Commentary Forum 05/20

Commentary Forum 05/20

Over the limit?

By Alex Culpepper

Illustration: Jed Helmers

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA is an interesting and distinctive beer. First of all, the brewing process requires a tremendous amount of hops to make it. It’s not produced in large amounts, and it allegedly ages well, like wine. This beer is also 20 percent alcohol, or about four times as strong as a typical macro beer like Budweiser, Miller and their kin. It’s also a delicacy here in Ohio among craft beer enthusiasts because it’s not sold in the state. Ohio does not allow by law any beer to be brewed or sold at higher than 12 percent alcohol, so anyone who wants Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA has to travel to Kentucky, Illinois or Pennsylvania to get some. That may be changing, however, if some Ohio lawmakers get their way.

House Bill 391 has been brewing in the state legislature for few months. Its mission is to lift the ban on sales and production of beers containing more than 12 percent alcohol. In fact, they wish to raise the alcohol limit to 21 percent. The change may be some time in coming, because it has to pass the typical legislative gauntlet of hearings, committees and votes, and it has to wait in line behind a scheduled series of other state reforms. The bill’s sponsors, however, do have support, and they have friends in the craft beer industry that seem poised to become a zeitgeist in the country and in Ohio. But as with any movement or legislation, some people have concerns about where it will lead. 

Supporters want the ban lifted because they say the law is outdated and makes no sense economically. People who want these beers must travel to other states, and they take their money with them – money they say should go to Ohio’s beer producers, sellers and distributors. They also say putting a ceiling on alcohol content limits brewers and prevents them from producing complex and distinctive beers enthusiasts want to have. Supporters also add this is a growing industry, and the last thing any business movement needs is senseless limitations.

Opponents of raising the limit believe problems will arise when higher alcohol beers are available on store shelves and in bars. They say this encourages heavy drinking and increases all the risks associated with it – and most people are not familiar with high alcohol beers and will likely overindulge without realizing.

Right now, Ohio is one of fewer than 10 states with a cap on the amount of alcohol a beer can have, and except for West Virginia, all other states bordering Ohio have no similar limits. Supporters of altering the law believe change is inevitable. Craft beer associations and supporters have been excited to get action and interest from state lawmakers and are ready to raise a glass or two to possible victory and new brewing freedoms, but they do need to sway opponents who think high alcohol beers may be more trouble than they’re worth and will only lead to more alcohol-related trouble in general. 

Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at AlexCulpepper@DaytonCityPaper.com

Commentary Forum Question of the Week:

Should the legal ABV in Ohio be raised from 12 to 21 percent?

Commentary Left: A beer by any other name

By Ben Tomkins

That a collection of individuals working in a state building in Ohio can sit down and vote as a body to determine the definition of “beer” has a strange dualism to it in that it puts artists and tax collectors at odds in a way that doesn’t occur for any other vice.

For the brewer and the consumer, beer is – and forever will be – whatever any individual decides it is. As Debussy described music as the sound between the notes, beer likewise is the liquid between the bubbles. As long as it’s got water, barley, yeast, hops and the glorious cosmic accident of alcohol that has so enriched my ability to tolerate stupid people, I’m pretty sure there’s a case to be made.

The tax collector, unfortunately, has an entirely different charge. The historical whining and lobbying of various kinds of alcohol producers who are at the constant fiscal mercy of the fluttering breeze of cultural palates has resulted in the complex web of legislation that is the subject of our discussion.

The mistake, in my opinion, is the belief that, by taxing a beverage called beer, the government is taxing a vice called alcohol. It isn’t. It merely gives the impression of taxing alcohol by regulating products that contain it and adopting the word “alcohol” as a convenience of speech. As with most government issues, the legislators would have done very well indeed to spend a little more time pondering the depth of that linguistic anomaly before picking up a pen.

The difference is articulated very clearly in light of how states handle marijuana. While the state makes a distinction between the plant and a resin extract, legislation centers entirely around the maximum amount of THC any product can contain. Until that level is reached, the product is legal, and nobody has any interest in setting different tax rates or points of sale based on an arbitrary definition of what constitutes a flower.

Unfortunately, our governments choose to regulate alcoholic products based on whether they are made from grains, grapes or some other vegetation, and how those ingredients are processed. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the public will determine what “beer” is for themselves. Essentially, by attempting to define beer by alcohol content, we’ve only succeeded in defining beer by it’s proximity to a line on a map.

Think about that. You can actually change the type of beverage you are drinking as it’s going down your throat simply by standing next to the state border and taking a step to the south. Take thirty seconds to consider the ridiculousness of the predicament we find ourselves in. Last I checked, we were reasonably intelligent mammals.

And yet, we allow ourselves the arrogant luxury of laughing at the Belgians and the Swiss for enacting legislation preventing the English from importing their cheap, vegetable oil-emulsified chocolate because they’re European and therefore stupid. They nearly started World War III over the money they were losing because of public opinions concerning cocoa solid content. Considering the traditional Swiss stance on wars relating to socially subjective issues, I think perhaps we’ve established the width and breadth self-righteous conceptual elitism artists are capable of displaying.

If you ever want to get baked but don’t have any cash, ask someone in Yellow Springs directions to the Thomas Kinkade gallery. The speed at which their noses rocket into the stratosphere combined with the disdainful exhalation of breath in your direction will create the same effect as taking a bong hit from a Fukushima cooling tower.

Therefore, when we address the issue of what is defined as “beer” we must always remember the irony of the fact the limitations currently hindering the artistic freedom of the brewers were brought on themselves when they used the legislature to suppress their fellow craftsmen in the first place.

The point:

The current proposed law is stupid, because the application of an arbitrary alcohol content of 21 percent for the convenience of meshing with the laws already in place suggests the government has any business involving itself in what constitutes beer in the first place. It should be taxing the universal and identical component – alcohol – as a commodity in-and-of-itself, rather than by the classifications of the products which contain it.

There are brewers who have figured out how to make drinks using the traditional elements of beer-making at extremely low temperatures that contain upwards of 65 percent alcohol. Is it beer? According to some people. For those who worry this will usher in a new generation of alcoholics, rest easy. Nobody who spends the amount of money it takes to purchase it is going to pound it. They’ll probably sip it next to the fireplace wearing a Turkish robe and describe it to their friends with a fake English accent.

Honestly, I don’t really care anyway. All that matters to me is whether or not it tastes like beer according to my tongue, and, more importantly, if it tastes good. Other than that, let the public and the American Beer Fest judging panel argue to their hearts’ content over the particulars. We can figure out what beer is by ourselves.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Commentary Right: Because there’s something about an Aqua Velva man

By David H. Landon

The craft beer industry has really taken hold in Ohio, and the Dayton area is no exception. Micro-breweries like Warped Wing and Toxic Brew Company have popped up in the past two years and have a loyal and growing following. It seems on every corner there is now a local pub carrying craft beers from Dayton, the Midwest and across the country. 

During this anemic Obama economic recovery, any good news about an industry which is showing strong growth should be celebrated. Such is the case with the growth locally of the craft beer industry. There is real enthusiasm about the growth of this industry.

According to industry experts, however, there is one factor which is affecting the full potential growth of the craft beer industry. In 40 out of the 50 states here in the U.S., there is a much higher upper-limit for the percentage of alcohol by volume of beer.

For example, in four out of five states surrounding Ohio, the allowable percentage of alcohol is around 21 percent. In Ohio, no beer may be brewed or sold which has an alcoholic content of higher than 12 percent. The Ohio craft brew industry makes the argument this limit puts them at a disadvantage. Ohioans seeking the higher alcohol content in their beers must travel out of state to find the perfect brew. The industry also argues that putting the lower ceiling on the percentage of alcohol limits brewers by preventing them from developing more complex beers that require the higher alcohol content to produce. Ask any “beer cicerone” and they make a passionate argument for the higher alcohol crafts.

The Ohio Legislature has heard the clarion call of the Ohio microbrew masters and there is currently pending legislation to bring Ohio’s alcohol content limit to an equal footing with surrounding states. Ohio House Bill 391 is making its journey through the Ohio Legislature, and if passed will allow beer to be both brewed and sold within Ohio with an alcohol percentage of up to 21 percent. The bill appears to be a bi-partisan effort with members from both parties signing on as sponsors of the “good-time Charlie” legislation.

There are some who oppose the legislation out of concern there are those consumers who will be unable to handle the higher alcohol content of these enhanced brews. While I initially shared that concern, I decided to ask an expert who is well-versed at handling intoxicated members of the public.

My friend, Miami Township Officer Pat McCoy, has seen more than his share of intoxicated members of the public in his 25-plus years of patrolling the roads of Miami Township. I was interested in his perspective on whether this increase in alcohol content could create a problem for some drinkers. Officer McCoy shared the following with me:

“I’m not really too concerned that the increase in alcohol content of craft beers will lead to more beer drinkers being intoxicated and thus creating a danger on the streets. As long as the beverage is clearly marked as a high-alcohol content beverage, I believe most consumers will make the adjustment. Let’s face it. The same numbskulls that are overindulging on 6 percent Budweisers and getting behind the wheel of a car will overindulge on a high test craft beer. I recently stopped a guy in a car who had obviously been drinking. I discovered in speaking to him that while he had run low on funds for alcohol, he was undeterred in his mission of getting his buzz. This guy took a bottle of Aqua Velva, filtered it through a piece of bread into a glass and consumed the end product. He was as drunk as a monkey. He called it a ‘green lizard.’ The point is an alcohol abuser doesn’t need the excuse of high test beer to drink irresponsibly. The abuser will find a way.” 

After my conversation with Officer McCoy I decided there truly is something about an Aqua-Velva man. Officer McCoy, in his wisdom gained from years patrolling our streets, has hit the nail on the head. If an individual chooses to drink irresponsibly, he or she doesn’t need the crutch of a high-alcohol content craft beer. They will abuse anything available to reach their goal of intoxication. I don’t believe there is a safety issue which would justify not passing the pending legislation.

If there is no legitimate safety issue, then my libertarian principles would cause me to side with the supporters of the high-test brew and the pending legislation. I believe the marketplace will provide the checks and balances necessary and here’s a chance for government to stop interfering in a growing industry. Craft brewers sold an estimated 15.6 million barrels of beer in 2013, up from 13.2 million in 2012. The share for craft brewing sales in 2013 was 7.8 percent by volume and 14.3 percent by dollars of all domestic sales. That’s a huge growth in market share over the past five years. Overall, U.S. beer sales were approximately 196,241,321 barrels and imported beer sales were 27,539,358 barrels in 2013. And finally, we have a statistic in which the Obama administration can take pride. There were 2,822 total breweries in operation for some or all of 2013 – the highest total since the 1870s. I think it’s time for a cold one.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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