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popping the cap on what ales you
getting antiquated laws about beer off the books
by erik lars myers (@TopFermented)

Here in North Carolina, we're facing a huge bit of legislation, and when I say huge, I mean enormous. The last time I was this interested in a bill moving through State Legislature I was in 10th grade in Model Legislature in the State of Maine. In a fit of rebelliousness, I backed a bill to replace the lobster on the Maine state license plate with a sprig of broccoli because it was equally as representative of the entire state as a lobster, which is to say, "Not a whole hell of a lot." This is different (and real), though it addresses something equally ridiculous. This bill, North Carolina House Bill 392, endeavors to change one single sentence. It looks something like this:

SECTION 1. G.S. 18B-101(9):
"(9) 'Malt beverage' means beer, lager, malt liquor, ale, porter, and any other brewed or fermented beverage containing at least one‑half of one percent (0.5%), and not more than six percent (6%), one-half of one percent (0.5%) alcohol by volume [(ABV)]."

That "not more than six percent" is very, very big. Or, if you look at it another way, very small.

As I understand it, after Prohibition was repealed, some North Carolina business owners were worried that their workers would spend their hard earned money on the newly available alcohol and binge at binging levels unknown while the stuff was illegal, possibly showing up to work drunk or, worse, not showing up at all. Their solution, then, was to limit beer to 6% ABV or less.

If you think about it, it made sense. Prior to Prohibition in 1919, alcohol distribution was a rather open two-tiered system. You had manufacturers and you had retailers, and that was it. People who made alcohol generally controlled the outlets that sold it. That means no regulation. It means that the manufacturers of alcohol had the option to price out the competition in their own distribution outlets. There were no package stores. You couldn't just run out and grab a few bottles of vodka or rum from the local market. You had to go to the source to get your fix and one of the easiest things to get at the turn of the 20th Century in America was beer.

There are estimates that there were up to 4,000 local breweries operating in America before Prohibition. That's approximately 80 breweries per state serving their own beer to local clientele in a vast range of styles. When the 21st Amendment was passed in 1933 and Prohibition was repealed, it was left in individual states' hands to decide if, when, and how alcohol was going to be legalized. It seems almost obvious that a group of anxious lawmakers, under pressure from business owners with large wallets, would pass a law limiting the alcohol content of beer. For a lot of people, it would seem like the main offender, the spirit that needed to be regulated most. Many states created a upper limit on ABV, most are somewhere around 14% or 15%, but some set it much lower.

But the landscape of beer production, distribution, and consumption has changed drastically. After Prohibition was repealed, while a lot of breweries tried to get going again, many were bogged down by debt after having been out of business for over a decade. Very few survived. By the 1960s roughly 40 breweries remained in the U.S., mostly the precursors to today's megabreweries and large regional brewers, creating mildly flavored, adjunct-filled, inexpensive beers that appealed to mass markets and taking full advantage of the new three-tiered distribution system created by the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. This is a system where manufacturers sell their products to distributors who then resell the products to retailers. Some states even took the role of the distributor, thereby being able to regulate price and taxes, removing the possibility of extortion and price gouging, but also making liquor much more accessible that it had been previously.

Beer, because of its homogenization by the megabreweries, as well as the increased availability of hard liquor, became a much smaller threat than it might have once been. Any laws limiting the ABV content of beer, while writ with good intentions, were probably unnecessary given the post-Prohibition market. Unfortunately, cleaning unnecessary laws from the books is not something that our government has ever excelled at.

Had craft brewing not picked up in the U.S. it's possible that nobody would have even noticed. But in the 1970's, America began its Craft Brewing Renaissance, often credited to Frank Maytag, who bought the Anchor Brewing Company and continued brewing some of the traditional beers of that brewery. This small defiance of flavor and form in the face of the megabreweries, accompanied by the increasing popularity of homebrewing put specialty beer back on the map in the form of microbreweries and multitudinous imports.

Now, 30 years later, here we are, with a cap of 6% ABV on beer remaining in 6 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Similar laws in Georgia and Ohio have recently been changed. To a lot of people, it might not seem like a big deal. After all, how much beer is out there that even gets up to 6% ABV? Those people may not be aware that some of the world's beer styles don't dip anywhere near that low. In fact, only 17 of Beer Advocate's Top 100 Beers fall under 6% ABV.

The primary argument for not removing this arbitrary cap is that allowing higher alcohol beer will encourage people to drink it more often and contribute to health concerns and even drunk driving. However, it should be noted that the domestic megabreweries are responsible for ~85% of the beer manufactured and consumed in the U.S., and many of their beverages don't even rise above 4% ABV. It's also a simple question of math. Like wine, specialty beer is often well-aged, expensive, and appeals to a specific demographic. If someone was really out to just get shatteringly drunk, do you think they'd buy a $10 corked bottle of Imperial Stout, or an $8 plastic bottle of Popov Vodka and a half gallon of orange juice? Or better yet, three bottles of Strawberry-Banana MD 20/20?

There are only positives to removing this cap in the remaining states in which it is imposed. It will enable local breweries to brew a wider range of styles, concentrate on making a quality product rather than making a product that must fit under a certain alcohol limit, and improve their business. It will also allow specialty beer consumers to spend their money in the state where they actually live, giving their tax money to their home states, and enjoying themsleves without having to go buy beer from another state, first. But primarily, the cap should be removed because there's no real good reason for it to be there.

In North Carolina, we're making excellent headway. A well-run organization called Pop the Cap has paid for a lobbyist and introduced the bill into the State House, as of April 18th, it's been passed through the Comittee on Commerce favorably (with a small amendment introducing a sad 15% cap on ABV, instead), and has been passed to the Comittee on Alcoholic Beverage Control.

As you might be able to tell, I advocate this bill and I encourage you to support this bill, similar bills in other states, and, of course, the specialty beer market no matter where it may be. With any luck, residents of North Carolina will soon be able to toast the passing of this bill with a nice Barleywine, Scottish Wee Heavy, or Belgian Trippel that they bought at a local store, not an out-of-state one.

I hope everyone can soon join us.

You can follow the progress of House Bill 392 at the North Carolina General Assembly's website.

More information is also available at Pop the Cap's website http://www.popthecap.org.


Writer, beer drinker, brewer. Not necessarily in the order. For more, check Top Fermented and Mystery Brewing Company.

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erik myers
4.29.05 @ 8:58a

Incidentally, on April 27th this bill was reported on favorably by the Comittee on Alcoholic Beverage Control and was passed with language adding on that any malt beverage over 6% ABV must be clearly marked on the label.

mike julianelle
4.29.05 @ 12:43p

Mmmm. Beer.

russ carr
4.29.05 @ 3:05p

I'm guessing that NC, like most other states, has some kind of alcohol tax. It boggles my mind that they would cheat themselves out of the boost in revenue that would come with the sales of premium craft and import beers. As you say, Erik: the stuff that's 6% ABV and higher is NOT the stuff you can get for $10/case at the local Gas 'n' Sip. Most microbrews are about 3x the price of Bud Light or some other megabrewery swill. It's not a cost-effective drunk.

Those of us who drink those beers know that full well. We want to taste our beer, not get hammered. (Well, not intentionally; it still happens on occasion.) There are faster, cheaper ways to get ripped. Most of the beers I like, I'd be way too full -- bloated and waddling -- before I could reach any reasonable level of inebriation. The way I see it, having premium (higher ABV) beers available actually diminishes the likelihood of people drinking to get drunk, because they'll be given a new, better reason to drink beer: it tastes good! But if you continue to deprive them of the taste, then the only reason they have to drink is to get drunk.

russ carr
4.29.05 @ 3:08p


I think I'll drink my long-cellared bottle of Unibroue Terrible tonight. It's 10.5% ABV.


erik myers
4.29.05 @ 3:16p

Yeah, we've been keeping a bunch of Unibroue stuffed stashed away.

Don't think that just because it's not legal, we don't have it. ;)

My next homebrew is scheduled to be somewhere around 8% - 9% alcohol.

sarah ficke
4.29.05 @ 3:32p

And fruity!

But to get back on topic, I think that, judging from the debris on the side of the road come Sunday morning, outlawing 40s of malt liquor would be more to the point.

erik myers
4.29.05 @ 3:40p

I'm not sure Icehouse really counts as malt liquor. :D

I understand that one of the other arguments against removing this cap is that it would encourage the sale of high alcohol Flavored Malt Beverages (known in the industry as "FMB's"). But I, personally, find the idea ludicrous.

Most of the people I know that drink a lot of Smirnoff Ice (or whatever) would be just as happy drinking banana/strawberry Boone's, or any big ol' cup of Kool-Aid fortified with a big ol' dollop of vodka.

So, what's the big deal with high ABV beer?

mike julianelle
4.29.05 @ 3:54p

I don't really like drinking liquor. I like getting drunk, and I like beer, but yeah, it's much harder for me to get drunk off beer. It takes effort. Either I drink something heavyish (by my standards, not yours) and get bogged down and sluggish before I get drunk, or I have 10 light beers before I feel a thing.

tim lockwood
5.1.05 @ 12:53a

Funny this article should come up. I don't drink beer much anymore because of certain health concerns (no abuse or anything, just kidney stones), although just lately I have been allowing myself to have one a day as long as I've consumed my quota of water.

Since I have to limit my intake of beer, I make sure it is something other than "cheap domestic swill". After all, if I only get one a day, I'll be damned if it's going to be Bud Light.

Now, I'm no connoisseur by any stretch, but I do like to push my boundaries a bit by drinking brands that are off the beaten path a little (that is, neither Bud nor Miller). Some of the more recent brands have included Killian's Irish Red, Southpaw Light, Rolling Rock, and Blackstone's Nut Brown Ale.

Coming soon, hopefully: Red Stripe Jamaican lager, and a re-visit of my sentimental favorite, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Sure, it's one of those cheap domestic swills that everyone turns their nose up at, but it was the first beer I ever drank (and got drunk on) when I was 15. Plus, it's amazingly hard to find in this area, so you have to take note of where you find it, and buy it occasionally so the outlet where you found it won't discontinue it.

tracey kelley
5.2.05 @ 10:42a

Oooof. MD 20/20.

Yeah, people who intend to get drunk will get drunk, no matter what. Just like people drive from dry counties to wet ones to get booze.

erik myers
5.2.05 @ 12:03p

Actually, I think PBR has its own new version of chic nowadays. It's that, "we're so fucking trendy because we only wear shitty clothes we found at goodwill" crowd.

I do have an issue with the idea of "light beer," but it's mostly because I don't understand:

a) How it's made.
b) Why anyone would want to drink it.

It's like caffeine-free, diet soda. My opinion is: drink water.

dan gonzalez
5.3.05 @ 12:27a

Come on, now, you're getting a little hyperbolic there. Water? Lite beer is refreshing, you get less dehydrated than on snob beer, you can sneak them easier and quicker between bouts of yardwork or other infernal domestic responsibilities, and you can't the proper buzz needed to endure mass gatherings of soccer parents on water. (NOT THAT I DRINK BEFORE MY KIDS' GAMES OR ANYTHING, I'M JUST ILLUSTRATING.)

You're getting beer-snob judgemental on us Myers. But the wine snob, he or she sneers at you and says 'why would anyone waste time drinking those crafty, supposed gourmet beers? Redneck slobs in Carolina with poor taste and compuslsion to home brew outside the German Purity Laws, that's who'. And then the Bourbon snob says 'Wine is for pedestrians. Anyone who wants real flavor would drink a beverage that's actually been distilled and aged', etc., etc.

But hey, if you want to pollute your ales with some fruity-ass, raspberry gunk or whatever, and you like that, good on ya, enjoy. Just don't turn your nose up to those of us who appreciate The High Life.

tim lockwood
5.3.05 @ 2:38a

Actually, I think PBR has its own new version of chic nowadays. It's that, "we're so fucking trendy because we only wear shitty clothes we found at goodwill" crowd.

Woo-hoo! You mean I'm finally trendy? Who'da thunk it? Here all this time I thought I was merely income-impaired. Turns out I was making a fashion statement after all.

Seriously, PBR is awesome when it's ice cold and you're drinking it from little 7-ounce cans while watching the Indy 500 from the infield when you're 15 years old. It has that je ne c'est quois that stays with you as a joyful memory long after the actively fun part of falling down in the grass and not being able to feel your own lips has passed.

erik myers
5.3.05 @ 9:08a

You're getting beer-snob judgemental on us Myers.

Abso-frickin-lutely. Elitism makes the world go 'round.

And I like Scotch, too. Don't get me started.

And I stand by my statement: Water. If you're drinking 'Lite' beer your object is not to enjoy the flavor of your beverage, it's to get drunk.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But it is what it is. You might as well drop a shot of vodka in some club soda, because it's essentially the same effect.

dan gonzalez
5.3.05 @ 10:29a

Woo-hoo! You mean I'm finally trendy?

No, you're about as cool as a lemon-sized tumor on my left testicle. But it's not about trendiness, and you're still more of a man than Myers.

You might as well drop a shot of vodka in some club soda

Hell no! That would have NONE of the frothy goodness of even the most generic beers! Hell, when I was in college, we drank cheap Malt Liquor. That was to get drunk, but it wasn't that bad either.

You're either with us, or against us Myers. And you're still crapping all over the German Purity Laws, which I notice you conspicuously refuse to address.

erik myers
5.3.05 @ 11:02a

You mean the Bavarian Purity Laws? Reinheitsgebot? The EU has ruled that it only applies to beers brewed in Germany. It's an excellent base, however, brewing is an art not a science, and there is no art without experimentation and growth. Once you learn the rules, you can break them.

dan gonzalez
5.3.05 @ 11:20a

Bavarian, German, Prussian, what's the difference? They're all Krauts. And screw the lightweight commies in the EU, they don't have jack to say, they're lucky to be there. They might very well have ended up brewing fine, pure German beer in Paris of all places.

You're close to heresy here, Myers. YOU MAY NOT PUT FRUITS OR NUTS IN BEER. With people like you screwing around, playing God with unnatural concoctions, someone is going to end up making a drastic mistake, one that we'll all have to pay for.

erik myers
5.3.05 @ 11:26a

Do I even have to respond to this?

It's just stupid.

dan gonzalez
5.3.05 @ 11:37a

You already did, but you didn't have to.

And yes, it was incredibly stupid, but I ran out of things to say so I just made some crap up. I didn't realize how cranky you were today. With that said, I'll quietly exit this discussion.

tim lockwood
5.3.05 @ 3:55p

No, you're about as cool as a lemon-sized tumor on my left testicle.

Okay, fine. So now the truth comes out. I see how much I'm loved around here. Think I'll just sit over here ... no, wait, over there, because it's not under the air conditioning vent ... and hold a private pity party for myself. Waitress, please bring me a longneck of any old domestic swill you've got lying about. Keep 'em coming.

erik myers
5.3.05 @ 4:05p

Do they sell PBR in longnecks?

dan gonzalez
5.4.05 @ 8:52a

I'm with you on this, Lockwood, I just didn't want it to go to your head. We're battling unbound beverage elitism here, we gotta stay grounded.

erik myers
5.4.05 @ 9:08a

UNBOUND! Like a bad corset.

I'm only crapping on Light Beers, because I don't understand the point. It's like eating low carb bread.

I'll admit that brews like Budweiser are good for what they are, and are actually very well crafted.

I actually quite like Coors. Not Coors Light, mind you, because it tastes like piss.. but Coors (the Gold Bullet?) has a really nice body to it.

tim lockwood
5.4.05 @ 11:33a

Do they sell PBR in longnecks?

You betcha they do. Available containers are twelve-ounce longnecks and cans, and (at least once upon a time) sixteen-ounce tallboy cans and the aforementioned seven-ounce smallboy cans. I haven't seen the latter two in quite some time, though, so I can't attest to their current availability.

I'm only crapping on Light Beers, because I don't understand the point.

As long as it's light beers in general, and not just light beers for the masses (e.g., Bud Light or Miller Lite). I think that's what Gonzalez was referring to. 'Cause if you're down on just the Bud Light or Miller Lite bunch, which is what everyone drinks when they run to the corner-gas-station-slash-bait-shop for a six of brewskis, then that's the elitism that needs to be smacked down. But if you're just down on ALL light beers ("domestic swill" brand or otherwise) because of their tendency to be watery and unfulfilling, then that's an understandable personal preference.

You wanna talk about a pointless beer, though - I think we can all agree that the N/A beers like O'Doul's or Sharps are completely pointless, no matter how good they taste.

Now for my latest beer acquisition - I found a brand called Lawson Creek (not to be confused with Dawson's Creek) at Kroger last night. They were all out of the pale ale variety, and I can't get Mrs. Tim to drink the dark ale varieties (and I do have to share), so I bought the red ale. $4.99 plus tax for a six of longneck bottles. I'll let y'all know how they work out.

erik myers
5.4.05 @ 11:39a

That's fascinating. I've only ever seen PBR in a can. I thought that was the only way it was produced.

Yeah.. the N/A's are worse than worse. Absolultey truly pointless. None of the flavor with none of the advantages. Yiiick.

jael mchenry
5.4.05 @ 11:45a

And yet, they can't sell them on Sundays in Michigan. Not sure how I learned that. Apparently the alcohol content, while negligible, is still high enough to count them as "alcohol."

My tastes are running toward darker and darker beer, but I still love a nice light-ish Magic Hat #9, especially in warm weather.

erik myers
5.4.05 @ 11:51a

Yeah.. same here.. I'm preferring mostly browns, porters and stouts, lately.. though I do enjoy a nice weisse or wit on a nice spring afternoon.

dan gonzalez
5.4.05 @ 3:25p

I like a Guinness as much as the next guy, and there's nothing better on a sunny day than a Modelo Especial, which is crisp but not a light. But I'm not gonna knock light beers. Isn't it just a marketing thing? It's not like there's rules. Sam Adams Light is good tasting, but it's not a light like Lite or Bud Light. And Lite is way better tasting than Mich Ultra and a dozen other light swills, so if you're carb counting, it's a fine alternative.

tim lockwood
5.5.05 @ 12:42a

I'm not gonna knock light beers. Isn't it just a marketing thing? It's not like there's rules.

Actually, there are standards. I couldn't find the more indepth information on such notice, but I know it's out there. Anyway, you'll just have to be satisfied with this tidbit of information stolen from this page:

The "light" designation has a different meaning in Canada than in the U.S. In Canada, the definition of "light beer" is a beer of 4% or less alcohol per volume and 2.6% or more alcohol per volume. Calories are not considered in the Canadian definition. In the U.S, however, "light" refers to beers containing less than 100 calories.

Some brewers use a special process to break a portion of the unfermentable sugars into simpler, fermentable ones, creating a beer with fewer calories and an alcohol content comparable with regular beer. Such a beer, having less than 100 calories but greater than 4% alcohol, would attain a "light" designation in the U.S. but a "regular" designation in Canada.

erik myers
5.5.05 @ 8:39a

Hey - good news.

This bill passed the House of Reps in NC yesterday 68 to 46.

Next step is Senate Comittees and Senate Vote and then it's LAW.


jael mchenry
5.5.05 @ 11:40a

Woo-hoo! Bring on the Fin du Monde!

drew wright
5.6.05 @ 7:13p

Beer elitists suck!!! Only kidding. Seriously though, is it really so hard to understand or believe why people drink bud light, or a beer like PBR. Saying that people only drink bud light to get drunk is like saying that people only eat pork rinds to get fat.

Some people really like the taste of BL, I know I do. I am not saying I dont like Harps, Guiness or Red Hook ESB either, but nothing makes me feel better than a Bud Light and a tug off a camel light.

One example of why I choose Bud Light over all other competition is that alot of beers tend to cause esophigal foaming (you know that constant need to spit after drinking a good heavy beer). Or some of the better unfiltered beers tend to cause morning bathroom problems. However, you could drink a couple bud lights and not really worry about side effects(beer googles aside). So it is just the small things that make me, about 95% of the time, choose to drink Bud Light.

erik myers
5.7.05 @ 4:44p

One example of why I choose Bud Light over all other competition is that alot of beers tend to cause esophigal foaming (you know that constant need to spit after drinking a good heavy beer).

I drink good, dark, heavy beers ALL the time, and I've *never* had this problem.

I have however encountered this from Camel Lights. ;P

drew wright
5.9.05 @ 3:19p

Good one : )

erik myers
7.18.05 @ 12:18p

This bill is on top of being passed, but it's met opposition by one Senator.

If anybody has beer-drinking friends or family in North Carolina, most especially in Distrct 5 (Goldsboro/Greenville area), please ask them to contact their Senator and urge this bill along to completion. The votes are there, we just need this one Senator to stop impeding progress.

More information available at PoptheCap.org.

erik myers
8.3.05 @ 11:58a

This bill passed second reading on the Senate floor yesterday, and should be passed into law sometime this week, if everything goes right.

[does a happy dance]

erik myers
8.16.05 @ 3:39p

Ding, ding, ding!

We win! Bring the strong beers south!


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