February 5

How strong is that beer? Maine regulators hope to tell you

State regulators hope a new policy will allow the posting of alcohol content on sign boards and menus.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

State alcohol regulators are attempting to craft a new policy that would allow bars, restaurants and brewpubs in Maine to continue listing the alcohol content of beers they serve without violating state and federal rules that prohibit the advertising of high-potency brews.

click image to enlarge

Kegs, the contents of which are described by a sign, line the wall at the The Thirsty Pig in Portland. A 1937 state law prohibits the posting of alcohol content for beers.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

The effort to find a commonsense solution comes after a handful of pubs and bar owners in Maine were reminded by liquor inspectors in recent weeks that posting the alcohol contents of beers, including on sign boards and menus, remains illegal under state and federal law. While forbidden under Maine law since 1937, the posting of alcohol content is standard practice at many establishments serving craft beers, which vary widely in alcohol content.

“We’re getting advice from our attorney general so we navigate this properly,” said Gerry Reid, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. “At the end of the day, I think there’s a solution at hand.”

The conflict highlights the occasionally counterintuitive nuances of state and federal alcohol laws, especially in light of the evolving American beer market and the rise of small-batch beers that can contain the same alcohol content as wine, or in rare cases, even distilled spirits.

Reid said he could not comment on the policy before it is completed, but a state official said Tuesday that regulators are examining treating alcohol content disclosures in a similar fashion to calorie counts posted at fast-food restaurants, and in a manner that does not embellish the information.

Brewers and those who sell the beers argue the alcohol content is important information for consumers who may not realize they are drinking a relatively potent beer.

Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, said his group supports such a policy shift.

“Public safety is a top priority of the guild,” Sullivan said. “Anything that will allow the consumer to have more information about what they’re consuming is a positive for us.”

For generations, most beers in the United States carried about 5 percent alcohol, the current content of a Budweiser. But in the last 25 years, the popularity of different brewing processes has increased the potential alcohol content of a beer to new heights. Barley wines, India pale ales and Belgian-style beers can easily increase alcohol content to the range of 7 percent to 10 percent, and even beyond.

These powerful recipes blur the distinctions between wine, beer and spirits, the three categories of alcoholic products defined by federal law. Each category carries its own set of definitions and rules, including what constitutes legal advertising.

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association of Boulder, Colo., a trade group for small American breweries, said he had not heard of any other state telling bars and restaurants not to post alcohol content figures, but said there could be policies he hasn’t heard of. Maine’s law, Gatza said, goes back to the post-Prohibition era of regulation.

“The whole philosophy behind that was to keep companies from competing on strength,” he said. “There may be other states that sort of have those legacy rules.”

For malt beverages, which include beer, the federal definition of an advertisement includes virtually any printed or graphic information about the product, including menus, and specifically bars printing or disseminating alcohol content in those ads.

Under those rules, malt beverage makers may display the alcohol content only on the product’s label.

Reid, who is discussing the state’s options with Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills, said the law appears to be standing in the way of communicating useful information to consumers, and traces some of its restrictions to the introduction of malt liquors, such as Schlitz or Colt 45.

The potency of those products stirred fear in regulators, who saw their strength as encouraging underage drinking and overserving, leading to more restrictive laws that forbade sales pitches of a beer or malt beverage on the basis of its alcohol content.

Now, Reid and his regulatory agents hope to straddle the requirements of the federal law while satisfying a commonsense desire to give useful information to consumers.

Meanwhile, a state lawmaker from Ellsworth has submitted a bill to repeal the 1937 Maine law that prohibits any display of alcohol content of malt beverages, including a few antiquated terms – such as “full strength,” “high test,” and “pre-war strength” – that are also prohibited in parts of the federal slaw.

The bill, submitted by Democratic Rep. Louis Luchini, has yet to be considered.

Once a draft is written, it could take months to pass, but Luchini said he would urge alcohol regulators to act sooner.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at mbyrne@pressherald.com

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