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June 23, 2014

HAYDEN: Homegrown spirits return to State Fair

INDIANAPOLIS — Mark Webb is counting on patrons of the Indiana State Fair to be better behaved this summer than they were in 1946, when a celebratory post-war crowd almost trashed the place.

The bad behavior of beer drinkers 68 years ago is what led the General Assembly to ban alcohol sales during the fair, with legislation signed into law by Gov. Ralph Gates in 1947.

Beer vendors apparently underestimated demand as the fair returned after a hiatus for World War II. They ran out of cups and had to sell beer by the bottle. The fairgrounds were soon covered with empty and broken bottles, imperiling fair-goers and livestock.

It must have been a bad scene. The 1947 legislation banning alcohol was numbered Senate Bill 1 — an indicator that it was top priority for legislators.

The General Assembly rolled back that law earlier this year, after craft brewers and artisan wine-makers convinced lawmakers that the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

“It was like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” said Webb, lobbyist for the Brewers Guild of Indiana.

The repeal of the 1947 law means Indiana is no longer just one of two states — North Carolina being the other — that ban alcohol at the state fair.

How did beer- and wine-makers convince Indiana legislators — who’ve barely budged on bans of retail sales of alcohol on Sundays and cold beer in grocery stores — to repeal the old state fair blue law?

By convincing them that Indiana’s vineyards and microbreweries could claim the same bragging rights as other agricultural interests without opening the door to alcohol abuse.

Legislators and fair officials were careful to craft language that limits alcohol sales and boosts the Indiana products as an agri-tourism attraction.

“Indiana is creating a lot of high-quality wine, beer and spirits, and using a lot of Indiana agricultural products in the process,” said Rep. Ed Clere, a New Albany Republican who’s nudged fellow lawmakers to recognize the value of Indiana’s artisan alcohol-makers.

There won’t be cheap-booze booths scattered throughout the Midway during the fair’s run from Aug. 1 to 17. Instead, Indiana breweries and wineries have been invited to feature their products at an inaugural Beer and Wine Exhibition in the fairground’s Grand Hall.

The exhibition will only be open to visitors who are at least 21 and will feature tasting tables where beer and wine will be sold the glass, with consumption limited to inside the Hall.

Beer- and wine-makers will staff the exhibit to educate patrons about their homegrown products. The exhibit will include educational displays on spirit making, pulled from the archives of the Indiana State Museum.

State Fair director Cindy Hoye, who supported lifting the alcohol ban, calls it “an opportunity for the Indiana State Fair to showcase two very important Indiana agricultural industries.”

She’s serious about that. The fairgrounds don’t close until 11 p.m. weekdays and after midnight on weekends, but the Wine and Beer Exhibit will shut down at 9 p.m.. every night.

Dana Huber, whose family-owned Huber’s Orchard, Winery and Vineyards in Starlight has been making wine since 1843, thinks the return of alcohol to the fair will go swimmingly well.

“I equate it to the colleges that come out for ‘career day’ at the fair,” said Huber, a member of the State Fair Commission, which endorsed the repeal of the alcohol ban. “It’s a chance for us to represent the best of Indiana wine and beer.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at maureen.hayden@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

 

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