Budweiser’s Watergate

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BY NOW it’s obvious that the highly publicized, $5 million class-action lawsuit charging Budweiser with overstating its alcohol content is pure B.S.

The plaintiffs, including two Montgomery County brothers, say that Anheuser-Busch deliberately waters down its beer, and that its alcohol content is “significantly” overstated on its labels.

But the lawsuit provides no evidence to back up that claim.

It cites no scientific-based data, or even how much Bud drinkers are being shortchanged. If they conducted any laboratory testing, the lawyers who filed this lawsuit didn’t bother to reveal the results.

Nor does the suit name any witnesses. A lawyer told Bloomberg that the complaint is based on information from former A-B employees – a/k/a, hearsay from disgruntled ex-workers.

If A-B is watering down its beer, the federal government would have to be part of the conspiracy.

Alcohol content is monitored by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the agency that regulates all things booze. A spokesman for the agency told me that beer brands are “regularly” analyzed during and after production, with specific attention paid to alcohol content.

The TTB has never taken any public action against A-B for misstating alcohol content.

Meanwhile, in the days following the filing of the suit, I’ve read of two independent tests by news organizations that found that Budweiser, in fact, contains exactly what it says on the label: 5 percent alcohol.

A plaintiffs’ lawyer rejected the findings, saying that they are not as precise as A-B’s “statistical process controls” that supposedly allow them to cheat the public.

The results from a third analysis, by CNN, showed alcohol content of 4.94%.

That might raise some red flags, only it’s still within the statutory margin of error. Under federal law, a beer’s actual alcohol content may range by .3 percentage points above or below its stated amount. In other words, as long as Budweiser’s alcohol content falls between 4.7 percent and 5.3 percent, it’s legit.
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Maybe this lawsuit will worm its way into court, and the plaintiffs will have the opportunity to prove their claims. But I doubt it.

Nonetheless, the allegations are trouble for Anheuser-Busch.

Specifically, did you notice how much attention this got in the press, on the Web and Twitter? Thousands of news agencies, bloggers and others passed along the lawsuit’s unsubstantiated claims as if they were fact.

People readily assumed it was true.

The most common refrain went along the lines of, “No wonder Bud tastes so watery.” There were more than a few jokes about “canoe beer.” (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it).

Now, a beer’s body does not necessarily relate to its alcohol content. Guinness Stout drinks like a milk shake, but it’s only 4 percent alcohol; Bud Light Platinum has the body of Mountain Dew, and it’s 6 percent alcohol.

The thing is, the light body of Bud and its ilk was once promoted as an asset. Remember when they called it “drinkability“?

But “watery”? When people start describing your beer as watery, they mean that it’s “cheap and inferior.”

The sea change reminds me of how American car manufacturers were caught off guard when, almost overnight, consumers stopped thinking of those top-selling SUVs as safe family transportation and began fearing them as gas-guzzling death traps.

Bud’s declining image is not the result of class-action lawsuits, however. Credit instead goes to those full-flavored craft beers that populate the shelves. Having enjoyed hoppy, robust ales, many beer drinkers now laugh off the A-B portfolio as nothing more than fizzy yellow water.

Never mind the allegations about deceptive alcoholic content. If I were Anheuser-Busch, I’d be worried that someone’s going to sue for false advertising on the rest of Budweiser’s label. You know, that famous slogan that proclaims the “King of Beers” is brewed with the “choicest hops” and the “best barley malt.”

Really? As the headline at MSN Money read last week, “Water down Budweiser? How would you know?”

At this point, it doesn’t matter if the lawsuit’s claims are obvious B.S. Even if the beer isn’t watered down, Budweiser’s reputation is thoroughly diluted.


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