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Alcohol Regulation Roundup: Turkey Day 2012 Edition

While most people in the U.S. are fantasizing about turkey slathered in gravy, yams, and pumpkin pie right now, beer connoisseurs throughout the nation -- like me -- are dreaming of the beer that they will savor at Thanksgiving dinner. This year we lovers of libations (not to mention the folks who make them) have a lot to be thankful for. While some states take steps backwards and others don’t seem to budge, we can raise our glasses to the increasingly liberal alcohol laws throughout most of the nation, that benefit of businesses and consumers and have contributed to making the U.S. one of the most vibrant environments for alcohol production.

Below is a collection of regulatory news items on proposed regulations or regulatory changes that affect the sale, production, and distribution of alcoholic beverages? Jump to the bottom of this post for suggestions on how to find the perfect beer to go along with your holiday meal. And remember, if you’re planning on buying alcohol you’d better check your state liquor laws. As I noted in my Christmas-ban post, many states have laws that make purchasing alcohol on a holiday difficult or outright impossible.

National: Should we be worried about the size and scope of America’s beer producers? Should we try to stop them from increasing in size or disallow them from distributing as well as producing beer? According to several publications, we should. The American Antitrust Institute released a white paper opposing a merger between Grupo Modelo -- Mexico’s largest beer producer -- and Anheuser-Busch, while an article in the Washington Monthly (echoed by Mother Jones) seems to suggest that we must stop brewers from merging or allowing them to distribute or we risk having a world where one company terrorizes the market and we have epidemic levels of alcoholism. I will have a more in-depth discussion on that in another post, but the short answer is: we shouldn’t be worried about stopping “big beer,” we should be thinking about how to get out of the way of craft beer. Up until recently, big beer companies had been experience a multi-year decline in sales, while craft brewers were experiencing a boom. There will not be a monopoly so long as small brewers can make and get their beer to market. Eliminate their taxes, let all brewers self-distribute, let them advertise, and we will never see a beer monopoly while Americans still have taste buds.

District of Columbia: Councilmember Jim Graham is proposing a bill that would, among other things, allow liquor stores to remain open on Sundays, allow “wine pubs” in the city, and allow growlers to be filled at grocery stores and bars. Additionally, Graham’s bill would require anyone challenging an establishment's liquor license to live within 400 feet of that business. This last rule is a response to a nasty fight between the popular Dupont Circle restaurant, Hank’s Oyster Bar and six residents over Hank's patio seating area.

Iowa: The 6.4-percent increase in hard liquor sales in Iowa is being attributed to a change in state law last year that removed a ban on sales of spirits in convenience stores. The increase has been good for both consumers and state coffers with “an explosion” of new brands and new flavors of spirits” and about $18 million in revenue generated for substance abuse programs.

Maryland: Blame it on the taxes: representatives from the spirits industry blamed last year’s 50-percent sales tax increase on liquor for the lack of sales in the state. According to David Ozgo at DISCUS, sales in Maryland only increased two-tenths of a percent in the past year, which is far less than the national average increase in sales of 3.1 percent. When you consider how easy it is for the bulk of Maryland residents to buy their alcohol in another state or D.C., it’s not surprising that this is the case.

Also in Maryland, as a result of a referendum on the Montgomery County ballot, beer and wine soon to be on tap in Damascus, Maryland’s last dry town.

Michigan: While many factors could be at fault for the 70-percent decline in keg sales at “party stores” in East Lansing, it’s very likely that the keg-tracking law passed last November is to blame. While there’s no evidence that the new law is curtailing underage drinking, it seems, as I predicted last year, what it did do was prompt minors to switch to purchasing cases of beer and hard liquor. According to Dennis Martell, the Coordinator of Health Education at Michigan State University:

“We have fairly good evidence that draft beer sales and keg sales are down, and students are now buying half-gallons (of liquor), which presents a problem to us as educators,” Martell said. “A lot of students don’t have experience in drinking liquor instead of beer … They’re drinking higher concentrations of alcohol without even knowing …”

Texas: Local beer brewers unite to reform Texas’s oddly restrictive beer laws. Texas Local beer brewers unite to reform Texas’s oddly restrictive beer laws. The folks at Open the Taps created this guide for those beer-centric voters to determine which of the candidates would be in favor of updating beer laws. Grass roots organizations have tried for years to do away with many of the state’s odd laws governing beer sales, including one that prevent brewpubs in the state from selling their beer in retail stores while also preventing breweries from selling their beer at the brewery. While these may seem like common sense measures, the well-funded Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas successfully lobbied against them. Hopefully, with the help of Open the Taps voters will elect some representatives that will create a regulatory environment that’s good for consumers and new businesses instead of protecting those that are already entrenched.

Utah: Senator Valentine will reportedly introduce plans to create a “master” license for chain restaurants so that they would not have to get a license for each location. This, he hopes, will create incentive for chain restaurants to open in the state.

Washington: While some people are still busy complaining about increased alcohol prices (thanks to the increased taxes and fees, not privatization itself), beer connoisseurs are seeing the promised increase in selection. As a result of the change in law, two major retailers of alcohol opened up. They brought with them, not only a good selection of liquor, but also “impressive bottled beer selections, plus taps for growler fills wine and liquor.” Not only is the selection good, but the prices are reportedly lower than one would find in supermarkets.

Making the meal count: what beers to pair with Thanksgiving dinner

Many a Thanksgiving dinner host is at this very moment fretting about what wine to pair with their meal. Typically, any Thanksgiving party will have a few bottles of reds and whites, perhaps some mulled wine, and a bunch of watery beer for the bros watching football. I mean no offense if you’re into that sort of thing, but for those of you who like a little more bite in your brew, here are some suggestions for how to couple your turkey and pie with the perfect beers.

You can find great advice over at Fox News and via Brian Fox at the Hopped Up Blog. The latter is a post from 2011, but unless you’re ditching the turkey and pumpkin pie for General Tso’s chicken and a fortune cookie, I think it still applies. He provides overall guidelines for what styles go best with what courses as well as giving suggestions for specific beers -- most of which are widely available.

Appetizers call for light, not-so-filling lagers or pilsners. Not-so-hoppy pale ales are perfect with hors d’oeuvres that include cheese, fruit, or bruschetta. For the main course, there are many flavors to think about and the host must also consider the preferences of his or her guests.

The professionals in both articles provide recommendations ranging from spicy Saisons, ambers, scotch ales, and porters. Personally, I think it really depends on the yam/cranberry-to-turkey/stuffing ratios. For those who tend to load up on the sweet stuff, one of the drier beers would be best -- a bitter stout, amber ale, or the spicy Saison. If someone is more likely to load his or her plate with salty or savory items, the brown ales, nut ales, and porters would be best. I have to agree with what Brian Fox seems to suggest for those who’d choose ham as the dinner option -- that item would go best with a crisp and light kind of beer, preferably made with wheat.

If you’re willing to have your pie and drink your beer too, the advice for pairing gets a little tricky. Pick a beer that’s too light and its flavors are lost against the sugar of an apple or pumpkin pie. If the beer is too sweet however, the combination can be cloying. I think Brian and the Fox News experts make some great suggestions; chocolate stouts would be marvelous against a pumpkin pie and a vanilla porter might be an interesting way to go a la mode. However, though I'm a hardcore beer fan, this is where I have to break rank and suggest that you consider offering your guests a refreshing cider with their desert. A tart apple cider will provide a nice crisp balance against any of the more sugary deserts without having too high of an alcohol content or being overpowering in flavor.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

image via SeroiusEats.com