Pennsylvania has one of the most backwards system when it comes to selling alcohol to its residents. We have restrictions atop taxes atop restrictions that mean that if you want to down a bottle of delicious beer you have to demonstrate a strong will to get the beer that is perfectly legal to create, buy, possess and imbibe.
Yet for all the legal hurdles that come between you and your beer one of the laws that residents of a lot of other states deal with that Pennsylvanians don’t is laws limiting the ABV of beers produced and sold in their state.
The great state of Ohio, for instance, has a 12% ABV cap meaning that any beer brewed that is over 12% cannot be sold within the state. This means that Ohio residents can’t enjoy the Worldwide Stout we recently reviewed without leaving the state first.
This begs the question of why these laws are on the books. The simple answer is that they are generally leftovers of the bygone age of prohibition. Before alcohol was criminalized in the United States by the 18th amendment to the US constitution many states attempted to curb the consumption of alcohol by establishing state level ABV caps. Many of these were caps on the level of alcohol to prevent strong beers from finding their way to their citizens to forcibly encourage moderate drinking. In an age rife with overindulgence at the local tavern and apparently plenty of drunken spousal abuse perhaps restricting the quantity of alcohol in the working man’s beverage of choice seemed logical.
Yet prohibition has come and gone and today’s drinkers are different from those that encouraged the temperance movement. While alcoholism and driving under the influence are societal issues the overall consumption of alcohol and its misuse is well below those before prohibition.
So what’s the harm with states like Ohio limiting beers to 12% ABV or less?
There are two main issues here. First there is the obvious logical objection. In a state where one can easily purchase wine and hard liquor, both with ABVs well above the maximum ABV limit of beer does it make sense to artificially cap beer at all? The strongest beers in the world are only recently reaching the level of typical liquors. If an Ohio resident wants to imbibe something with a powerful kick he is legally allowed to chug a handle of vodka or a bottle of wine without government interference. Restricting strong beers just seems illogical when other high alcohol options are available.
But there are other objections that effect brewers economically. Until a decade ago many states had ABV caps as low as 6%. This seriously restricted them through the early days of the craft beer explosion. They were unable to even create certain styles of beer. Stronger beers like Double IPAs and Russian Imperials Stouts, which are immensely popular now, would be unavailable to brewers in states with these ABV caps. This speaks nothing to traditional stronger beers like barleywines. Thus consumers looking to enjoy stronger beers will seek beers from out of state where those styles were not illegal. And perhaps spend more money on the novelty or the preference for big beers. Thus hinders local brewers who legally cannot compete with brewers out of state.
Another concern is that those who brew near the upper limit of these laws run into the real danger of wasting a batch of beer. Those Ohio brewers interested in making barleywines or other beer styles which routinely can be 12% or more. If an Ohio brewery were to make a barleywine that was 12.1% ABV then they would be unable to do anything with that beer. Since it is over the legal limit the brewery would be forced to dispose of the beer. As Aaron Miller, brewer at Burley Oaks, explain in a recent interview a single batch of beer is extremely expensive in terms of time, materials, and opportunity costs. Thus having to destroy even a single batch of beer for a smaller brewery can be devastating, possibly fatal. This of course motivates brewers not to flirt with the upper edge of this ABV restriction.
The counterargument for loosening restrictions is just a plead for doing nothing. Which is eloquently articulated by Alabama State Representative Alvin Holmes. In 2008 he argued, “What’s the matter with the beer we got? The beer we got drink pretty good, don’t it?”
Yes, sir Mr Holmes it does. It does drink pretty good. But there is a world of stronger beers that drink pretty good as well.
Thankfully these limits seem to be reaching the end of their lives. Grassroots organizations seem to be resonating with legislators. Groups like Raise Your Pints in Mississippi, Pop the Cap in North Carolina, and Free the Hops in Alabama have been successful in raising ABV caps higher, if not abolishing them outright.
Without this sort of cultural demand forcing legal revision Vermont would never have upped its aBV cap to 16% thus allowing Alchemist brewery to create the highly prized Heady Topper. Which all craft beer zealots can agree would have been a horrific crime against beer.
If you live in a state with an ABV cap consider supporting grass root organizations who want to remove this artifical restrictions. And if you live in a state without such constraints go enjoy a brutally strong beer in solidarity with those who can.
It does drink good doesn’t it?