Saturday, August 16, 2014

A New Low

A New Low, as opposed to an old one. Because proof came today, if it was needed, that we really are entering a new dark age of paranoia, fear and propaganda with respect to alcohol. The kinds of old laws that we like to mock (banning female bar staff etc) really aren't any worse than some of the new ones.

The news I'm referring to is that important, useful consumer information is to be outlawed. I just learned this via Buzz and Hum. It will be illegal in New Zealand to let customers know whether your beer contains gluten. Because that apparently constitutes a health claim and YOU CAN'T MAKE HEALTH CLAIMS ABOUT ALCOHOL.

This is absurd on many levels. First of all, I don't consider labelling beer "gluten-free" to be a claim of a health benefit. It's consumer information (like "contains peanuts") informing consumers of the presence or not of a particular compound in the beer. The distinction between consumer information ("gluten-free") and health claim ("cures cancer") is blatantly, childishly obvious. In fact the author of the applicable regulation must agree that "gluten free" doesn't constitute a health claim because they actually went to the trouble of insisting that it is:
“Gluten free” is captured under the definition of nutrition content claim.
Equally, if not more disturbing, is the larger regulation. It goes out of its way to state that no-one can ever make a health claim about alcohol. Regardless of whether it's true. In fact here's an obvious one - "sterilises wounds". Presumably it's now illegal to print that on the side of a bottle of isopropyl alcohol?

But the fact that someone has seen fit to regulate what anyone can say about alcohol is kind of shocking. There is, I understand, a ton of evidence that people who use alcohol in moderation are healthier and live longer than those who don't touch a drop. When someone makes a regulation that says that this must not be spoken of, it's absolutely chilling. And it's symbolic of how far we've rolled back to the previous era of fear and regulation around alcohol.

Another minor detail... (I'm sure there will be more.) The regulation says "Standard 1.2.7 defines a nutrition content claim as a claim that is made about the presence or absence of a biologically active substance". Errr to the geniuses at Food Safety... what's yeast if it isn't a biologically active substance? So naming yeast as an ingredient must breach this regulation. In fact even stating that something contains alcohol more or less gives away that the product is a result of fermentation thanks to a biologically active ingredient. See where trying to suppress facts leads?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Single Bottle Sales Bans

Bans on the Sale of Single Bottles of Alcohol. To myself and like minded people this concept is close to the top of the pile when it comes to misguided responses to our assumed alcohol abuse problems. It's on the table at a lot of New Zealand city councils, including Auckland.

It begs the question, has this been tried before? Turns out it has.

1. Washington D.C. has been dabbling with a similar ban in various parts of their city for years. The benefits are far from clear. Rates of certain petty offences fell, then rose. Manufacturers quickly put drinks into two and three packs, sparking moves to ban those as well and suggesting that the law-makers in question somehow hadn't seen that coming, further questioning their grasp on reality. But as this story shows, the last laugh probably belongs to the neighbouring districts who are exempt from this particular rule.

2. Sacramento created such a ban way back in 1996 for big chunks of their city. According to this story, one of the main effects has been that the "craft beer revolution" of the last twenty years has passed these areas by. Again, there's mention of the boon created for businesses outside the affected zone.

Of course both stories are written from a fairly sceptical point of view and there may even be an alternate universe out there in which bans on single bottle sales aren't a completely daft idea. But there are some important lessons that should be unarguable:
1. The bans will invite manufacturers and retailers to adapt and get around the intent of the rules.
2. They will inevitably create economic opportunities for anyone with a way of circumventing them.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Vermont and the Right to Sample

Vermont is often cited in lists of US states with high ratios of breweries to people and the high quality of those breweries. But it looks like they have only just repealed a particularly silly law that might have held back the development of their beer culture.

Apparently it was illegal to offer tasting trays of beer in a restaurant. It was full glasses or nothing. No sign of an explanation for such an absurd and arbitrary rule, but the recent news stories covering its repeal make it clear that it was enforced, and workers faced fines for breaching it. More here, with the added bonus of watching a politician express remorse for drinking Bud.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Jester King vs the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission

At the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver this year, time was taken during proceedings on the first morning to present the Brewers Association's "Defence of the Industry Award". Normally I'd find an award with a title like that a little cheesy, but in 2014 the award was well named and well deserved. The recipient was Ron Extract of Jester King Brewery in Texas.

Until a couple of years ago, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code banned breweries from telling customers where they could find their beer. It also had rules about labelling that defied all accepted international standards. These rules said that any beer under 4% ABW (alcohol by weight) had to be labelled a lager, even if it was an ale, and anything over 4% had to be labelled an ale, even if it was a lager. And they weren't allowed to state the alcohol percentage in any other way.

Jester King took the TABC to court over their own code and won. From here it looks like a fantastic victory for the rights of brewers and consumers. And, dare I say it, it looks like a victory for common sense.

As if to show just how fearless Jester King and its people are, Ron Extract (apparently his real name) used his acceptance speech to make some pointed comments about the rules surrounding the rights that distributors in Texas have at the expense of brewers. There's a good chance that the targets of his fresh complaints were in the audience at the time.

Gender Discrimination

There's almost no end to the number of stories we could post about New Zealand's liquor laws. We'll start with a simple one. While it's common to lament the farce that was 6pm closing, we don't talk so much about another legal constraint that covered much the same period - the ban on female bar staff. Or as they were known in the 20th century, barmaids.

It was brought in in 1910. Women already working in bars were allowed to stay on and apparently a register of state-recognised barmaids existed so women could work without fear of sudden arrest. But no new female staff could be recruited, so it must have been weird for a woman in a profession knowing that her retirement or death was a pre-requisite for the law to take full effect.

Before anyone from Australia scoffs at this one, it should be pointed out that Victoria and South Australia had similar bans.

The ban stayed in place longer than you might think. We'd had colour TV for three years before it was finally lifted in 1976, after a period of 15 years while it was relaxed to allow women over 25 to work in a bar.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Australia's Comical Excise Tax

No exploration of bad liquor laws can leave out Australia's absurd excise tax system for beer. Apparently it derives from some appalling political grandstanding. Beer in vessels larger than 48 litres, which effectively means beer in 50 litre kegs, are charged significantly lower excise. It was made this way so that after the application of GST in 2000 beer in pubs could return to pre-GST prices.

The anomalies and penalties that it creates are innumerable. One good one example was explained to me once. Excise is paid when beer leaves a brewery or when it's imported. At a shop that offers growler fills, when beer is taken from a keg to a growler it's considered that it is now being sold in a vessel smaller than 48 litres. So the rate of excise that was originally paid on the 50L keg is suddenly wrong. So the retailer has to figure out the new excise that should be paid on the volume in the growler and collect the difference. Of course if the beer had gone into a glass and was consumed on the premises, then this higher excise rate wouldn't apply. (Yes, even though a glass is a vessel that the beer is sold in that is smaller than 48 litres.)

State Mandated Beer Temperatures

Apparently in Indiana in the US, the state decides what temperature you can sell beer at. At the moment only "package liquor stores", whatever they are, can sell you a cold beer. Beer at convenience stores must be at room temperature. The reasoning is that if beer sold at convenience stores was allowed to be cold then that would just make people drink more. Too bad that beer keeps better if it stays cold.

Perhaps if they thought it through they'd realise that customers of beer from convenience stores would just get in the habit of buying more and sooner and would invest in more refrigeration at their homes or workplaces. Meaning that laws like this really just exist to stimulate sales of fridges.

I wonder too, whether any convenience store owners have thought of turning their whole store into a cool room. There are plenty of other goods that need to be kept cold, others that might benefit even if they aren't normally chilled and there can't be many goods that are better at 20 degrees than 4. So if the whole store had a room temperature of 4 degrees, would the authorities intervene?

One other thing. There's such a thing as the Indiana State Excise Police. How frightening is that? Here's their story. Their mission is "to provide quality service and to protect the morals and welfare of the people of the State of Indiana." Chilling. I wonder what their uniform is.