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This piece originally ran in Beverage Business in 2003. The link at their website is currently dead, not sure why. So I put it up here, as a number of people like to refer to it...when Cliff comes around. Enjoy.

Lew

Myths And Legends.

Or, Hogwash Disproved.

"Hey, some guy in a bar told me..."

Now, there are words that strike fear in the heart of a beer seller. Because they know their customers, and they know that after those eight words could come anything, no matter how ridiculous. Think of Cliff Claven, on Cheers. You think they made up that character from whole cloth? No, my friend, just as there is a Cliff Claven in every corner bar, there is a guy in your store whoís going to tell you some outrageous tales about your beers. Worse, heís going to tell your other customers.

As a retailer, youíll want to be able to step in and squash Cliffís folklore lessons with a careful application of truth serum. So letís take a look at some of the more enduring whoppers that are in circulation and hold them up against the urban legend template to see how closely they fit. You may be surprised...but I hope youíre not.

Thaiíd in Knots

You canít sugar-coat this one, itís just bizarre: there is a persistent, widespread belief that the Thai beer Singha, brewed in Bangkok by the Boon Rawd Brewery, has formaldehyde in it. Yes, itís a toxin, yes, it has a distinctive aroma that couldnít possibly be mistaken for anything else, and yes, there are probably people in your store right now who believe this. Letís kill it.

There are any number of amateur travel and food websites that blithely say things like "this formaldehyde special has the power to ruin entire days of your holiday," or "Singha...contained a significant percentage of formaldehyde as a preserving agent." To get the really loony stuff, you have to go to the USENET newsgroups like soc.culture.thai and alt.beer, where a homebrewer advised adding formaldehyde to a lager recipe to get a Singha-like character.

A seemingly reputable and professional travel site even came up with this wholly fabricated story that seems to validate the whole thing, even though they put a little anti-libel window-dressing up near the end: "The most popular local beer is Singha beer, brewed by Boon Rowd (sic), which accounts for 89% of the beer market. It is said that the beer's distinctive taste is due to the formaldehyde that it contains. When the company removed the chemical (it was no longer needed as bottling technology had been improved), there was such an outcry from Thais that they quickly reincorporated it. Whether or not this story is true, an evening drinking Singha can result in quite a hangover and its alcohol content of 6% must be partly to blame."

That last bit is a kernel of truth (more on that later)... but itís the only one. Of course there is no formaldehyde in Singha -- any more than there is formaldehyde in Chang, the other popular Thai beer, or the Philippines beer San Miguel, or the Vietnamese 33, or Singaporeís Tiger beer, all of which have also been rumored to contain formaldehyde. Think about that for a minute while we solidly dispose of the Singha rumor.

I asked brewery rep Mario Ylanan about it. "The breweryís been hearing it for a while," he said. A while, I asked: five years? Ten? More? "At least ten years," Mario said. "Itís coming out of Europe as well. Itís driving the brewery nuts! At one time there was a European newspaper article that mentioned it, and it almost sounded like they were actually reporting it. The brewery asked them to substantiate it, and they couldnít."

How about it, Mario? Is it true? "Completely untrue," he said. "There is no formaldehyde in Singha, and there never has been."

Where does this formaldehyde idea come from? Itís so outrageous, and yet so persistent and widespread. But look at that list of beers; theyíre all from Southeast Asia. Is there actually an Asian beer that has tarred all the local beers with its formaldehyde brush?

Yes and no. I have an anonymous brewing source I go to on technical questions like these, a widely experienced brewing chemist. I asked him, is there any truth to the formaldehyde-in-beer story? It turns out that there is, after all, just a tiny bit of fact here. There are, my source told me, a few small (non-exporting) Chinese breweries that do indeed add a tiny amount of formaldehyde to the mash. It acts as a clarifying agent. However, he added, "I am 100% sure Singha never once used the Chinese practise. That was a Chinese Ďinnovationí and no one elseís. Some Chinese breweries, not all, still permit formaldehyde in mashing." Yeesh.

But I strongly suspect that the originators of the story were -- and remain -- American and British expatriates and soldiers trying to explain what was to them an odd phenomenon. Singha, you see, is not just another Ďinternational lager.í It is a relatively strong 6% alcohol by volume, and is an exceptionally bitter lager, at 40 International Bittering Units (by comparison, Budweiser is about 5% ABV and around 11.5 IBU).

Put those two factors together with Viet Nam War-era U.S. soldiers used to drinking 4% ABV beer on military bases or British businessmen used to quaffing 3.5 to 4.3% ABV beer at home, and neither of them accustomed to hopping rates over about 20 IBU. Youíve got some guys who are suddenly getting drunk a lot quicker than theyíre used to, and who are faced with a bitter flavor theyíve never before encountered in beer.

Is it surprising that they came up with a story to explain why their tolerance and tastes were off? There was even one website that made that link almost directly: "I think (Chang) too has the old formaldehyde "get pissed (British slang for Ďdrunkí) quick" chemical in it, which often results in a righteous hangover." I think what theyíre actually experiencing is a stronger beer than theyíre accustomed to, getting them drunker than theyíre accustomed to, and not surprisingly giving them a whopping hangover. Drunk in moderation, Singha doesnít give you any hangover at all: thatís personal experience talking.

Ridiculous, bizarre perhaps, but one thingís for sure: Singhaís blameless. Mark this one as "bogus," and do what you can to let people know. Ylananís happy for any help he can get. "Itís almost impossible to stop these things," he said. "You can deny it till youíre blue in the face and it will still persist."

You Take That Back!

Actually, Mario, that turns out not to be the case. There is a happy ending on one of these rumors. Some of you may remember when Corona stumbled in its fast charge to the top of the import ladder. In the late 1980s, there was a rumor spreading in the West that brewery workers in Mexico were, well...urinating into the tanks of Corona that were destined for the U.S. market.

It was ridiculous, it was revolting, it was racist, but it was effective: Corona sales were seriously affected by the rumor. Barton Brands, the brandís west-of-the-Mississippi importer, decided they had to take action when stores in Nevada started taking the beer off their shelves.

Barton hired private investigators to trace the rumor to its source. The seemingly hopeless objective struck paydirt: the rumor had been created and spread by a Heineken wholesaler in Reno! Barton sued, and settled when the wholesaler agreed to print a full-page ad admitting their part in the rumor and denying that it was true. Barton quickly got the news out, company executives hit the talk-show circuits, and the damage was controlled.

Did it work? With Corona sales growing the way they are, do you have to ask?

"We Donít Get The Good Stuff"

It is an article of faith among some know-it-all types that the beer that is exported to the U.S. from various countries is not the same as that sold in the home country. "They send us the crappy version" is often uttered as the person knocks back their third or fourth bottle of the beer in question. Youíll hear it often about German beers, but the most common complaint is about the black stuff: "The Guinness they serve in Ireland is better."

First, be sensible. Why on earth would the German brewers go to the trouble of brewing two slightly different versions of their beers? The cost of materials is so low as a chunk of the total costs that it wouldnít make a difference. But that doesnít stop the guy in the bar, so itís blamed on taxes, arrogance, or some vague law: "itís because of U.S. Customs requirements about the alcohol level of the pasteurization, which they do because they think Americans canít handle the good stuff. You know." Right, Cliff, have another beer.

Second, letís be honest. Most of these beers do indeed taste different here than they do in their home market. Itís the freshness factor. Even Guinness, which leaves from relatively nearby Ireland, still takes at least two weeks to get from the brewery in Ireland to a tap in Boston: in Dublin it takes about two hours. Not to mention the turnover difference: bars in Dublin go through a lot more kegs of Guinness than bars in Des Moines. Guinness in Ireland is as fresh as dockside fish; it makes a difference.

Finally, ask the brewery. I have, and hereís what I was told by Guinness Draught Specialist Mark Griffin. "The beer that ends up in the cellar of a pub in Boston," he said, "could just as easily wind up in a the cellar of a pub in Dublin. Itís the same beer." I asked the brewers at Paulaner, and (after translation) they laughed, and said essentially the same thing.

There are exceptions, of course. A number of beers are made under license for sale in the U.S., often in Canada. Bottles of Guinness Extra Stout, for example, are brewed by Labatt for the American market, and the Fosterís you see in America is brewed in Canada. You can easily check that by reading the label. But if itís made in "the old country," itís almost always the same as they have there. As Ronald Reagan said: trust, but verify.

The Never-ending Boycott

So many groups claim to be boycotting Coors, itís a wonder the beer sells at all. Coors beers are boycotted (with varying effectiveness) by some groups of gays and lesbians, some Hispanic groups, and some parts of organized labor. The boycotts are said, variously, to be based on Coorsí hiring practices, on their relations with unions, and on the Coors familyís support for right-wing political causes. There is a hint of truth to this one, but there are huge amounts of ignorance, stubbornness, and inertia. Letís take a look.

One of the bases of the claim that Coors discriminates against gays was the use of lie detectors in hiring interviews. Thatís true, they did, but it was largely a reaction to the kidnap-murder of Adolph Coors III by a Coors employee in 1960 (Coors has stated categorically that questions were not asked about sexuality during these interviews). Coors was not really any more or less homophobic than other companies during its history.

The ironic thing is that in trying to overcome the bad image it has in the gay community, Coors has become one of the most gay-friendly big businesses in America, and fully passes the Lavender Screen, a gay litmus test for businesses. They have a full-time gay community liaison (a post once held by Vice-President Dick Cheneyís openly lesbian daughter, Mary Cheney), one of fourteen such positions to work with various factions. And Scott Coors, son of company vice-chairman William Coors, is openly gay. The words "bending over backwards" come to mind, but the Coors boycott remains a hot issue in the gay community.

Coors anti-union reputation stems from a long, contentious relationship with labor at the brewery. The troubles were largely driven by strong personalities in the company and in the union. The boycott actually started with the unionís support, inspired by Cesar Chavezís lettuce boycott, and was a powerful tool in bringing Coors to the table. When concessions were made by the company, the boycott lost much of its official backing...but some people apparently never got the word.

Coors was charged with racial discrimination against Hispanics in 1969 and forced to pay back salaries. Hispanics joined the union boycott. However, in similar fashion to their "getting it" with gay employees, Coors has put tons of money into not only hiring Hispanics, but supporting Hispanic causes and the general Hispanic community. Again, despite these efforts, some Hispanics continue the boycott.

Whatís the real problem here? Itís the Coorsí familyís support for right-wing political causes, and the generally left-wing leanings of the groups arrayed against them. The family or the foundations the family funds have supported Ronald Reaganís campaign, John Ashcroftís campaign, the Contras, and some fairly vociferous anti-gay groups. But the money has left the company by that time. The Coors companies themselves support things like literacy, fighting hunger, and scholarships for the kids of Hispanic veterans.

Is a company responsible for what is done with money after it leaves company books? Put another way, if your employee cashes his paycheck and buys cocaine with it, are you a drug pusher? Itís a convoluted issue, but the facts seem to support Coors on this one, and some gay groups are starting to say that itís time for the boycott to end.

That Weak American Beer

Youíll hear this most about Canadian vs. American beer, but other countries get in the act as well. "You know, the Canadian beer is stronger than American beer." Give Ďem the razzberry, because it just isnít so.

We can dispense with this one pretty quickly. First, most beer, as in over 90% of it, around the world, is under 5.5% ABV (Yes, even in Belgium). Second, most American, Canadian, and European beers (by volume sold) are between 4.3 and 5.0%: thatís the range where the best-sellers fall. And most full-calorie American, Canadian, and European beers are about 5%; the lights run a bit lower. Period. Thatís fact.

So whereís the confusion come in? Two things. First, itís all in how itís measured. Canadian brewers generally use alcohol by volume (ABV), whereas American brewers have historically used alcohol by weight (ABW), which gives lower numbers. Quick math lesson: if you have 1 liter of 4% ABV beer, 4% of that liter, or 40 ml, is alcohol. However, because alcohol weighs only 79.6% as much as water, that same beer is only 3.18% ABW. To a Canadian, therefore, 3.2 beer is really 4.0 beer. People heard the two different numbers and naturally thought it meant the Canadian beer was stronger. Confusing, but understandable.

The other issue is the general lightness of American mainstream beer. For various reasons both historical and cultural, Americans have come to like their beer lighter in body and lower in bitterness than Europe and Canada. This seems to be a lighter beer overall, but the alcohol is not lower. In fact, the average beer in the U.S. is actually stronger than many a heavier, more bitter beer in England. Big flavor does not mean big alcohol. Case in point: Guinness Stout is under 4.2% ABV. If that doesnít convince you, nothing will!

Augie, Get Your Gun

The last rumor is a weird one that shows how these things can have effects way out of proportion to their origins. A rumor started in the 1970s that Anheuser-Busch supported gun control. No one knows where the rumor started, no one knows why. But it spread, and very little seemed to be effective in fighting it.

The irony is that the Busch family, with their German background, counted many avid hunters in their ranks. They were anything but anti-gun. I remember hearing Augie Busch III say that to a meeting I attended back in 1998. But how do you say that to the public? "Oh, no, thatís not true, we LOVE guns!" And watch the cloud of dust as the gun-control fans charge off to buy Miller. You have to be careful. A-B took a long, slow approach, squashing individual appearances of the rumor when they could, taking out ads in hunting magazines, and supporting shooting competitions.

These tactics worked, for the most part, but with the advent of the Internet the rumor came alive again. Suddenly every bizarre thought any idiot with a modem had was flashed around the world, and the question "But isnít Budweiser for gun control?" was springing up on bulletin boards all through cyberspace.

Anheuser-Busch still tries to do what they can to combat this rumor, sometimes with important consequences. In 1999 they supported Missouriís controversial proposed Ďconcealed carryí law, to the dismay of gun-control forces across the country. This position almost certainly had its origins in the anti-anti-gun campaign A-B had been waging for 20 years. And still, the rumor refuses to die.

So if you hear one of these rumors, if Cliff walks into your store and starts telling you or your customers any of this stuff, pull out this issue and whack him over the head with it. Or you could do what a brewer friend of mine does whenever he hears a fallacious beer rumor. He politely asks what business the rumor-monger is in, thanks them, then goes out the next day and... starts a rumor.

 

 

Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: March 10, 2005