April 06, 2020
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It’s simple: Maine’s fix for 77-year-old law preventing bars from listing alcohol content

Carter F. McCall | BDN
Carter F. McCall | BDN
Trapper St. Jean (left) and his wife Allison travelled from Beaver Cove to taste the selection at the Tap Into Summer Bangor Beer Festival on Saturday, June 22.

Maine now has a simple solution to deal with an odd law prohibiting bars and pubs from advertising alcohol content: Let them list the alcohol strength on menus and chalkboards in the same way it’s stated on the beer’s label. That means no exclamation marks. No embellishments. No posting of alcohol content as anything other than basic information.

Under an updated enforcement policy announced Tuesday by Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations Director Gerry Reid, and effective immediately, bars and pubs can still be cited for portraying alcohol content in an embellished way (Think: “Get wasted with this 18-percent alcohol brew”), but they will no longer face possible punishment for merely listing it.

The ultimate goal is to encourage consumers to make more informed decisions about how much to drink. It’s a welcome change.

“A simple depiction or presentation of alcohol content, much as it is already presented on labels — the brand name and [alcohol by volume] — should be acceptable, and we should not warn or cite on-premise operators who choose to do that,” Reid said.

The decision came about after brewpub owners objected to warnings issued by the bureau’s enforcement team directing them to take down information about beers’ alcohol content. Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, submitted a bill request to correct the problem.

With relaxed enforcement guidelines, legislation is no longer necessary, though Reid said he will work with the Legislature if it wishes to change the statute.

The statute has its roots in an old way of life that is now completely outdated, especially considering Maine’s proliferation of microbreweries. In the 1930s, Maine lawmakers reasoned that if a bar advertised the alcoholic strength of its beer, customers might drink more of it.

Residents, after all, were getting back in the swing of drinking in public.

For more than 80 years, the state had banned, in one form or another, the manufacture and sale of liquor. As history buffs know, Maine earned the distinction of being the birthplace of the temperance movement when it became the first in the nation to ban alcohol in 1851. Though many Mainers ignored the law — think of farmers making their own hard cider — liquor was legally forbidden until the repeal of national prohibition in 1933.

In that context, perhaps one can rationalize why Maine lawmakers in 1937 sought to rein in the new fun. The name of the bill to do so pretty much covers it: An Act to Regulate and Restrain the Manufacture, Sale, Transportation, Importation, Traffic in and Use of Liquor, Malt Liquor, Wine and Spirits and to Increase the Fees for Licenses.

The bill — which prohibited the sale of alcohol “to any person visibly intoxicated, to any insane person, to a known habitual drunkard, to persons of known intemperate habits or to any minor under the age of 18 years” — didn’t even draw floor debate in the Maine Legislature, according to the legislative record.

In addition to other changes, it prohibited the sale of liquor that had a label referring “in any manner to the alcoholic strength of the malt liquor” or using “such words as ‘full strength,’ ‘extra strength,’ ‘high test,’ ‘high proof,’ ‘pre-war strength,’ or similar words or phrases.” Pubs and bars — and enforcement officers — took that to mean they couldn’t list alcohol content.

Clearly, times have changed.

With the rise of craft beers and microbreweries in Maine, it’s a matter of common sense and safety to know how much alcohol you’re actually consuming. Beers vary. The 120 Minute IPA made by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery contains 15-20 percent alcohol by volume. Pabst Blue Ribbon? It’s 4.74 percent.

As one online commenter put it, “I find myself looking for high quality beers that keep it under 6% or so, because I’d like to enjoy 2-3 without passing out in my chair.”

Thankfully state officials acknowledged the changed reality and corrected the problem. We’ll drink to that.


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