House Bill 391 raises Ohio ABV from 12 to 21%
By Kevin J. Gray
In December of 2013, Ohio House of Representatives member Dan Ramos reintroduced a bill to change the type of beer available for sale in Ohio. That bill is House Bill 391. Currently, Ohio caps sales at beers under 12 percent ABV, or alcohol by volume. Ramos’ bill would bump that limit up to 21 percent ABV – the level at which alcohol can still be sold in retail establishments without having to be sold through a state liquor store.
Why Change the Law?
“Ohio is one of a few states with [a cap on alcohol percentage in beers],” Ramos explained. “Last General Assembly, we researched and realized we are one of the only states to have this limit. West Virginia is the only contiguous state with the limit. The majority of the states don’t have one.”
How is this important to Ohio brewers?
“What we found is basically [the ABV cap] is something that prevents Ohio brewers from competing in a level playing field in the higher gravity game,” Ramos said. “This is troubling because we have quite a few breweries in Ohio, some winning awards nationally, some even winning awards internationally and competing very well.”
In other words, the ABV cap prevents brewers in Ohio from creating the same types of big, interesting beers that brewers in states without the cap can freely create and distribute. World famous – and highly coveted – beers like Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout, Founders’ Devil Dancer or Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA could not be created in Ohio because of their high alcohol content.
Furthermore, because these beers cannot be sold in Ohio, craft beer patrons are driving across state borders, heading to Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan to buy these beers. To this point, Ramos remembered one of the first messages he received from the public upon reintroducing the bill was from a man in Columbus who said, “Thank you for doing this, I’m tired of spending my money in Kentucky.” The representative noted if people from Columbus, with its central location near the middle of the state, are headed nearly two hours south to buy beers, imagine the lost revenue for Ohio beer stores near the border from their local communities alone.
The past several years have also ushered in unprecedented growth in the number of breweries opening in Ohio, including as many as 12 that have opened or are currently open in the Miami Valley this year alone. Recent changes in beer laws have allowed breweries to serve on premise without requiring a separate liquor license and have lowered the cost of licenses for small breweries, which has helped accelerate this expansion. Ramos cited this growth as another reason to change the ABV cap.
“It’s one of the few industries to not only survive, but thrive, in the huge recession we are still trying to get our way out of,” he said. “It is something that is growing. As much as the stats show it is growing, it is growing more than that. It’s not just how the breweries are growing and that the restaurants are growing, it’s how the neighborhoods are growing. This is something that is revitalizing our communities, so if this is something we can do to help, there’s no reason not to support it.
“What we’re finding,” Ramos continued, “is [craft breweries are] one of the few industries that are investing in their downtowns. … We’re seeing these places crop up in the downtowns and we’re finding them revitalizing old neighborhoods. It’s not just about the beer and the restaurants; stuff is growing up around them.”
Ramos cited the example of Great Lakes Brewing Company: “In Cleveland, Great Lakes Brewing, which is just turning 25, was initially in a neighborhood of empty warehouses and now it’s a whole entertainment district largely built around one brewery that people like.”
Ramos views breweries as potential focal points for a community.
“Sometimes you need an anchor, and I’ve seen breweries becoming them in an entertainment district,” he said.
What do members of Ohio’s craft beer community think of the idea of lifting the cap? Shane Juhl of Toxic Brew Company explained: “We are really excited about this new bill. Increasing the alcohol limit will expand the canvas upon which Toxic Brew and other Ohio breweries can explore to create unique and big beers Ohio consumers are craving.” Toxic specializes in Belgian-style beers, which tend to be on the higher end of the alcohol spectrum. Opening up the ABV cap would allow Toxic to brew beers like Belgian-style quads that often peak well above the 12 percent ABV limit.
Pat Sullivan, brewer at Lock 27 in Centerville, shared a similar sentiment. “The law will give us something new to be excited about,” Sullivan said. “It will open up creative opportunities we didn’t have before.
“Besides,” he quipped playfully, “there’s no such thing as strong beer, just weak men.”
All kidding aside, folks within the industry are genuinely excited about giving Ohio brewers the same ability to create rare, special release beers that generate a name, and brand loyalty, for breweries in other states. Aaron Spoores, state sales manager at Cavalier Distributing, one of several distributors that focuses on craft beer and is therefore likely to be impacted by the change, sees it from both business and artistic vantage points.
“I don’t feel the Ohio brewers should be limited to anything, especially when it surrounds us in other states,” Spoores said. “It inhibits the right to free enterprise. Right now we are telling an artist they can’t use a color in their palette.”
On a statewide level, the bill received support from the Ohio Craft Brewers Association earlier this year. The association’s board is made up of brewers from throughout Ohio and the association represents the breweries in this state.
The Process for Change
Changing an alcohol law in Ohio follows the same processes as all other law amendments. The bill is introduced and sent to a committee. If the committee chair agrees to hold a vote on it and the vote passes, it is recommended that it go to the floor. There, the Speaker of the House must call the bill up for a vote. If the vote passes, the bill is sent to the Senate, where it follows a similar process. Once the Senate passes the bill, it goes to the governor for signature.
This bill still has a long way to go in the process. At the time of publication, it is still awaiting a committee hearing. However, Ramos is optimistic the bill will pass this year.
“[There has been] quite a lot of initial support,” Ramos said. “We have 21 sponsors, both Democrats and Republicans from the left to the center to the right – folks who realize this is about letting Ohio businesses thrive and quality Ohio products compete both in our state and outside of our state. And to let our other Ohio business, peripheral businesses, compete as well.”
In addition, there is little opposition to the bill. The biggest obstacle Ramos has had to face is educating people about why brewers would want to create such large beers.
“It’s a very specialty product that is material and labor intensive,” Ramos said. “It’s a product for folks with a discerning taste and can be expensive. And then folks start to realize it’s not about the alcohol, it’s about everything else.”
Ramos is pushing for committee hearings in May. The best case is to move the bill through the House before the summer recess so the Senate can take it up during the back half of the year. If the bill were signed at year’s end, it would start to go into effect in the spring of 2015.
To update the law, the entire text of the law has to be agreed upon. Ohio laws often cover more than one topic, as is the case with this law. To view the full text of the bill, please visit legislature.state.oh.us/bills.cfm?ID=130_HB_391.
Support the Bill
The more vocal the citizenry, the more likely it is the bill will go to committee. There are a number of ways you can support this bill. First, call or write your state representative. To find your representative, please call 800.282.0253 Monday through Friday, between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., or visit OhioHouse.gov.
Advocates to pop the cap can also write the chairperson of the committee. The chairperson of each committee decides which bills are heard before the committee and whether or not a vote on a specific piece of legislation is taken. The Chairperson of the House Committee on Policy and Legislative Oversight is Representative Mike Dovilla.
Finally, citizens can write the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. The Speaker of the House appoints each chairperson and all bills that come to a vote on the House floor do so at the discretion of the speaker.
These beers are currently made in other states but not available in Ohio because of the alcohol cap. This list is not inclusive, but is intended to provide an example of the types of beers that could be made or purchased in Ohio were the limit raised.
Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout (14.20% ABV Barrel-Aged Stout)
Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA
(20% ABV Triple IPA)
Dogfish Head World Wide Stout
(20% ABV Stout)
Against the Grain Bo & Luke
(14% ABV Imperial Stout)
Clown Shoes Blaecorn Unidragon
(12.5% ABV Imperial Stout)
Avery Uncle Jacob’s Stout
(17.42% ABV Barrel-Aged Stout)
(17% ABV Stout)
Founders Devil Dancer
(12% ABV Triple IPA)
Contact the Chairperson of the
House Committee on
Policy and Legislative Oversight:
The Honorable Mike Dovilla
Ohio House of Representatives
77 S. High St., 13th Floor
Columbus, OH 43215
Contact the Speaker of the House:
The Honorable William G. Batchelder
Speaker of the House
Ohio House of Representatives
77 S. High St., 14th Floor
Columbus, OH 43215
Kevin J. Gray is Dayton City Paper’s Resident Beer Geek. A firm believer in all things balance, when Kevin isn’t drinking craft beer, he’s hiking or biking to keep his beer belly in optimal shape. Reach Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.