Beer labels go down well

Last updated 13:21 25/04/2013

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OPINION: Have you ever bothered to take the time to read the label on a bottle of beer?

No? I can't say I'm surprised; in many cases it's barely worth the effort.

Apart from the legally required stuff - the alcoholic strength, number of standard drinks etcetera - most just tell you something bland like "This beer is made with the choicest hops and the finest malted barley". Whew, what a relief; I'm delighted to learn they're not using stale old hops and mouldy, second-rate malt.

But seriously, the bottle label and outer packaging are often the only opportunity a brewer has to tell a potential consumer something really worthwhile about the beer.

This point was hammered home to me at a beer tasting last week. Having politely listened to me describing the beers' aromas and flavours and making suggestions as to appropriate food pairings, one wine-savvy participant inquired, "Why don't brewers put a recommended food match for the beer on the label?"

What a good idea; instead of wasting precious label space droning on about choice hops and fine malts, brewers could tell their customers something really useful.

The discussion then widened to include other useful information brewers could put on their labels. Suggestions included listing where the beer is actually made - yes, some people really do care - as well as information regarding serving temperature, appropriate glassware and cellaring potential.

Cellar potential for beer? Yes. I wonder how many hospitality professionals, let alone consumers, realise that given careful cellaring most barley wines, imperial stouts and Belgian ales - especially the darker Trappist and abbey styles - can evolve gracefully in the bottle for several years, others for decades.

And how many realise that many of those same beers shouldn't even be stored in the fridge, let alone served chilled? Why? Because in the case of bottle conditioned beers - meaning those that contain a small dosage of live yeast in the bottle - storing them in the fridge is likely to stun the yeast and prevent the beers' potential longevity.

Should it say so on the label? Of course it should.

Then there's the matter of appropriate glassware. Most of us know that wines benefit from being served in tulip-shaped stemmed glasses that are large enough to allow the aromas to develop and linger. So it is with beer.

Using the correct glass is vital if you're serious about presenting a beer at its best. So why don't Kiwi brewers recommend specific types of glass on their labels? Belgian brewers usually do.

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The back label on most Belgian Trappist ales usually indicate that the beer should be carefully decanted off the yeast into a bowl-shaped chalice.

Why? Because a wide brimmed glass allows the drinker to best appreciate the beer's rich, heady and spicy aromas.

Wouldn't it be equally useful if Kiwi brewers recommended serving their fruity pilseners in tall, narrow-mouthed flutes so as to best preserve their delicate carbonation?

Also, it would be most helpful if brewers identified the style of their beers on the label, just like winemakers do.

Most wineries state the grape variety on the front label, usually right next to the brand name. Then, in smaller print, or on the back, they provide information about the region of origin along with suitably appetising tasting notes and appropriate food matches.

I realise that beer bottles tend to be smaller than wine bottles, so brewers have less space available, but I wish at least some of that same information was routinely available on beer bottles.

At this point I should point out that some brewers, most notably craft brewers, are heading in the right direction.

Wellington-based Yeastie Boys, for example, have even included a Quick Response (QR) code on the label of their Digital IPA. Customers - and potential customers - who own smartphones can scan the label code and be transported online to a webpage giving detailed information about the beer.

Yeastie Boys' Stu McKinlay explains: "(The label) was no longer a simple means of explaining what the beer tasted like and what its vital regulatory statistics were. It was a means of engaging people deeper into the world of craft beer - a very good place to be."

I couldn't agree more.

But information about beer isn't just beneficial to consumers, it's just as useful for the hospitality industry.

Bars and restaurants usually list their wines according to grape variety or blend, while liquor stores and supermarkets display them in precisely the same manner. Consumers, be they diners or shoppers, can then compare wines of a similar variety and make informed purchasing decisions.

Beers, on the other hand, tend to be listed and displayed by brand or, at best, country of origin. Style tends to be ignored. As a result most beer drinkers will tell you their favourite brands, but only a few know what beer styles they represent. That needs to change.

Including stylistic and food matching information on beer labels and up-skilling waiting staff would have an additional benefit: restaurateurs might suddenly discover that having a dozen taste-alike international golden lagers and a couple of mainstream Kiwi draughts in the fridge doesn't constitute a balanced beer list.

Recommendations for appropriate food matches could be on restaurant menus and beer lists.

Wouldn't it be useful to know that the ABC Belgian white beer works superbly with the steamed mussels, or that the XYZ London porter is the recommended match for that steak you've just ordered. And in an ideal world the waiter would make suggestions: "For dessert I can recommend the Trappist dubbel with the tiramisu, madam."

I look forward to that day.


- © Fairfax NZ News

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