Budweiser: It's Like Making Love in a Canoe

Budweiser: It’s Like Making Love in a Canoe

Back when I was in college, I attended various parties where alcohol was served… and – more often than not – the alcohol was in the form of beer. Not surprisingly, the dominant brands of beer were Coors and Budweiser (college students tend to not have a lot of money or taste, unfortunately). I’m no teetotaler, but I didn’t even get mildly buzzed at these parties, since I strongly dislike both brands o’ beer (they taste like cheap beer-flavored club soda – bleaaaah). When beer was the party beverage du jour, I typically spent the evening walking around with a can in my hand, from which I would occasionally take dainty, hummingbird-like sips. That way, I could look like I was drinking, without actually having to swallow very much of the stuff.

As an aside, it took some years before I actually discovered that I liked beer – good beer, that is. But Coors and Budweiser are still on my no-drink list, for reasons I’ll outsource to Monty Python:

Yup – like making love in a canoe, they’re f*****g close to water.

As such, I’m rather amused by reports on the recent lawsuits filed against Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser, accusing the company of watering down its beer. Apparently the put-out customers didn’t notice they were drinking fizzy beer-water until they were told about the “deception,” as implied by this NBC News quote from lead lawyer, Josh Boxer:

“Our information comes from former employees at Anheuser-Busch, who have informed us that as a matter of corporate practice, all of their products mentioned (in the lawsuit) are watered down,” Boxer said. “It’s a simple cost-saving measure, and it’s very significant.”

How significant?

“The excess water is added just before bottling and cuts the stated alcohol content by 3 percent to 8 percent, he said.”

I eyeballed one of the filings, as well as a few national press accounts, and was rather surprised by the absence of any mention of independent lab work. Seems to me that some lab work would be pretty important for proving that the purchased products contain less alcohol than what Anheuser-Busch claims on the label. Yet the plaintiffs do not seem to have done this (a point also raised in this Associated Press account).

That’s a pretty poor basis upon which to be filing a lawsuit alleging label deception, IMHO.

But do they have a case without it?

Hmmm… let’s do a little math and a bit of nosing around teh internetz, ok?

Let’s start with a product that’s 5% alcohol by volume (regular Budweiser and Michelob, according to the NBC article)… it’s a good ballpark figure. For a standard US can of 355ml, that’s 17.75ml of alcohol.

17.75 ml alcohol reduced by 3% – 8% is…

17.75 ml x 0.97 = 17.22 ml
17.75 ml x 0.92 = 16.33 ml

So we’re talking about an approximate difference of 0.5 ml – 1.5 ml. To put that into context, one teaspoon (5 ml) of Bacardi Gold Rum (40% alcohol) contains 2 ml of alcohol.

If I stirred less than a teaspoon of Bacardi into your 12 oz. beer – even watery, bland beer like Bud – would you even notice? I seriously doubt it. That alleged 3% – 8% reduction still leaves us with a beer that’s 4.6% – 4.85% alcohol. That doesn’t strike me as being “significant” – even if I was purchasing the stuff solely to get hammered.

And y’know what? The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (the federal agency responsible for regulating alcoholic beverages, including beer) seems to agree.

Here’s what the ATF has to say about the labeling of “malt beverages” (which includes beer):

(b) Form of statement. (1) Statement of alcoholic content shall be expressed in percent alcohol by volume, and not by percent by weight, proof, or by maximums or minimums.

(2) For malt beverages containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume, statements of alcoholic content shall be expressed to the nearest one-tenth of a percent, subject to the tolerance permitted by paragraph (c) (1) and (2) of this section. For malt beverages containing less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, alcoholic content may be expressed in one-hundredths of a percent, subject to the tolerance permitted in paragraph (c)(3) of this section.

(c) Tolerances. (1) For malt beverages containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume, a tolerance of 0.3 percent will be permitted, either above or below the stated percentage of alcohol. Any malt beverage which is labeled as containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume may not contain less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, regardless of any tolerance.

Emphasis mine. That “tolerance” means the actual alcohol content can be within +/- 0.3% of what it states on the label.

In other words, if a label says “5% alcohol,” the actual alcohol content can be from 4.7% – 5.3% and still be perfectly legal. And that’s a range which solidly overlaps my “back-of-the-envelope” calculations above (4.6% – 4.85%).

Not surprisingly, this is exactly what the company’s VP is claiming:

“Our beers are in full compliance with all alcohol labeling laws. We proudly adhere to the highest standards in brewing our beers, which have made them the best-selling in the U.S. and the world,” Peter Kraemer, vice president of brewing and supply, said in a statement.”

For the record, I don’t doubt in the slightest Anheuser-Busch adds water to Budweiser products – this is generic, assembly line beer we’re talking about, after all. Adding water would be done to standardize various lots. But proving they add water to the product during production isn’t the same as proving that the finished product fails to meet label claims for alcohol content.

Thus, this “feels” a lot like the Taco Bell beef lawsuit to me (see here and here for my thoughts on that one, lol ). Like Taco Bell, Aneheuser-Busch likely has the numbers showing that the alcohol content of the finished product matches the label within the +/-0.3% tolerance mandated by the ATF. Even if they consistently erred on the low side of 5%, I’d be willing to bet that the result is still within the legal limits that define what is/isn’t “deception.”

So here’s my prediction: while the plaintiffs could be holding onto some bombshell data for later in the process, I think Anheuser-Busch is gonna win this one. Furthermore, I think the company brass thinks so, too… which explains why they’re having some fun with it.

If that ad’s not the definition of smug, I dunno what is. Of course, that’s probably the only thing Anheuser-Busch has to be smug about… Budweiser still sucks. 😉

Author: elissa

Elissa is a former research associate with the University of California at Davis, and the author/co-author of over a dozen articles published in scientific journals. Currently a freelance writer and researcher, Elissa brings her multidisciplinary education and training to her writing on nutrition and supplements.

1 Comment

  1. Never drank much Budweiser. I’m more of a Pale Ale man myself when I do indulge. I would agree, I don’t think this will go to far.

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