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.]