Supreme Court

The Class Struggle Over Beer Strength


USA Today notes a trend toward the loosening of state limits on the alcoholic content of beer. Although 20 states still dictate beer strength, it reports, "Alabama and West Virginia have passed laws increasing the legal alcohol-by-volume cap for beer from 6% to as high as 13.9% this year," and "similar efforts are underway in Iowa and Mississippi, two states with very restrictive limits on the sale of high-alcohol beer." To his credit, Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, passes up an opportunity to complain. "Our chief concern," he says, "is that [higher-alcohol brews] be properly labeled so people understand it takes fewer beers to become intoxicated."

Ironically, until a 1995 Supreme Court decision overturned the rule on First Amendment grounds, federal law prohibited brewers from listing alcohol content on beer labels, based on the fear that such information would encourage excessive drinking. The concern, dating back to the repeal of Prohibition, was that brewers would compete for the business of Joe Six-Pack by promising the most bang for his buck. Even after the ban was lifted, such "strength wars" never materialized (with the arguable exception of the malt liquor subcategory). Indeed, by far the preferred style of beer in the U.S. is a watery, pilseneresque lager that is almost as weak in alcoholic punch as it is in flavor. The impetus for raising state ceilings on alcohol content comes not from companies selling cheap intoxicants for the masses but from craft brewers offering such potent, tasty, and relatively expensive styles as double IPAs, Belgian ales, Russian imperial stouts, and barley wines. The buyers of these products are not the working-class drunks that so worried post-Prohibition legislators. In terms of education and income, they look more like wine drinkers, who always have been permitted to know the strength of their preferred beverage.

[Thanks to Doug Greene for the tip.]

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  1. The buyers of these products are not the working-class drunks that so worried post-Prohibition legislators.

    No, they’re yuppie drunks and grunge drunks.


    So, I still have a Wine in Secondary (been there for five months) gotta clear that soon. Looking to make a nice pumpkin/x-mas ale in about two weeks. Should be just right for the holidays.

    Alcahol, beer has it

  3. In Alabama, there was a large Free the Hops movement. I would encourage other states to start a similar grass roots campaign if enough voters would like to have access to a greater variety of beverages…mainly imports and micro brews.

    The article may have a point about the social class aspect of the subject.

    The fancier beers are going to have a higher alcohol content. College age drinkers are more interested in cheap, so they go for Keystone and the like.

    Personally, I think that if you can see through it, it’s not a decent beer.

  4. Yeah, I like this time of year when the microbrews start releasing holiday recipes. Sierra Nevada made a Celebration Ale last year that was awesome. That made up for their IPA, which sucked.

    If you are on the west coast I highly recommend Full Sail’s pale ale. If you like IPAs they have a very tasty one as well.

    1. Anybody near Wisconsin check out Lakefront’s Holiday Spice Lager. It’s smooth and flavorful and you’d never guess it was around 10% ABV.

    2. The Celebration Ale is out this year too and it’s just as good as last year.

      1. bought some this afternoon.

      2. Might have to try this year’s batch. Pissed Whole Foods didn’t have any more Anniversary Ale in stock. That shit was great this year.

    3. I rather liked their Torpedo IPA. IPAs often are so high in alcohol that ‘taste’ becomes a moot point after one or two.

  5. High ABV is for noobs. Session beer is the new extreme; just ask Lew Bryson of the Session Beer Project or BrewDog, producer of the 1.1% ABV Nanny State Imperial Mild.

  6. The buyers of these products are not the working-class drunks that so worried post-Prohibition legislators.

    That’s right, we steal these products.

  7. The West Coast has so many good IPAs its hard to pick out a favorite!

  8. Indeed, by far the preferred style of beer in the U.S. is a watery, pilseneresque lager that is almost as weak in alcoholic punch as it is in flavor.

    Hell, I’d still be drinking 3.2 beer if it were available.

    1. “Weak” American beer is a myth.

      Scroll down until you find this:

      …most beer, as in over 90% of it, around the world, is under 5.5% ABV (Yes, even in Belgium). Second, most American, Canadian, and European beers (by volume sold) are between 4.3 and 5.0%: that’s the range where the best-sellers fall. And most full-calorie American, Canadian, and European beers are about 5%; the lights run a bit lower.

      I still tend to agree on flavor, though. But that’s just my opinion and I’ll always say “Chacun ? son go?t”.

      Flavor’s subjective, alcohol content isn’t.

  9. sage, the Celebration Ale is already out ’round these parts. Very tasty.

    Up until that reappeared, I was enjoying Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale this fall.

  10. @sage – True, Sierra Nevada’s first IPA was unremarkable. But, have you tried their Torpedo IPA? It’s pretty damn good.

    1. Yes it is. I love me some Torpedo.

    2. Torpedo has made frequent appearances at my home in recent months.

    3. Is that the stuff that’s like 11%? I’ve heard of it but haven’t seen it where I shop…yet.

    4. I read on and lo! and behold! the Torpedo thread. Yes. Torpedo is extraordinary.

  11. Indeed, by far the preferred style of beer in the U.S. is a watery, pilseneresque lager that is almost as weak in alcoholic punch as it is in flavor.

    I would not do it the honor of calling it beer.

    I don’t drink Trappist beer every day, though. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is my favorite day-to-day brew.

    Can anyone recommend something adventurous?

    1. I would not do it the honor of calling it beer.

      Snail bait is a much more apt term.

      Can anyone recommend something adventurous?

      Oregon-brewed Widmer Hefeweizen is outstanding- not quite on par with Weihenstephaner or other imported wheat beers, but fantastic for a domestic microbrewery. Anchor Steam is another high-quality domestic microbrew.

      For my money though, nothing beats Swiss/Austrian brewed Samichlaus, one of the highest ABV beers in the world at 14%!

      1. Bullshit. Widmer should be shot dead for even thinking about calling their american wheat a hefeweizen. It has NONE of the clove/banana you should get from a hefe yeast, and what do you know, they are using a freakin chico yeast in it.

        American wheats are, IMO, worse than american rice pilsners, as far as style heresy goes.

        1. Just to add on, it isnt fantastic for a domestic brewery. There are a few decent hefes in the US, and Widmer aint one of them. I just make my own (and I am two time defending wheat beer champ at the KY state fair, so I claim a bit of expertise in this area).

          1. Since he already likes SNPA, he shouldn’t have any trouble finding the best American-made hefewizen: Sierra Nevada Kellerweis.

            1. Get your hands on some New Glarus Dancing Man Wheat and see if you still think SN Kellerweis is the best America has to offer.

              1. New Glarus is unique to Wisconsin. I have read all about their brews but haven’t been in Wisconsin lately. I guess I will have to go on a beer holiday there.

        2. Speaking of clove/banana, I tried Aventinus for the first time last week, and it knocked my socks off. A few days later, I was starving for some kind of dessert and whipped up a combination of polenta, bananas and chocolate, which tasted quite similar!

          Made me realize I need to re-evaluate my distaste for wheat beers.

          1. Aventinus has become, over the last year or so, one of my favorites. This time last year I made a “clone” of it. My attempts to clone never end up tasting like the beer in question but usually still rock. And this one most definately did.

          2. Aventinus is an excellent beer. Schneider’s Weissbier is the paragon. Beautiful stuff.

          3. A similar one you may wish to try: Paulaner Hefe-Weisse

        3. robc,

          I had read positive press on Widmer and decided to try several of their offerings. I must say that I agree that they were nothing remarkable to my taste. I have to say the same about New Belgium and its wide array of offerings.

      2. Funny you should bring up Samichlaus in the same post as Widmer brews. Samichlaus is a high octane barleywine. It is terribly sweet to the taste. An acquired taste and for special occasions for sure.

    2. Funny,

      Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is my everyday favorite.

      I mix in a lot of others through the week but that is my standby.

      This week’s feature: Storm Beer ( I brought it back from Bali, Indonesia. Tasted so far: Iron Stout (good), Tropical Ale (good). Kinda pricey at $2.70 per bottle (12 oz.). I can get Chimay Blue in Paris for $2.25 in a 330 cl bottle. Just for comparing.

  12. @Nooge, if you mean adventurous Belgian, I’ll let better minds give you ideas.

    For American stuff, their are many great, adventurous beers. Here are just a few examples:

    Green Flash Double Stout
    Stone Old Guardian Barleywine
    North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Stout
    Avery Speedway Stout
    Moylan’s Hopsicle Imperial IPA
    Rogue Imperial Pilsner
    Samuel Adams Triple Bock

    Lots more on

    1. Ommegang Abbey Ale

    2. Sam’s Triple Bock ain’t really a beer. It’s more like a science experiment gone bad. Totally undrinkable, even while intoxicated. And I say this as someone who drinks Samisclaus recreationally.

      1. Sam’s Triple Bock is not for the uninitiated.

        Once initiated into the vast world of beer in all its forms, Sam Adam’s Triple Bock becomes an amazing elixir.

  13. THERE are many… Damn these fingers! Guess I need a beer.

  14. Amazing that anyone frets over alcohol content in beer. It’s the 21st century, nanny-statists. Find something else to bitch about.

    Oh, yeah, forgot… Alabamastan doesn’t believe in a God-given right to orgasms, and some cities are banning trans-fats, and… well, guess it’s just one of many reasons to get The State involved, no?

  15. If anyone is in the Springfield, MO area, swing by the Springfield Brewing Company and grab a bottle of Hopmonster.

    Yes, it lives up to its name.


    Have a porter about to go to keg. I still havent made my traditional New Year beer, which is a Strong Dark Belgain, its probably too late, although I could get it done in time – need to do it this weekend if its gonna happen.

  17. Attorney,

    Im neither a yuppie nor grunge.

    1. I keed, I keed.

  18. Pretty weak showing by the beer snobs.

  19. Thread started after 6, we are usually drunk already.

    1. Nah, the beer GEEKS are drunk already. The beer SNOBS are too busy trolling RateBeer for users with bottles of Westvleteren 12 for trade.

  20. Tomorrow, my friend and I are going to be bottling a pair of batches (his Honey Porter and my Honey Brown Ale) to make room in our secondaries for the next set. We currently have a Canadian Ale and my Pumpkin Ale ready to rack. Hopefully we can get to that this weekend.

    Any suggestions for our next two brews?

    1. That’s fucking rich. Someone knocking American beer while pushing Fosters.

  21. Even after the ban was lifted, such “strength wars” never materialized (with the arguable exception of the malt liquor subcategory).

    Zima… because zhit happens.

  22. Fall 2009: 33 gallons of Marechal Foch pyment; 13 gallons Frontenac pyment; 18 gallons of Noiret pyment; 18 gallons Traminette wine; 7 gallons Corot Noir blush wine — about a thousand pounds of grapes and 7 or 8 gallons of honey all together.

  23. Attempted a Belgian singel about five weeks ago, sampling it for the first time tonight. Meh. Maybe it will improve with age. Or maybe I screwed up when converting the grains (did a partial mash)–it’s kind of lacking in body.

    Meanwhile, I’ve got my first batch of mead chirping away in the secondary fermenter. Looking forward to that this spring.

    Next, I’m going to try Charlie Papazian’s recipe for Goat Scrotum Ale…

    1. Mead is not beer. It may be drinkable at 6 or 9 months, but it really takes several years to develop all the nuances that make great mead great.

  24. this is a great article. I really learned a lot after reading it. thanks.

  25. Tooheys New.

    Australian for REAL beer.

  26. FYI, I’m currently lagering Mr. Kim’s Secret Microbrew (a steam beer enriched with oats and honey) and fermenting a Strong Scotch (some of which will be aged over vanilla beans for a Christmas beer). Oh, and I have a cider going too. Yeah, we’ve been busy lately.

  27. Orval trappist ale. Or any Chimay.

    1. Orval is extraordinary. But it is expensive. Even in Belgium.

      Chimay is also extraordinary. Less expensive. I buy it in France and bring it hom a lot. Most big grocers carry it for around Euro 1,60 for 33 cl bottle. Better price than the US dollar 11.00 per corked 750 ml bottle.

  28. Fucking government!

    That is why beers used to not list alcohol %?!

    Argh. I really, really, really hate the retarded Leftist fetuses that want all government, all the time, in every whole.

    I am coming for your souls when you are dead.

    1. I think it is great information to list alcohol content.

      Mind you, it was the government that was repressing this information!

      JB, you are right to be bewildered and befucked. But Leftists unfortunately aren’t fetuses (feti?). They get delivered and then deliver bullshit legislation that fucks you in the ass.

  29. Meanwhile I am sipping on some Bell’s Winter White Ale.

    Not bad for a lighter beer though I’ll hit up my stash of Old Chub tomorrow.

  30. Old Chub? The stuff in the can? Is it good?

    1. Old Chub is my favorite American-brewed beer, hands down.

  31. The picture looks like the Sierra Nevada Big Foot barleywine. And you can watch them make it!

  32. I don’t know much about Sierra Nevada Brewery but I do like most of their products. Bigfoot is great.

    I always thought that I should have gone to Chico State to be close by. It didn’t happen and my life took a different trajectory.

    But I still like Sierra Nevada.

  33. As far as IPA/APA’s go, I have to recommend Two Hearted Ale from Bell’s Brewery out of Kalamazoo. It barely edges out one of my all time favorites, Loose Cannon from Clipper City.

    1. Yep. Two Hearted is great. It used to be my co-brewing buddy’s favorite (until I gave him his first bottle of Green Flash’s West Coast IPA).

      Russian River’s Pliny the Elder is also wonderful.

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