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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bud Watering Down Its Beer?

Post updated; see below.

In the bizarre news of the day, try this on for size:
Credit: Willy Volk
AB InBev’s St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch Cos. routinely adds extra water to its finished products to produce malt beverages with significantly less alcohol content than displayed on its labels, violating state statutes on consumer protection, according to a complaint filed yesterday in federal court in Philadelphia. Similar lawsuits were filed in federal courts in New Jersey and San Francisco. 
Of course, the plaintiffs have the goods on St. Louis, right?  Ummm...
It’s unclear in the complaints how the plaintiffs determined the alcohol content was less than stated. [Attorney for the plaintiffs Josh] Boxer said the complaints are based on information from former workers at some of the company’s 13 U.S. breweries.

“On information and belief this is a corporate policy of AB to intentionally short the alcohol content,” Boxer said in a phone interview. “We believe this is a corporate policy that comes from AB InBev and trickles down.” 
This seems totally preposterous.  The upside to such a venture is a very minimal cost saving, the downside could be brand-jeopardizing.  Furthermore, a lab can determine who's right in a snap.  That the plaintiffs haven't done this seriously undermines their credibility.  But here's what it really sounds like to me: high-gravity brewing.  That's when a brewery makes a high-gravity wort and later adds water to bring the alcohol content to a particular level.  It's common at big breweries (though I haven't toured the A-B plant in St Louis yet--I hope to!--and don't know whether they use the technique).  I have been wrong so many times I shouldn't make statements like this, but: I'd put a lot of money on Anheuser-Busch to win this in a laugher.

Update.  With a hat tip to Stan, let me direct your attention to Alcohol Beverage Testing News, an independent lab run by Gary Spedding--a former director of laboratories at Siebel--who's been doing those labs I wondered about.  Because of A-B's famously rigorous standards, Spedding has used Bud as his control beer.  He writes:
Also for calibrating our alcohol instruments Bud goes in after calibration to see hopefully 5.00% abv. pretty much on the nose. Not so recently. Now as low as 4.94% after slipping from 4.98% earlier in the year.
The Bloomberg article talks of other acquired brand changes for ABInBev and we have also noticed this with other classic beers in the giants stable. The article may have hit the nail or the King fair and square on the head. They relied on sensory perceptions of patrons but analytical parameters can confirm their suspicions. I think, from our early findings that it already has. 
I love how I my hubris was almost instantly exposed, but I love even more how it shows the value of blogging, even in the benighted era of Twitter dominion.  Thanks, Gary!


  1. I have no doubt that AB will win this lawsuit. However as a former employee, I also know that AB routinely toes the line on alcohol content and fills. The target spec used to be at the number noted on the package. After the buyout, the target spec moved closer to the lower limit of saleability. As someone on the front lines, it was extremely difficult to manage that spec with no wiggle room, and as a result there were more than a handful of times with low alcohol and/or low fill beer made it out the door.

    Currently, Los Angeles is the only true High Gravity cellar that adds water through carefully calibrated blenders on the way to the filler. The other breweries in the system brew high gravity wort and the water is added during filtration on the way to the bright beer tank.

  2. Here's one bit of alcohol analysis from an independent lab.

    (Not related to abv, before anybody gets concerned about "airs" it is important to note the parts in red and read the follow up post.)

  3. In conversation, a former employee of Coors used the term 'hydration'.

  4. The problem for AB isn't the lawsuit, which they may well win strictly based on the amount of money that will spend to make sure they do win. The problem is public perception, which will be further damaged by these revelations. In a Twitter-infested world, attention spans are short and citizens have no time for details. They only thing they're likely to remember is that Bud waters down its beer. End of story. Where's Ed McMahon where you need him?

  5. NPR covered the story this morning and actually had three beers independently tested. All three came out within accepted tolerances and one was exactly the ABV stated on the can: