Look along the range of hand pumps in a trendy freehouse these days, and you are likely to spot at least one beer with odd ingredients. Maybe its honey, chocolate, coriander or fruit. They wouldn’t be my choice, but clearly someone out there loves a pint of plum porter or honey ale. Traditionally, beer contains just four ingredients, malt, hops, yeast and water but there are few restrictions on what else can be added, at least in this country. As the craft and microbrewery scene grows, all manner of experiments have taken place with unfamiliar ingredients. I even bought a bottle of garlic beer from the garlic farm on the Isle of Wight. For the record, it was disgusting.
This freedom to add extras is not universal. In Germany there is a law dating back to 1516 called the Reinheitsgebot or German Purity Law which bans any additives other than the four main ingredients, and some German brewers are upset that they are not allowed to experiment and compete with brewers in other nearby countries, such as Belgium which is famous for fruit flavoured beers such as kriek (cherry) and framboise (raspberry) which can be imported even though they are not brewed in accordance with the law.
You might think that they have a cut and dried case – why not allow brewers to add what they like and let the drinkers decide? Surely if it is good people will buy it, but if it doesn’t work, then it will remain unsold, after all how many garlic beers have you seen around?
The reality is a bit more complicated. The freedom to add other ingredients doesn’t end with a few pounds of fruit. There are some rather more worrying additives lurking in some pints of beer. How about propelene glycole alginate which some big brewers use to stabilise the foam on the head, or betaglucanase which speeds up the brewing process. Some American beers (and maybe others) also use high fructose corn syrup which may have been genetically modified and has been implicated in some health issues whilst many beers contain isinglass which is derived from fish and could be a problem for vegetarians.
In cases like this, the usual advice would either be to trust the manufacturers have your best interests at heart and believe that they would not sell you anything that is likely to damage your health, or alternatively do a bit of research and check the label to see if there are any ingredients with which you are not happy. Except you can’t. Beer is one of the few foodstuffs exempt from displaying a list of ingredients on the label. A senior brand manager at a big lager producer is quoted on the BBC website as saying that ‘its current labelling complies with existing legislation and is consistent with other brands within our category’. Reassured? Me neither.
I don’t want to upset our anti Europe friends by going so far as to suggest that we adopt a German law, but at the risk of coming over all Gwyneth Paltrow, surely the time has come for all ingredients to be listed on bottles and cans of beer, and be available for draught beer. We can work out if we have an allergy, avoid those ingredients that we don’t think are good and wholesome or give us hangovers and check out the claims made in the adverts about the purity of the ingredients. Bureaucratic red tape or a breath of fresh air blowing through the dark and secret corners of faceless companies? You be the judge.