I've become an obsessive label-reader.
You know the type -- you might be one, too. When grocery-shopping, I scour bread labels for the loaf with an extra gram of fiber. I read ingredient lists on almost everything, trying to avoid added preservatives, artificial junk or copious amounts of calories and fat.
Unfortunately for me and legions of others who care about what they eat and drink, beer companies are required to provide pitifully little information about what's inside their bottles.
The federal government and alcohol-industry lobbyists have been butting heads for more than a decade over what to include on beer, wine and hard-liquor labels. The latest proposal, which the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau laid out way back in 2007, is logical, fair and would be a boon to consumers.
The federal bureau's proposal would require breweries to include the following information on bottles and cans: alcohol content by volume and nutritional facts including calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein.
Currently, brewers are given the option of whether to put alcohol content on their beer labels (most craft beers proudly display the information; light beers don't). And, only "light" beers or ones that make low-calorie claims are required to display nutritional data.
So what's the beef with making labeling rules apply to all breweries, thus allowing their customers to make more informed choices? Money.
Small breweries cry foul at what they say would be an undue burden to shell out cash for new labels and labeling equipment, as well as lab costs associated with nutrition analysis. Such expenses would have "a chilling effect on beer-drinker choice," says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, which represents the interests of 1,700 or so U.S. craft breweries.
The Tax and Trade Bureau dismisses this argument, and rightfully so.
Craft breweries -- most of which have enjoyed double-digit sales growth in recent years -- change their label designs and create new ones all the time. And lab analysis, the government estimates, would cost a mere $250 per brand. What's more, the current proposal would give breweries three years to phase in the labeling changes, providing ample time to use up current labels.
As with all discussions involving politics and regulation, odds are that hidden factors are at play. Deep-pocketed big breweries may be fighting the proposal because they don't want you to know their "light" beers aren't just light on calories -- they're light on alcohol, too. Anheuser-Busch InBev puts a lot of marketing dollars into telling consumers that Bud Select 55 has only 55 calories. But you wouldn't know from looking at the label that it contains only 2.4 percent alcohol by volume.
"Including alcohol contents on the labels will lift the veil on the fact that [light beers have] less calories because they are lower in alcohol," says St. Louis Brewery co-founder Dan Kopman. "Craft brewers do not focus on the calorie conversation because our beers are about flavor."
American consumers have more choices than ever when it comes to beer. Our beer makers and our government owe it to us to keep us informed about what we're drinking.
Fellow St. Louis beer enthusiast and obsessive label-reader Scott Pesek agrees that drinkers have a right to know.
"As a nation, we need to pay attention to these fine details," Pesek says. "Obviously some people will simply not care, and that is fine. As someone who reads every label, I would like to know what I am about to consume."