Monday, March 10, 2014
Maine’s beer industry is booming, and at the heart of the craft beer movement is a cadre of brewers who are pushing the limits of what beer can be, with sub-genres, niche products and a wide array of choices.
The alcohol content of some beers is posted on a sign inside Shay’s Grill Pub in Portland.
Jenn Roberge talks with patrons Monday at Shay’s Grill Pub in Portland. State inspectors seem to be stepping up enforcement of a 1937 law that prohibits posting alcohol content on signs and menus.
Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
But lurking in state law is a 1937 provision that is confounding brewers and bar owners, who learned in recent weeks that displaying a beer’s alcohol content on signs or menus is illegal.
“(The law is) absolutely asinine,” said Greg Norton, whose store on Forest Avenue in Portland, the Bier Cellar, specializes in small-batch beer and wine. “It’s an important piece of knowledge for a customer, to plan how many beers they’re going to have that night.”
It’s unclear why the restriction was added to state law, which included rules for Maine’s post-Prohibition liquor industry with arcane terms such as “high test,” “high proof” and “pre-war strength.” Legislative documents from the time suggest it was aimed at advertisements that sold beer based solely on its strength.
Three-quarters of a century later, a state legislator is proposing to repeal the restriction and infuse what he considers to be a little common sense into the law.
The little-known rule resurfaced a few weeks ago in the Bangor area, when a state liquor inspector put the kibosh on a brewer’s listing of alcohol percentages, according to the Maine Brewers' Guild.
Soon after that, inspectors were asking other brewers and bar owners to check whether they were out of compliance, said Dave Carlson, co-owner and brewer of the Three Tides restaurant and Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. in Belfast.
He said he learned of the regulatory initiative when he called his regular state liquor inspector Thursday to talk about a license renewal. The inspector had a different issue to discuss: He asked Carlson if he was listing alcohol percentages on his menu.
“I said, ‘Yeah, of course I was,’ ” Carlson recalled. “Then he asked me if I had a black marker” to black out the alcohol contents.
Carlson said the alcohol content is important information for a customer to have.
When he began serving craft beers about 10 years ago, he had to set a two-beer limit for some brews that were potent but easy to drink – in some ways a testament to a beer’s balance, he said.
Customers would come in dehydrated after a day of boating or golf, toss back a pint of a strong beer and have to take a breather.
“These guys were getting in trouble,” Carlson said. “We had to cut them off.”
Although Carlson hasn’t been cited or fined for posting alcohol percentages, the recent notices from state inspectors have sparked a wave of questions from bar owners.
It’s not clear why the regulators have raised the issue recently, or how aggressively they may enforce the law. Jen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, did not return calls seeking comment about the policy Monday.
In response to the initiative, state Rep. Louis Luchini of Ellsworth has proposed an emergency bill to repeal the language about alcohol content and clarify the original intent of protecting consumers. He said that posting alcohol content ensures that consumers know what they’re buying.
“The craft beers can have a huge variance of alcohol content,” he said. “No one should be caught by surprise by a high-alcohol beer.”
Luchini said it could take months to change the law, as he seeks approval to submit the bill, lawmakers hold hearings on it and the Legislature moves it to up-or-down votes.
In the meantime, he hopes that regulators will find a way to work with brewers and bars so they don’t have to redact menus, only to rewrite them once the law changes.
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Eric Michaud, owner of the In’finiti brewery and restaurant in Portland, said when he put the alcohol content on a beer festival poster “it wasn’t a way to advertise, ‘Come get drunk.’ ”