In Pursuit of Equality for Craft Beer

Today, several news outlets are confirming that the provision to raise the ABV cap for beer sold in Ohio from 12% to 18% was removed from the budget bill it had been attached to. I heard the news last night and was, of course, pretty upset. It’s not that I was really looking forward to drinking any beers like Mikkeller Black or Dogfish Head 120 minute IPA on a regular basis, and my cellar is already stocked with several strong brews I’ve acquired through trips and trades over the years. But as a consumer in what I think is one of the greatest states for beer distribution in the entire country, I was disappointed that this simple change was ultimately removed by lawmakers without a great deal of opposition or even debate.

All these beer are still illegal in Ohio

All these beers are still illegal in Ohio

Sure, I’ve heard some rumors about AB-Inbev lobbyists throwing some weight around; after all, anyone who has driven down I- 71 knows AB’s plant and presence in Columbus is mammoth, their pockets are deep and time and time again they demonstrate that their business practices are anything but moral. Why would they want the bill squashed? Easy answer – the allure of high ABV beer can serve as a gateway to craft brands. We all know the (pardon the pun) buzz that Brewdog got off their Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Sink the Bismarck and End of History brews – the fact is the high ABV beers may not be the tastiest, but they sure appeal to the virgin craft consumers who AB-Inbev wants as imprison as customers for life. After all, as anyone with a macro-preferring father will tell you, there’s a finite window to convert a beer drinker to craft, after which their palate just becomes too set in its ways. I also heard that the lawmaker who introduced the language for the bill isn’t in office anymore and, thus, there was little support when it came time to trim the “fat” from the legislation. But this article isn’t about rumors or examining what happened in committee to kill the measure.

Update – 6/30/11 – just want to bring special attention to the fact that, while several sources say AB/Inbev may have played a part in this, there’s no way to tell for sure from a lobbyist trackability POV and this is purely speculation and the word on the street

Yes Mr. President, this is the 120 Minute IPA

Mr. President, I agree the 120 Minute IPA is like a barleywine

This article also isn’t about anti-Ohio business laws that threaten to further slow our state’s sluggish, delicate economic recovery. Forget that, even in these days of Governor John Kasich’s pledge to keep government small, our laws are limiting the ability of our local craft brewers to compete on a national stage. Ignore the ways that our laws make it difficult for nationally distributed brands to do business in Ohio because they can’t just send their complete product lines and, instead, need to remember Ohio doesn’t welcome big beers. And completely overlook the fact that the state stands to collect tax revenue off of each bottle that’s purchased here as opposed to a trip to Michigan, Pennsylvania or even across the bridge to Covington, KY (remember the casino arguments?).

So what is this article about? Simply put, I’m writing this to demand an end to state-sponsored discrimination.

That’s right. Discrimination.

‘Woah, Bobby, don’t you know the history of that word and why it’s too powerful to use here?’ they’ll say. Yes, I’ve thought it through and the current Ohio law is not only bad for business and bad for state revenue, but it shows complete prejudice against tax paying adult Ohio citizens based on the type of beverage they prefer to consume. The opportunities afforded to me as an individual who prefers beer are not equal to a wine drinker or cocktail aficionado. And that is the very definition of discrimination. Sure, we’re not talking about a level of abuse anywhere near on par with Civil Rights violations, and we as beer drinkers generally have it pretty good, but there’s clearly a social stigma that’s resulting in unfair and unequal treatment for different versions of alcoholic beverages. Why is that the case?

Wont someone think of the children?

Wont someone think of the children?

If this article was a script for an episode of the Simpsons, this is the point where Helen Lovejoy, the wife of the nasal, monotonous Reverend would come in flailing her arms and pleading ‘won’t someone think of the children’. Now, make no mistake, I’m not making fun of the serious issues of underage drinking, drinking and driving or alcoholism. These are serious problems in society and we need to be aware of the conditions leading to their manifestation and do whatever it takes to save lives and educate people to drink responsibly. But here’s why Mrs. Lovejoy is totally off base when it comes to high ABV craft beer. Sit down and listen up, Helen – I’m about to read from the gospel of grain, the atlas of ale, the handbook of hops and the good book of beer.

High ABV craft beer is a gourmet product, not some street-corner store novelty item. Stores that sell craft beer hold themselves to a higher standard and consistently card customers, and the distribution channels and the limited nature of the product will certainly do just as much to prevent 18% beers ending up in the hands of Johnny Highschooler as current measures around wine and liquor. High ABV beers are sold in single bottles or smaller packages than low ABV beers. Not to mention that the argument that someone will unknowingly drink a high-powered six-pack and end up blind drunk behind the wheel is just absurd. A six-pack of Tactical Nuclear Penguin retails for over $300; a six-pack of Sam Adams Utopias would run upwards of $1100. These are beers that are rarely even enjoyed in one sitting by one individual, let alone in multiple points throughout the evening.

Ohio, land of the free, but not high ABV

Ohio, land of the free, but not high ABV

This argument should be over based on these facts alone. But it’s not. See, the debunking of these preconceptions may seem like preaching to the choir, and I get that. I don’t expect anyone who reads my blog to be on the fence with regards to this issue – I’m sure you all want equality as much as I do. But the fact remains – we are not on equal footing and never will be until we start to change the way we’re viewed by society. We, as a craft beer community need to begin to proactively, publically and purposefully change people’s perceptions of what craft beer is – both the low ABV and the high ABV versions. That means cutting the cord completely with the BMC, chug-chug-chug, and penny pitcher mentality. We need to overcome the preconceptions that beer belongs in brown bags and pool halls. We need to educate others to respect beer, respect ourselves, and respect the fact that we can only reach our goals through perseverance and positivity. Each time you order a craft beer at a bar or restaurant, you have a chance to be a true champion of craft beer or just another gal or guy with a fancy glass in your hand. Sooner or later, if we all put out the same positive vibe, perceptions begin to melt away and we begin to approach a critical mass. Once craft beer is viewed as a legitimate, gourmet product and not, as Jimmy Fallon once put it, a way to “make alcoholism seem like a cool hobby”, we should be able to effortlessly lift all restrictions because we will truly be on an equal playing field with wine and liquor.

So what specifically can you do? I suggest you take a hard look at what your craft beer actions and footprint say to the world. Think about your attitude and what messages it sends to others. Try to take a step each day towards changing one mind about what craft beer means. It may be too late to assemble, organize petitions and call state representatives this time around, but the issue will come up again. If we start to plan today by taking small measures, next time we will have that much better of a chance to emerge victorious. After all, discrimination is wrong but the battle lies not in the demand for equality but in the pursuit.

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Join the Discussion

  • Renee

    Simply brilliant, Bobby. Then again, I’d expect nothing less from you. 

    While reading this post, I was reminded of your recent comments about how your appearance became an unexpected asset in your professional life.  You mentioned that people had certain expectations when they first met you.  However, once you proved yourself to be a hard worker and valuable employee, your beard set you apart from the crowd and made you memorable.  (I hope I summarized that correctly!)  

    My thought is that these situations aren’t necessarily different.  People make assumptions about the reason why we would demand beer equality in the form of higher ABV caps.  However, we have a chance to show them that we’re a community of reasonable, responsible drinkers.  And, we’re such a diverse group that, hopefully, we can make an impression.

  • Bobby

    Thanks for the feedback, Renee.  I agree with you – this is more of a battle against image and preconception than anything.  We will win this battle someday.  Until then, I hope everyone starts taking steps forward – I know our craft beer community people is already full of craft beer evangelists and I expect that momentum to spread and build over the next few months and years.  Cheers!!

  • The Barley Whine

    I had trouble bringing myself to care much about this until you put the issue into such crystalline, cogent arguments. And the Simpsons metaphor also helped. Some of your best writing. Keep it up.

  • Matt

    You certainly were thinking pragmatically here…politically and legislatively speaking. Bravo sir. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog and will: 1) Do my part in preperation for the next ballot we see it on and 2) Pass this blog on to anyone I think may benefit from your well articulated essay.

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