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Beer: More weighty thoughts on calories

The federal Tax and Trade Bureau, as mentioned in my column last week, has been sitting for nearly three years on a proposal to require beer brands to disclose basic nutritional information, including the number of calories per standard serving.

But if the TTB doesn’t act, the Food and Drug Administration might beat them to the punch. 

The Obama health care bill, signed into law on March 23, will require restaurant chains with more than 20 branches (more than 200,000 eateries nationwide) to disclose on their menus the calorie counts of each item. 

The FDA has been given a year from enactment to draw up guidelines for enforcing the new law. But the language in the health bill doesn’t address alcoholic beverages. Will the FDA insist on calorie reporting for beer, wine and cocktails?

The National Restaurant Association originally didn’t think so. The NRA posted FAQs on the nutritional disclosure law (PDF). Updated as of April 7, it states: “Alcoholic beverages are not expected to be covered by the new law. Under a 1974 memorandum of understanding, the FDA ceded authority to regulate the labeling of most alcoholic beverages to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.” 

However, after conferring with the group’s policy experts, Maureen Keith, the NRA’s manager for media relations, admitted, “It looks like this is something the FDA is going to take into consideration.”

Paul Gatza, director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, said, “My understanding is that this will likely be approached as standard reference calorie levels; for example, amber ale may have a federally listed calorie number, which can be used for all amber ales no matter the brand or actual caloric content.”

Such an approach would spare small breweries the expense and trouble of sending away samples for laboratory testing.
However, a downside is that it would involve the FDA in defining beer styles. Would the federal government act as “beer police,” disqualifying a beer from a certain stylistic category if it went a few calories overboard?

Other issues would have to worked out, such as, what do you consider a standard serving? Draft beer is customarily served in pints, while bottled beer generally comes in 12-ounce and 22-ounce increments. 

How big a margin of error would you allow for calorie reporting? As I wrote in my column, Dogfish Head World Wide Stout from the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., has tested for as high as 666 calories per 12-ounce bottle. But over the years the brewery has reined in the alcohol from a high of over 22 percent by volume to under 18 percent. The calorie counts for the 2008 and 2009 versions of World Wide Stout dropped to 377 and 435, respectively.

Admittedly, large restaurant chains generally stick with a limited number of national brands whose calorie counts are already listed on their labels or web sites. It’s not unusual to walk into a restaurant of the Ruby Tuesday’s or T.G.I. Friday’s ilk and be told that their “microbrew of the month” is Blue Moon Belgian White (a brand of MillerCoors, the nation’s second largest brewer). 

There are exceptions. Bonefish Grill, which operates about 150 branches nationwide (including six in Maryland and 11 in Virginia), recently announced that it’s beefing up its beer inventory to include more than 300 regional craft brands.  Obviously, no single location will carry all, but the plan is to feature a few local brews among the 20-25 selections at each branch. The Bonefish Grill at the Kingstowne Towne Center in Alexandria, Va., for instance, carries Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA as well as Flying Dog Pale Ale from the Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md., and will shortly add Brewmaster’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Porter from the Williamsburg AleWerks in Williamsburg, Va. 

“I don’t think it will limit our beer selection,” said Teresa L’Heureux, regional director of training for Bonefish locations in northern Virginia and Maryland, in regard to possible calorie reporting requirements.

At least two brewpub chains with sites locally, Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch, have more than 20 sites nationally and will be subject to whatever the FDA decides to enforce.

The health care overhaul does contain a loophole that might allow some breweries to avoid getting their beers tested for calories. Basically, it exempts from its nutritional disclosure requirements “items appearing on the menu for less than 60 days per calendar year.” By rotating beer selections frequently and offering a lot of seasonal brews, restaurants could conceivable dodge the disclosure rule. 

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  July 6, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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As with food, I find that's it's more important to know what ingredients were used to make the food or beverage. I realize that I'm consuming massive amounts of calories with my booze. I'm ok with that. What I don't like is when artificially or naturally derived "flavors" are used. I don't trust "naturally" derived flavors. If it's a fruit beer that's supposed to taste like cherry, use cherries.

Posted by: MzFitz | July 6, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

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