HOULTON, Maine — The town attracted worldwide attention last fall when a Houlton High School student’s purchase of Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade, a “botanically brewed beverage” that contains a small amount of alcohol, set off a statewide debate over whether it should be sold to minors.
The issue was considered settled in Maine when the Attorney General’s Office ruled it illegal to sell to minors, but that did not dilute the interest of TV’s “The Colbert Report.” The satirical television program on Comedy Central hosted by Stephen Colbert aired a six-minute sketch about the brouhaha on Wednesday during its “Nailed Em” segment.
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Nailed ‘Em – Fentimans Victorian Lemonade|
Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin and state Attorney General Janet Mills defended the state’s position, although they allowed themselves to take some ribbing during the segment, which included Aaron Anderson, identified as the student who bought the lemonade.
Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade was created in the United Kingdom in 1905 and is distributed in the United States. Officials with the North American branch of the company said last fall that Fentiman’s products are “botanically brewed beverages” and that products such as the lemonade are “classified as sodas or soft drinks.
“Naturally fermented, they contain less than 0.5 percent alcohol, so they may be enjoyed by all ages and offered by every retail outlet, restaurant, pub, hotel or … well, anyone,” they said in a statement.
Officials from the Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition and the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse requested the state Attorney General’s Office look into the issue after they learned that a Houlton High School student, later identified as Anderson, had taken a bottle of the lemonade to school.
The groups said the product should not be sold to people under 21. Besides containing a trace amount of alcohol, the product is sold in a container resembling a beer bottle.
Anderson was drinking the beverage at school when he saw the statement about alcohol content on the label. He took it to a teacher, who brought it to the school principal’s attention. Principal Marty Bouchard contacted the Houlton Police Department because he was not sure about the law regarding the sale of such a beverage. Police Chief Butch Asselin in turn contacted the state Attorney General’s Office.
Last October, the Attorney General’s Office ruled that the lemonade is an imitation liquor and cannot be sold to or consumed by minors under Maine law.
The law defines “imitation liquor” as “any product containing less than half of 1 percent alcohol by volume which seeks to imitate by appearance, taste and smell of liquor or which is designed to carry the impression to the purchaser that the beverage has an alcohol content.”
A minor found guilty of consuming imitation liquor faces a fine of between $200 and $400. Anyone who violates the law by selling it to a minor commits a civil violation and faces up to a $500 fine.
Officials from Fentiman’s North America were upset by the ruling, maintaining last fall that the beverage is made by taking ingredients such as ginger, water, sugar and yeast and fermenting it together. They stressed that naturally occurring fermentation can leave a similar range of alcohol in beverages such as orange juice and in other products that use natural extracts.
Officials added that the Food and Drug Administration has deemed the drink safe for all ages. A statement on the Fentiman’s North America Web site reiterates that position.
Principal Bouchard said that a producer from “The Colbert Report” contacted the school in February and came to film in March. Bouchard was pictured briefly in the segment but did not speak. He said he recognizes the popularity of the show and understands it is satirical, but said he did not think it was appropriate for him to participate. He gave producers a news release.
Anderson was featured in the first part of the segment. A voiceover explained that after Anderson saw the label on the lemonade, he “panicked, like teenagers often do when faced with trace amounts of alcohol,” and turned to a teacher, and the matter ended up in the hands of authorities.
Asselin, also featured prominently, is shown explaining the alcohol content of the product.
A voiceover explained that “to match the alcohol content of a single 12-ounce beer, all a child would have to do is drink one 200-ounce bottle of Fentiman’s Victorian Lemonade.” A scene then shows someone trying to pour 200 ounces of the lemonade into a 12-ounce glass.
Craig James, chief executive officer of Fentiman’s North America, defended the product during the segment.
“The alcohol in the lemonade comes from the brewing process, but it’s not harmful,” he said, adding there are other soda products on the market that contain trace amounts of alcohol.
James called the case “quite ridiculous.”
Mills was shown with a voiceover telling viewers she “brought the full weight of her office down on this case.”
“We took our time, it had to be a thoughtful, considerate decision,” she said in the segment, as she was shown staring at a bottle of the lemonade.
Asselin and Mills were then each shown separately, pouring the contents of lemonade bottles “back into the gutter, where it belongs,” according to the voiceover. Before the segment ended, Asselin and Mills each said, “Nailed Em!”
The segment ends with James drinking a bottle of the lemonade and belching.
Asselin said he was interviewed for “about three hours” for the segment.
“I knew the show is produced with satire in mind,” he said Thursday. “We decided to take the high road and show people that we have a sense of humor here. It was fun and I think it was funny in a good-natured way. It was a serious issue, but we dealt with it and it’s over. What we did was right, and we made the right decision.”
Bouchard said the school also did the right thing.
In addition to showcasing the humor of the situation, Asselin said, he also used it to benefit the community. He requested and received an autographed picture of Colbert and a hat and T-shirt, which he plans to give to the Houlton Rotary Club for this year’s Rotary radio and TV auction. Whoever bids on the items will win them, and the Rotary Club will use the money to benefit the community.