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Business/Money

March 12, 2014

Old ban on beer booze level in Indiana may be tapped out

Local brewpub owner, legislator both back repealing law on posting alcohol content

INDIANAPOLIS — Loughmiller’s Pub across from the Indiana Statehouse is a favorite hangout for legislators and lobbyists who like the tavern’s menu of gourmet burgers and craft beers. State police are regular lunch customers, as are state officials who regulate the sale of alcohol.

So, it came as a surprise to bar owner Dave Livinghouse that he may be violating the law by posting on menus and chalkboards the alcohol content — from 4 percent to 9 percent — of the 14 Indiana-made craft beers he keeps on tap.  

“Am I going to jail?” Livinghouse asked.

Probably not. An old state law prohibiting advertisements that sell beer based on its strength hasn’t been enforced in years. Now it’s likely headed for repeal, given the popularity of craft beers that vary dramatically in terms of alcohol content.

“We’re getting rid of some crazy stuff,” said state Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, author of Senate Bill 236, which rewrites a portion of the state’s criminal code covering alcohol offenses.

The bill — passed by the House with minor changes — would roll back other laws long on the books if signed by the governor. Among them: Teenagers caught with alcohol won’t automatically have their driver’s licenses suspended if the crime doesn’t involve an automobile; and sober boaters who step onto a dock with an alcoholic drink in their hands won’t be subject to arrest.

Young’s bill evolved from work done by the Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee, which has been rewriting the felony portion of the state criminal code. When craft beer brewers heard about the effort, they asked legislators to review an old section of code that reads: “It is unlawful for a person to advertise the proof or the amount or percentage of alcohol in beer …”

The law is a holdover from the post-Prohibition years when regulators were looking for ways to control the sale of alcohol.

“They had some reason to think people who wanted to drink beer would want the most potent beer they could find,” said Mark Webb, lobbyist for the Indiana Brewers Guild.

The law didn’t mean much when big national brand beers dominated the market, Webb said. The content of popular brands like Miller and Budweiser all hovered around 4 percent.

That’s not true of craft beers brewed by small, independent brewers who vary their ingredients, widely affecting both taste and alcohol content. Unlike in some states, there is no limit on the alcohol level of beer in Indiana.

The number of craft brewers in Indiana has more than doubled since 2010, when the General Assembly allowed microbreweries to sell beer on Sundays. There are 82 now, with a dozen more in the pipeline, Webb said, including at least three planned in Clark and Floyd counties.

“Our members don’t want to be on the wrong side of the law,” Webb said. “It hasn’t been enforced in years, but who knows what would happen if some prosecutor or excise officer decided to use it to go after some bar owner or brewer?”

It’s not so far-fetched an idea. Last month, the Division of Liquor Licensing Enforcement in Maine decided to enforce a 1937 law banning bars from posting the alcohol content of beer. In response, state legislators vowed to repeal the law.

A spokesman for the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission declined to comment on the state’s prohibition of such advertisements and its lack of enforcement.

Craft beer makers and sellers aren’t complaining. They see the information as a service to customers.

“There’s a huge variance in alcohol content in craft beers,” said Danny Scotten, a Loughmiller’s bartender. “We don’t anyone to be surprised by a high-alcohol beer.”

Roger Baylor, co-owner New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany, said customers have come to expect the alcohol-content information in his brew house and pizzeria. His beers range in alcohol content from 3 percent to 12 percent.

While his establishment serves beers with higher alcohol content in smaller glasses, Baylor said, “This is information critical to consumers. We don’t anyone getting drunk because they don’t know what they’re drinking.”

Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, is a booster of Indiana craft beers and a supporter of Young’s bill. He’ll be glad to see the old alcohol content provision come off the books on July 1, if the bill is signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence.

“The craft beer drinker wants to know what he or she is drinking,” said Clere. “Craft beer isn’t one-size-fits all.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden

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