Beverage brouhahas: Tequila, Wine, Whisky, Bourbon, & Beer
Kombucha industry insiders are well aware of alternative production techniques that are often transparent to the average consumer. Many brands, with roots in home-brewed ‘booch, modify their production as they scale up to commercial levels. This is not just a matter of moving from smaller to larger fermentation vessels. To achieve consistency and control alcohol, some choose to add products such as Manna-K, filter their kombucha through small-micron screens, or pasteurize to deliver a shelf-stable product. As we’ve reported in Booch News, some of these techniques can be controversial. Others stay true to their home brew origins, scaling up or scaling out accordingly.
Kombucha is not the only beverage where production techniques, marketing, and competitive claims generate controversy.
Controversy is a part of many beverage industries. Here are a few examples.
A letter in the December 2, 2023 Weekend Financial Times (subscription required) focuses on the challenges facing authentic Mexican tequila producers. Authors Rodrigo A Medellín of the University of Mexico, and David G Suro of the Tequila Interchange Project in Philadelphia claim that big tequila brands are leaving a sour taste with Mexican agave farmers who fear their livelihoods are at risk due to technologies more aligned to the consumer economy, rather than improving the quality of the final product. They claim that some of the big “fancy” tequila brands have industrialized production:
Several of the brands … use autoclaves (steam sterilisers) to cook the agaves. This process speeds up production, but at a cost: what comes out is in no way similar to the ancestral methods which involved several days of cooking.
Similarly, using a diffuser, a faster and cheaper method to extract sugars, alters the final product; using hydrochloric acid and spraying the chopped agave pieces with hot water, as some do, triggers a chemical reaction. This is quite different from the naturally thermal-induced change, with the result that, if the ensuing sugars are not infused with artificial flavours, there would be no taste of tequila.
The negative impact is felt by the farmers supplying the agave that tequila is produced from:
While these brands and foreign corporations are enjoying big profits, we believe they are leaving a catastrophic legacy for the socioeconomic and agricultural environments in and around the regions of tequila production. Agave farmers and small, artisanal producers with generations’ worth of knowledge and experience are finding themselves in a position which has no sustainable future. Not only are traditions at risk of being lost, but the land and soil are being damaged by agrochemicals and harmful fertilisers. Farmers are being squeezed out.
While the essence of fermenting grapes has remained unchanged for centuries, the industry suffers from a rise in counterfeiting. The Wine Industry Network Insider reports that counterfeit wines and spirits cost the global industry $3.18 billion in direct sales. They quote a European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) report that estimates the illicit trade in wine and spirits results in a 7 percent reduction of legitimate products, the loss of over 7,000 jobs across the beverage alcohol industry, and costs the US government $2.61 billion in tax revenues.
Indeed, the website winefraud.com lists the many ways fake wines can be detected and provides galleries of counterfeit bottles, labels, and corks, including counterfeit evidence discovered by experts in the field. Most famously, wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan was arrested for selling fake wines from his home in Arcadia, CA, and served ten years in prison. Some of the bottles he sold at auction went for $70,000+ each.
Scotch whisky (as opposed to American whiskey and bourbon) is produced under a strict set of regulations administered by the Scotch Whisky Association. They take steps to enforce the legal requirement that ‘Scotch Whisky’ can only be produced in Scotland and keep a database that enables consumers to detect misleadingly labeled products. That said, they have generated controversies of their own. A decision to relax the rules around production and
… allow barrels previously used for other spirits, such as tequila, to be used – so long as it does not taste more like the Mexican spirit than the Scottish one…Distillers claim that the change allowing different types of barrels will allow them to broaden their product range and appeal to a younger market.
The Glasgow Herald reports that this change has “angered some purists.”
There’s a wide variety of bourbon on the market. Some brands claim to be “small batch” or “hand-crafted” and charge premium prices. In the last ten years, craft distilleries in the States have ballooned from around 100 to more than 1,400. NBC News reports that many of the “craft” claims are false:
Many recognizable and artisan American whiskey brands source their product from a massive wholesale distillery or take creative liberties in how they market their product.
A prominent wholesale supplier is MPG in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. They state that they “partner with small startups and global brands alike to innovate in the food science industry, support the growth of our award-winning branded spirits, and create some of the finest whiskeys, ryes, bourbons, gins and vodkas in the world.” Brands buy wholesale liquid to meet unexpected demand, shore up supply chain deficiencies, or sell off excess stock when a distiller makes too much in a given year. The wholesaler “maintains strict confidentiality agreements with all of its customers; the purchasing brand only has to reveal MGP as its source if it wants to — an option many decline. In addition, labeling regulations only require that the bottler list in which state the liquid was distilled — easily done in tiny print on the back of the bottle.”
Distiller Colin Spoelman, co-founder and master distiller of Kings County Distillery, Brooklyn, NY, observes:
…unless you’re fluent in the industry’s jargon, it can be very hard to figure out who’s actually distilling their own whiskey…Terms like “small batch,” “craft,” and “hand-crafted” have no set legal meaning — they’re just marketing terms. Likewise, brands are free to proclaim “made by,” “produced by” or “bottled by” on their label, even if they didn’t distill the actual spirit that’s in the bottle.
Last but not least, the most popular alcoholic beverage in both the US and UK: beer. There’s controversy around this going back to the Middle Ages when Reinheitsgebot regulations to protect purity were introduced in Bavaria in the 16th Century. This was intended to “suppress the use of plants that were allegedly used in pagan rituals, such as gruit, henbane, belladonna, or wormwood. The rule also excluded problematic methods of preserving beer, such as soot, stinging nettle and henbane.” So, you can thank the Bavarians that none of the beer at your local pub is laced with henbane, belladonna, or soot!
Given that most drinkers are are aware which beers are craft-brewed or mass-produced and pasteurized, it’s interesting to see that controversy in this area centers around marketing. There’s the recent backlash against Bud Light following their social media promotion by transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Bud Light and Miller Lite traded insults in competing ads over who is the “King” and who is the “President” of beers. These brands spend hundreds of millions on ads, promoting low-calorie, low- to -no-alcohol beers.
Meanwhile, kombucha rolls on, where the untapped market for a healthy alternative to all these beverages is truly massive.