look closely, you'll see that the photo is actually of a large poster, that Grant had produced after the BATF action. Ever the curmudgeon, Grant had written:
Please note: Publication of this data is banned in the U.S.A. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has determined that the publication of analytical data on any alcoholic beverage that shows a positive health benefit is illegal. They do not dispute the accuracy of the analysis.

Congratulations, Mr. Grant, and a belated thank you. I think I'll have a nutritional beer for lunch.

  • Some details above on Bert Grant's career came from an August 2001 LA Times obituary.
  • Some information on the TTB ruling came from a June 2013 Washington Post story.
  • The ruling itself can be accessed via the TTB website, as a pdf: here.
  • The BATF used a 1954 finding as basis for its action against Grant. It's cited in a 1994 article by the Reason Foundation, which recounts more about Grant's and others' insalubrious encounters with the BATF.
  • Post Prohibition until 1995, the publication of alcohol content on beer labels had been forbidden by the Federal government, although required on wine and spirits. It took a Supreme Court case, won by Coors Brewing in 1995, to allow it, on a voluntary basis.
  • I never made it to the Yakima brewpub, but I did attend two tastings at the Brickskeller, across the continent in Washington, D.C., when Bert Grant, and his partner and wife, Sherry, were the special guests. The second one was held in, I believe, 1995. The Grants brought with them a firkin of cask-conditioned beer, a relative rarity in the U.S. at the time. I remember telling my date, "This is why I make beer."
  • The late, great Michael Jackson wrote an appreciation of Bert Grant, entitled How Bert Grant Saved The World, that gives you a reader a good sense of the man, his mien, and his accomplishments. And, thanks to Steve Frank, one-half of the Maryland-based Brews Brothers for an edit.
  • The photo of the Celtic Ale label is re-printed here, courtesy, hence the watermark.

  • For more from YFGF:

1 comment:

  1. Meh.

    Give the bureaucrats a few years. They'll decide that they made an error of processing or judgement or something with that ruling, and turn around and impose new regulations, or start enforcing the old ones anew.

    If there's one thing consistent about alcohol-industry regulation (if not bureaucracy in general), it's inconsistency.


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