Would you like some beer with your water?

Last month news broke that Anheuser-Busch InBev is facing two big law suits. The more sensational suit is a class-action that alleges that they have been watering down their beers. Specifically, they are accused of adding water directly before bottling, reducing the alcohol percentage of several of their brands below the level stated on the labels. The reduction is claimed to be as high as 8%. (That is, 8% of 5%. So less than half of a percent. Numbers sure are nifty that way.)

As I mentioned in a recent post, class-actions are basically scams. The only people who get very positive results are the attorneys; successful plaintiffs generally get paid in coupons. My other beef with them is the math used to calculate damages. The plaintiffs in this case want the court to award $5 million in damages for AB InBev selling them 4.7% beer with a label that says 5%. How in the world is that worth $5 million in damages? Don’t get me wrong; if they are actually selling a product that is not consistent with the label, that is both wrong and illegal and they should be punished. And if InBev made an additional $5 million by filling more cans with less beer, they have no right to that money. But I just can’t imagine a scenario where I could stand in front of a judge and say under oath, “The difference between the label and the product was enough to cause me material damages on the order of 6-figures. But the product was not bad enough for me to just buy a different beer. Because, seriously, I  bought a six-pack of Budweiser every week for the past four years, even after I had found that I was dissatisfied with the product.”

What makes this case even more suspect is the fact that adding water immediately before bottling is totally standard practice and is in no way improper. They brew the beer slightly strong to begin with and then add water to get the alcohol level to the exact level they want. NPR decided to test some of the beers for themselves and found every one tested to be “well within federal limits” of their labeled alcohol content.

The second law suit is an anti-trust suit. The feds are trying to prevent AB InBev from purchasing Modelo, brewers of Corona. The logic of the suit is that the acquisition would create a giant company capable of obstructing the free market and causing price increases. As much as I love the idea of protecting the free market, the claims just don’t seem to make much sense to me. AB InBev is already a giant company. But they have been losing ground to smaller brewers for years now. Adding a few more macro-brews to their portfolio isn’t going to grant them a stranglehold on the market. If they attempted to raise prices across their newly acquired lines, that would only make it easier for other breweries to gain market-share just by keeping their prices the same. If anything, I’d expect prices to drop as the company consolidates production and streamlines distribution. It seems likely to me that AB InBev just didn’t make the right campaign contributions to make this deal go through smoothly.

Beer of the Week: Cafri – Until these law suits are sorted out (or until I forget,) I am boycotting AB InBev and Modelo beers. So this week’s beer is an unaffiliated, Corona-like brew from Korea. And, for what it is, it isn’t bad. Cafri is clear and smooth. It certainly does not have much flavor at all, but what is there is not at all offensive. It is more than adequate as a Corona substitute and was at one point my go-to cheap Korean beer.

Reading of the week: The Code of Hammurabi, Selections – The oldest extant written code of law seems primitive in some respects; there are regulations about how and when family members can be sold into slavery and under what conditions rape victims should be executed. But there are also some “progressive” laws; there are minimum wage requirements and laws that relieve debtors in the event that their crops are destroyed by acts of god. Also, there is a law against overcharging for beer. The penalty (rightfully) is death by drowning. Not in beer, in the river.

Question of the week: Under The Code of Hammurabi, a judge whose decision is later shown to have been made in error is permanently removed from the bench and forced to pay back the fine he imposed 12-fold. Would the American judicial system be better if judges whose decisions were overturned on appeal were forced to retire?


The Living Word

Books are alive! Not literally. In fact, their figurative life is more like the life in the germ of a seed. Not active in itself, but full of potential. As John Milton wrote in Areopagitica, books “are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”

And the potential of books is unlimited. The books themselves are finite, consisting of only so many words on so many pages, but in those words and pages they “contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” Books may express simple, straightforward ideas or complex esoteric concepts; but either way, their impacts on the world go beyond themselves in the form of inspiration. Sometimes, they inspire ideas or actions that are at odds with the powers that be.

Areopagitica is not just an essay on the value of books; it is a vibrant defense of freedom of press. Milton was fighting against a law that would require state approval of all printed material. The form of his defense is that books are potent and active in themselves. Of course, this is exactly the reason that the state would censor books in the first place. It is a strange argument that the state should not engage in censorship because books are productive and active since the state necessarily fears productive and active thought. Any novel thought, particularly in the form of political or social organizing, is a threat to the establishment.

But Milton appeals to the members of Parliament as individuals, as men who “esteem it to imitate the old and elegant humanity of Greece.” He does this because although the state itself must always fear that new ideas will upset their established power, true humanitarians acknowledge that the intellectual progress of the human race should not be impeded for the sake of “the party line.” An attempt to censor a book is an attempt to kill truth itself; and “revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.”

Beer of the week: 5,0 Original Lager – An online program generated this translation of the label to this supermarket brew: “Just a simple black and white box! Gold imprinting, with no effort! Only a simple design! No expensive TV advertising! This savings goes to you! We saved as much as for everything! Except on the quality of the beer! 5.0 is an original lager, brewed to the German purity law! Ingredients: water, barley malt, hops and extract! Put your money better one! You pay less now for a good Pils without frills!”

I am not sure that I’d call this a “good Pils”, but it certainly is without frills. It is a simple mass produced beer. Not much on the nose, very basic flavor. Almost a savory aftertaste which surprised me (even though it is actually very slight.) If the price is right, this could easily be had in large quantities.

Reading of the week: Areopagitica by John Milton, Excerpt – One of the most eloquent defenses of free-speech I’ve ever read. I enjoyed this more than I enjoyed his poetry.

Question of the week: Can freedom of speech ever mean anything less than total freedom of speech? Does even the slightest restriction amount to a total lack of freedom?


Pilgrim’s Pride

There are some who would call a visit to the Hall Of Fame or trip to Munich for Oktoberfest a “pilgrimage.” For the most part, those statements would be made tongue-in-cheek. But in what way does such a journey differ from an “actual” pilgrimage?

Even traditional religious pilgrimages had an element of vacation about them. Before modern transportation, it would not have been uncommon for people to live their entire life in a small village. The journey for a peasant from a remote farmstead to a city with a cathedral would have to be more than a religious or spiritual experience. He would see products, buildings and even whole classes of people that were totally novel to him. For the more well-to-do pilgrim, the vacation aspect can become even more prominent. Mecca (which has become an absolute byword for a pilgrimage destination) has swanky hotels, fancy restaurants and high-end shopping to accommodate the pilgrim of means. For Catholics, the religious experience is still important, but a trip to the Sistine Chapel is about the art first and foremost.

What really separates the pilgrimage from vacation is the aspect of sacrifice. Sure it takes time, effort and money to go on any trip, but a trip to Graceland can’t really be “offered up” as penance. Especially for the poor or ill, the hardship of the journey is actually treated as a bargaining chip with God or the Saints. “They didn’t answer your prayers when you were praying at home? Make a pilgrimage and let them know you are serious!” There is no reason to expect that Mary’s power to intercede for the ill is limited to a small town in France, but by actually making the effort to travel to Lourdes, the faithful ill make a claim that their effort deserves Mary’s attention. (Attention she apparently isn’t in the habit of giving to homebodies.)

So my trip to England may not have technically been a pilgrimage, no matter how good the beer was.

Beer of the Week: Bishops Finger – According to the label, “Bishops Finger is named after an ancient Kentish signpost found on the pilgrims’ way pointing to Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas à Becket.” What a perfect beer for this post!

Also, there is some interesting background information about the beer regarding economics and politics. Bishops Finger was first brewed to celebrate the end of malt rationing after WWII. For well over a decade after the war, the government imposed rations on food items. Barley malt being a food item, the beer industry was greatly discouraged. (Although rationing was not as severe in the United States, some well known economic thinkers have speculated that the “great depression” was ended not by war-time government spending, but by war-time austerity. Not only did people spend less on discretionary items, they saved more in the form of war bonds. The result being that when the war ended, there was a good deal of private capital accumulated and ready to be invested. But that is another post.)

And now, Bishops Finger has been granted a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Have you ever heard pedants prattle on about Jack Daniels not being bourbon because it is not distilled in Kentucky? Or I about sparkling wines not all being from Champagne, France? Well now they can assert that Bishops Finger is the only real “Kentish strong ale.”

History, economics and protectionism not withstanding, this is a great beer. It is a beautiful copper color with a thick head that laces wonderfully. The smell has hints of caramel and sweet malt. It is full bodied and smooth and simply delicious.

Reading for the Week: The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer – This Prologue paints an amazing picture of society, with all of its strata, in Chaucer’s time. However, this excerpt is not about the pilgrims themselves, but the spring-time conditions that inspire travel.

Question for the week: Where would you go on a beer pilgrimage? Tell us in the comments.


Cannibal Chic

The Question of the Week from my last post was whether the advice from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If— was equally appropriate for men and women. He tells his son how to “be a man”, but would the same qualities (level-headedness,  a stoic attitude toward adversity, and always giving one’s best effort) make his daughter a woman? I suspect that modern feminists would agree that all humans, regardless of sex, are made great or virtuous by the same virtues. Although this seems like a departure from traditional evaluation of the sexes, this view is in line with a much older philosophical tradition.

In his essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil Montaigne writes:

“I say that males and females are cast in the same mold, and that, education and usage excepted, the difference is not great. Plato indifferently invites both the one and the other to the society of all studies, exercises, and vocations, both military and civil, in his commonwealth; and the philosopher Antisthenes rejected all distinction between their virtue and ours. It is much more easy to accuse one sex than to excuse the other; ’tis according to the saying ‘The Pot and the Kettle.'”

So we see that from antiquity, certain philosophers recognized that men and women have the same virtues, capacities and inherent rights. (Even if political rights are not meted out equally.)

Montaigne, however, can be a tricky author to nail down. This statement of equality seems somewhat at odds with his glorification of the natives of Brazil, whose “ethics are comprised in these two articles, resolution in war, and affection to their wives.” These virtues are specifically masculine since in their culture war and wife taking are for men alone. The only real mention of women’s role in Of Cannibals is the preparation of the beverages. Personally, I think that sounds like the most noble of all occupations.

Beer of the Week: Xingu Black Beer – True story: the first words out of my mouth after I tasted this Brazilian dark lager were “Come on Brazil, get your act together!” Judging by the copious carbonation and the sticky, sweet taste, I suspect that there was a translation problem and what was meant to be a cola came out as a beer or vise versa. I am not sure which is worse, but this beer is that one. As a man of science, I always try a beer twice before writing up an official review. Upon trying it a second time, I did detect some of the familiar flavors one gets from a dark roasted malt, but I still didn’t finish my glass. I simply do not like this beer. According to their website, it is based in part on a drink brewed by the natives of Brazil. If the native women had served this to the men of the tribe, I suspect that they would have ended up being served as the next dish at the cannibal feast.

Reading for the Week: Of Cannibals by Montaigne – In this excerpt, Montaigne describes the daily lives and living situation of the Brazilian natives. He also (with the natives and the Scythians) comes down pretty hard on false prophets. He writes: “such as only meddle with things subject to the conduct of human capacity, are excusable in doing the best they can: but those other fellows that come to delude us with assurances of an extraordinary faculty, beyond our understanding, ought they not to be punished?”

Question for the week: “Love for your husband” is a straight-forward female analog for “love your wife.” Is there such an analog for “be resolute in war” if women are not warriors?