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The Magic Number

September, 2001

By Bobby Bush

Something bothers me about North Carolinaís alcohol laws. But before I get started, let me make one thing perfectly clear. I am NOT a proponent of underage drinking. All arguments aside, that law exists in the US for a good reason.

In our great State of North Carolina, there are laws regarding alcoholic beverages that just do not make sense. Many date back to post-Prohibitionís over-reactionary times. But even today, in fully licensed bars and restaurants, any sober person over the age of 21 can purchase a shot of 180 proof vodka (90% alcohol), a glass of wine (12%-14%) or a beer (maximum alcohol 6%). Thatís right, North Carolina limits the alcohol percentage of beer to no more than 6%. Why?

The only semi-credible answer that Iíve heard in response to this question concerns underage drinkers. Illegally drinking teenagers, so this story goes, are more likely to turn to beer for their alcohol high. Thatís why alcohol content is limited. Sorry, but I donít buy that. Itís easier to sneak a few ounces of bourbon out of the bottle in your dadís liquor cabinet than it is to pilfer a six pack from the frig where itíll be more easily discovered.

Hereís a hypothetical situation. Youíre 18 and looking to raise hell with your buddies on a Saturday night. With $5 lifted from your Motherís purse, you head to the convenience store clutching the fake ID card that just arrived via an internet acquisition. Hmmm, decisions, decisions. Do you buy that six pack of big brewery swill beer with only 4.5% alcohol or maybe a couple of bottles of fortified wine, with alcohol boosted to 16%, like Wild Irish Rose? They are both for sale in convenience stores. (Hard liquor, of course, is only sold in state-operated ABC stores). With only a minimum sum of money to spend, you certainly wouldnít consider a bottle of Napa Valley Chardonnay. And, if it were available, itís just as doubtful that youíd contemplate 12 ounce bottles of Imperial Stout, Belgian Tripel or Barleywine, all strong tasting beer styles deemed illegal, because of their elevated alcohol content, in the Tarheel State.

Like many alcoholic beverages, these distinctive beers are acquired tastes, not typically appreciate by novice beer drinkers and certainly not good for chugging contests. At over $7.50 per six pack (and as high as $21.00), these high alcohol beers are expensive tastes as well. You wonít see Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine (brewed in California), Chimay Tripel Trappist Ale (Belgium), Ommegang Belgian-style Abbey Ale (New Jersey) or Spaten Optimator (Germany) on many 16-year-oldís shopping list.

There are probably only six or eight beer styles, out of about 55, which are affected by the stateís arcane alcohol content law. By excluding certain styles of beer, most of which originated in Europe centuries ago, the beer drinking constituents of NC are the victims of state-mandated restraint of trade.

When Prohibition was revoked via the 21st Amendment on April 7, 1933 most of the authority on alcohol was handed over to the states. Today, Tennessee provides for the sale of ďstrong beerĒ in government regulated liquor stores and in bars licensed to serve wine and liquor. Virginia has no alcohol content limitations on beer. South Carolina beer law apes our own. Over half of the 50 states have no restriction on the percentage of alcohol in fermented beverages.

So, if NC lifted alcohol restrictions on beer, would budmillercoors make their products more potent? Thatís not likely. It costs more money to make bigger beers, meaning higher prices to consumers. Also, increasing beerís alcohol would serve no commercial purpose because Federal advertising regulations prohibit the use of alcohol strength as a marketing tool.

Beer, it has been said many, many times, is the preferred alcoholic drink of the common man. Beer is the countryís most popular alcoholic beverage. By limiting alcohol percentage in a drink of such commonality, while providing no restrictions on wine and hard liquor, NC beer drinkers have the distinct displeasure of being discriminated against.

Like it or not, the law is the law. It does not make sense to punish law-abiding beer drinkers who wish to sample the beers of the world, beers available across the Tennessee and Virginia state lines and in most of the modern world. (There should be a law that say laws must make sense). Make underage drinkers suffer the consequences of their actions. Let fools like us who want to pay $8.99 for a bottle of Belgian Abbey Ale deal with our own demons.

Who decided that 6% is the magic number? Mother Nature stops fermentation activity at about 14%. The State of North Carolina obviously thinks it knows better.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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