Transparency is, in my opinion, a key factor that sets small breweries apart from macro breweries. Transparency manifests itself in numerous ways, whether it’s a brewery that offers tours to its visitors or whether we consider transparency as an open and honest dialogue between brewers and drinkers about the brewing process, raw materials and industry issues. Big beer is unable to build strong, direct customer relationships in this way and engage on a personal or local level, which gives craft a huge advantage.
Nonetheless, there is a current surge of intransparency in the German brewing industry, and in particular, I am referring to some of those who contract brew. Germany’s modern craft beer market is currently being shaped by contract brewers who choose to save on buying expensive production facilities and invest their funds elsewhere. I wrote about some of the reasons for this trend here.
Unfortunately it is very common that some German contract brewers do not declare the location at which their beer is brewed. They fail to declare this information either on the beer label itself or in company literature. This may seem like a relatively minor point but it is one that particularly makes me sad/angry for the following reasons:
1.) It is not honest. This omission of seemingly harmless information gives the drinker the impression that the beer they are drinking was brewed by the company stated on the label. Whilst this company did undoubtedly put a hell of a lot of work into the beer, it did not brew it. An ‘actual’ brewery did. This is particularly important because the modern food & drinks consumer is becoming more and more interested in where produce comes from, how it is made, who is behind the product etc. Withholding this information from the customer denies them of their curiosity for produce on which they are often prepared to spend more money.
2.) Intransparency is damaging to the German craft beer industry. In a growing craft market where most people I speak to have never heard of craft beer, craft newcomers may come to solely associate craft brewing with savvy marketing graduates who pay breweries to make beer for them so they can market it as their own. This misrepresentation of the wider craft beer mentality, i.e. experimentation, handmade, independence, is by no means a healthy image for the niche market that is still trying to find its place in the German beer landscape. In fact, this misleading business strategy couldn’t really be further from what the Handwerk (craftmanship) essence of craft beer really is.
3.) Now I certainly am no expert in EU/contract law, or any type of law for that matter, but I will give this a go. I believe this lack of clarity particularly in labelling to be a slight grey zone within EU food labelling regulation. The EU directive…relating to the labelling, presentation and advertising of foodstuffs, article 3, (7) states that “the name or business name and address of the manufacturer…” must be declared on the label. This begs the question: who is the manufacturer? The company on the label or the brewery? Or maybe both? And this is where it gets tricky, as the question essentially boils down to who is liable for the product and this varies from contract to contract. However, upon examining some contract manufacturing liability documents I discovered that there seems to be a clear distinction between the company, i.e. the beer brand and the contract manufacturer, i.e. the brewery. This, in brief, would make it seem that the name and address of the (contract) manufacturer, should, according to EU law, be declared on the label.
Why does this intransparency exist? Compared to, for example, the Italians or the Spanish, the Germans are pretty uncritical about what they eat and drink. The classic German oxymoron is forking out €1000+ for a Weber grill yet buying a pack of €1.99 Aldi Bratwursts to go on the BBQ. Beer brands exploit this consumerist apathy to create the impression that they are the full-package, i.e. a brand with own brewery, because this is seen to be the more attractive variant. Thankfully craft drinkers are casting more of a critical eye on what is in their glass, which gives me hope that contract brewers will start to get called out. Or they will at least come under pressure to come clean and write the bloody name of the brewery that produced the beer on the label.