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Heather Steeves

Heather Steeves tries to do things that are fun -- and only things that are fun. So far that's included stilt walking, roller derby and cross-country road trips in her Saturn.

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Posted: January 29, 2014

Beer controversy: Bars can’t list how strong their brews are, per an old Maine law

Written by: Heather Steeves

Photo by Mike Boa

Three Tides is a laidback brewpub in Belfast where you can munch on free hard boiled eggs (Belfast used to be a big chicken town), sit outside on the deck if it’s nice out, with a view of the ocean, and play bocce near the fire pit and the massive pile of discarded oyster shells. It’s a perfect Maine spot. Inside the bar the first thing you’ll see is a chalkboard of what’s on tap — all brewed in the barn next door by Marshall Wharf Brewing.

Take the T2-R9 Barleywine, a Marshall Wharf Brewing ale with 11% ABV.

And up until yesterday, that’s what the chalk board would have said. The 11%, of course, would indicate the beer’s alcohol-by-volume — as a reference, Budweiser is about 5%.

But now the chalkboard won’t tell you that drinking one T2-R9 is about equal to two of their Oyster Stouts (also a great choice), which are closer to 5% ABV.

Maine Law prohibits bars from posting the ABVs. (But wait, bars all over the state post the ABVs on tap menus and chalkboards all time. Yeah. But technically, they’re not supposed to.)  It’s an archaic law that’s getting a lot of attention on Three Tide’s Facebook page. When David Carlson, an owner of Three Tides, got a call from his liquor inspector saying it’s not OK to list the beers’ alcohol-by-volume numbers, he posted to the company’s page so that customers would know.

That post has 110 comments and has been shared 32 times (as of about 1:30 pm today).

Carlson is quick to point out that his inspector is an awesome guy who is very professional and, really, is just doing his job. It’s not his fault the law is what it is.

But say I didn’t tell you T2-R9 was a barley wine or 11% ABV. What if it just said “T2-R9” and by Maine law the menu only described its taste, with no mention of its potency? Maybe you’d have two and drive home — not a good idea. But knowing there was a stout on the menu with a lower alcohol content might change what you order.

“This law was put in place before there were a lot of breweries making a lot of beers. Even 10 years ago a lot of places didn’t make a beer more than about 7%,” Carlson explained. “The culture has shifted. It’s a much more complicated playing field.”

So, if two big, national brewers in the 1950s (and yeah, this law dates back to 1937.) both charged the same price, but one was 5% and one was 5.2% ABV the Maine Legislature didn’t want one to say it was stronger, Carlson guessed. Makes sense.

But it doesn’t make sense today in our craft beer-friendly state.

“No one is trying to promote their beer based on how strong it is — it’s not how any of us operate,” Carlson said. “We list it as a form of responsibility to the consumer. It has nothing to do with how to promote heavy drinking; it’s about keeping people safe and responsible.”

Carlson said the Maine Brewers Guild (and its lobbyist) will likely ask lawmakers to change the law this year.

I talked to Larry Sanborn, division manager of the Maine Division of Liquor Licensing Enforcement, but he just cited the law and the dates. He wasn’t willing to speculate why this law exists. But he directed me to the Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs, which writes all Maine’s liquor laws. So I called them.

Louie J. Luchini (D-Ellsworth) co-chairs the committee. When I told him that all of this happened the first words out of his mouth were, “I’d put in legislation to correct that. It seems like good information to know, just like calorie content.”

I like this guy.

He went on: “You see a lot of outdated laws regarding liquor in this committee. But that’s something I would be happy to fix.”

So there you have it. If you’re missing the ABVs on the menu at Novare Res or on the board at Three Tides, now you know why. And Luchini says he’s on it.

… Update …

So, I posted this story an hour and a half ago. I just got a call from Luchini that he — in the last 90 minutes — put in a new bill to change this. Because of legislative deadlines, he had to draft it as emergency legislation. “I think this qualifies,” he told me.

He’s going to need a few signatures from the legislative council and then he’ll bring it to his committee, but he hopes to get it a public hearing in the next month.

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