The following, which I believe to be accurate, may assist when considering the Connecticut beer tests I discuss.
- Alcohol content disclosure in the United States for beer labels is, at the present time, optional.
This is subject to state law. If a state mandates disclosure of alcohol, it must be done in the way required by the state.
decades ago, due to differing laws and practices of the day, frequently beer labels did not state alcohol content.
A U.S. Supreme Court case some time ago held a federal law unconstitutional that banned stating alcohol content.*
The federal tolerance for packaging beer is .3%, over or below disclosure on the label.
Authorities sometimes test for compliance, with significant non-conformity noted at times. See 2016 article by Keith Gribbins in Craft Brewing Business.
Why the Variances?
First, where tested alcohol varies from the label, I believe in most cases this is not intentional on the part of the producer.
Perhaps in some cases an attempt is made to pay less taxes. But usually, I think variance results from inevitable limits on quality control, particularly in craft brewing conditions.
Another factor: once leaving the brewery, alcohol content can rise naturally in unpasteurized, especially bottle-conditioned, beer. Yeast can continue slowly to ferment maltose and other sugars, even sometimes more complex carbohydrates.
Some (Seeming) Disparities, 1988 Study
The 1988 study by the Connecticut state government I discussed yesterday had collected beers from 1987. The report showed disparities in alcohol content for multiple samples of (apparently) the same brand of some beers. Extract of report:
Eg. for Bass Ale: 4.02, 4.95, 5.51. For Ballantine India Pale Ale, 6.17 vs. 6.61.
It is hard to say, but maybe the unusually low 4.02 for Bass, as an export item I mean, suggests it was intended for a “3.2” state, but somehow ended up in Connecticut, not a 3.2 state.
Some states then still limited beer alcohol to 3.2% abw, or 4% abv. Some required special labeling for higher-alcohol beer.
Ballantine India Pale Ale was stored for periods of up to one year in bulk, then packaged and pasteurized. Probably the alcohol varied due to this factor.
Beck’s Bier was impressively the same in the two samples tested. 5.13%. And so on.
The Later Study
In 1991 Connecticut authorities did another analysis of beers, with beer and wine coolers included this time. The beers were collected between 1988 and 1990. The document reported just on alcohol content, not calories.
Calorie disclosure might have been eye-opening due to the greater number of emerging craft brews, and more exotic imports (eg. Chimay, Duvel, and Samuel Smith Imperial Stout).
The richer body and higher alcohol would mean higher calorie content than standard U.S. beers.
149 beers were tested in the 1991 study, and 202 earlier. The second one shows how the beer market evolved in that region in such a short time, since it contains a wider range of craft brews and off-piste imports.
Corona, Jenlain Country Ale, and Duvel seemed each to show alcohol variation among the bottlings.**
For Chimay, a difference of 7.6 vs. 10.1 was noted without any suggestion the labels were actually different, but probably the red and blue labels were tested, which are different beers.
Orval Trappist was an impressive 7.4% abv. Michael Jackson’s 1982 The Pocket Guide to Beer had it at 5.7% abv, clearly as shipped from the brewery.
I have seen labels for American-distributed Orval at 6.9% abv, although other labels, likely for overseas and perhaps non-U.S. use, state 6.2%.
Probably 6.9% is an estimate of the typical abv once in American consumer hands.
Does It Matter?
Regarding ethanol variance between the contents and label, or among different production runs, my view is, from the consumer standpoint, one shouldn’t be too particular.
Beer is intoxicating. We know that. So start from this premise. And it is a natural product, no matter on what scale and how scientifically produced. Malts vary each year, and yeasts can evolve despite strict controls.
Brewing equipment changes. Weather by definition does, pace manipulation by ingenious humans.
Subtle flavour changes also occur batch to batch, due to these factors. These circumstances reflect beer’s origins as a natural, agricultural product.
Processes are channeled by human hand to specific ends, often with remarkable consistency, but perfection industry-wide is a mug’s game.
Nonetheless reason must prevail. A label stating 6% abv should not contain 8%. If it hits 7% on occasion, no capital crime, by my book. The same if it dips to 5.5% – tolerance should be shown, so to speak.
This is not to say it cuts both ways. If error there is to be, the margin should be more generous for higher, not lower, alcohol, imo. Because, alcohol is the original and always primary vocation for beer.
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*A vestige of F.D.R.-era regulation, the law was meant to prevent touting beer based on higher alcohol.
**Unless perhaps a Jenlain or Duvel in the pair was a stronger, maybe Xmas version. The Coronas seemed one brand to me despite varying label descriptions, but perhaps were two.
Also, when brewers didn’t need to disclose alcohol, some may have been satisfied with a certain range of variation. Quality control would be aside the point, in other words.
One can’t rule out finally, for any particular case, possible error or inadvertent sample switches in testing. Anything is possible. There was some missclassification, it seems (see in Comments).