Stateline Story

North Carolina Beer Lovers Want to Pop the Cap

Joe Sixpack in North Carolina can't buy a specialty beer like Dopplebach or Belgian brew because state law caps alcohol content for beer at 6 percent.

Beer enthusiasts are hopping mad and call it "the stupid beer law." But groups like Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) say raising the limit would increase the risk of impairment among underage drinkers for whom beer is the drink of choice.

State limits on beer alcohol content mean you can get drunk faster drinking beer in Nebraska (no limit) than in Montana (7 percent). Twenty-six states have no limit. Ohio increased its beer alcohol content limit from 6 percent to 12 percent last year, a measure supported by a coalition of the state's microbreweries and brewpubs.

Georgia lawmakers rejected raising the state's 6 percent limit in 2001. Mississippi and West Virginia also have among the lowest beer content limits in the country, and Utah's 3.2 percent limit on draft beer gained notoriety during last year's Winter Olympics.

A move to double the limit is brewing in North Carolina, where beer drinkers have launched a campaign called "Pop the Cap" and are holding bi-weekly strategy sessions about how to change the state's definition of beer. They're searching for a bill sponsor.

"Most people think of the yellow fizzy stuff," said Julie Johnson Bradford, editor of Durham, N.C.-based All About Beer magazine and organizer of Pop the Cap. "We ought to be able to get a full range of beer styles."

Beer historians say content caps resulted from a perception of beer as a common man's drink. Fear of alcohol abuse by the masses led state legislators to limit the amount of alcohol in beer when Prohibition ended in 1933.

"Prohibition was supposed to be abolished, and I consider this a form of Prohibition," said Ray McCoy, president of the Winston-Salem, N.C. Warthogs Brew Club, a group of about 20 home brewers who make beer styles excluded by the 6 percent limit.

But SADD's executive director, Penny Wells said raising the limit poses problems because "the risk of impairment would be greater and the risk of engaging in risky behavior including driving would be increased."

Pop the Cap's Bradford said raising the limit has nothing to do with abuse because "there are many cheap sources of high alcohol already on the shelves here. Unfortunately, they have all the options they need."

High-alcohol beer flavors are not attractive to novice drinkers or best enjoyed in large quantities, Bradford said. Such styles are better sipped with a good book or downed with a meal, Bradford said.

She said her group plans to follow the experience of Ohio beer advocates who sought the cooperation of the state's anti-alcohol forces.

The activists also plan to make an economic argument that North Carolinians are driving to Virginia to drop $300 or $400 for cases of beer. Besides giving beer connoisseurs quality and variety, Bradford said doubling the limit for six-packs that cost between $8 and $12 could boost tax revenue.

"It's an easy issue for people to soapbox about," Bradford said. "We're not nave about how difficult this might be."

Tags: Economy