State alcohol regulators are attempting to craft a new policy that would allow bars, restaurants and brew pubs 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.
The effort to find a common-sense solution comes after a handful of pubs and bar owners in Maine were reminded by liquor inspectors in recent weeks that posting the alcohol content of beer, including on signboards 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 fashion similar to that of calorie counts posted at fast-food restaurants and in a manner that does not embellish the information.
Brewers and those who sell the beer argue the alcohol content is important information for consumers who might 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 easily can 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 high-gravity malt liquors, such as 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 are seeking a way to straddle the requirements of the federal law while satisfying a common-sense desire to provide useful information to consumers.
“Is there a constructive policy option for us to address the needs of consumers today, who are legitimately interested in these craft beers?” Reid said.
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 law.
The bill, submitted by Democratic Rep. Louis Luchini, has yet to be considered by the Legislature. Once a draft is written, it could take months to pass, but Luchini said he would urge alcohol regulators to act sooner.