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Alcohol Regulation Roundup: November 2, 2011

A round up of the interesting booze-related news stories from around the nation. Hint: the two best are at the end. National: Our nation’s leaders will spend part of the day gettin’ crunked in the name lower taxes and small businesses. The Autumn Capitol Hill Beer Tasting, happing today (Nov. 2) will feature 15 small brewers from around the country offering their bubbly beverages to over 500 members of Congress and their staffers. The event, organized by the Brewers Association and the National Beer Wholesalers Association, is in support of the Small Brewers Act (HR 1236), which would reduce the federal excise tax on small producers of beer. Alabama: After successfully petitioning the Alabama legislature to lift the alcohol limit in beer (from 6% ABV to 13.9% ABV) Free the Hops, a grass-roots beer advocacy group is setting its sights on the states absurd limitation on bottle size. Currently, beers in the Mosquito State are limited to no more than 16 ounces -- the only state with such a restriction. Since many craft beers are bottled in containers of 22 ounces (such as the charitable “save our shores” beer), residents of the Yellowhammer State (its actual nickname) are missing out. Good luck guys! Massachusetts: As I wrote in my last roundup, the Ale-oween edition, wholesalers and current retailers of wine and beer were shaking in their boots over a possible ballot measure that would have allowed residents to decide if they wanted more types of food and convenience stores to be allowed to sell beer and wine. All of the entrenched interests are now supporting a bill that wouldn’t allow new players into the market, but would increase the number of stores a chain could have selling alcohol -- from three to five. The idea is great for companies already selling alcohol, not so good for small grocery stores or those looking to crack into the market, and definitely bad for consumers looking for choice and price competition. Also in Massachusetts: After a 25-year ban, Massachusetts bars can now offer discounted drinks for “happy hour.” With the creation of three casinos in the state, all of which wanted to offer free or discounted drinks, the state overturned the ban on discounted drinks which had been on the books since 1984. Allowing all bars to offer happy hours evens the playing field between the new casinos and existing bars. Addition: the news broke yesterday that, although the amendment passed as part of a larger casino bill, the final version is likely to leave out the removal of the happy hour ban when it goes to the Governor for approval.   Montana: This recent article in the Great Falls Tribune details the oddity that is the state owned and operated liquor wholesaler. One of 18 states that still maintain a state-run liquor wholesaler, Montana, unsurprisingly, has one of the lowest national liquor store density numbers: there are only 97 liquor retail establishments serving the state’s 989,415 residents. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a big push in the state to privatize the system. New York: Six years after the landmark Supreme Court case that said New York could not ban out-of-state wineries from shipping into the state if it allowed in-state wineries to ship out, the results are in. Freedom = money. The liquor authority announced that it has collected $431,375 in permit fees from wineries in 15 states while wineries shipping in reported $54 million in sales to NY residents in 2009-2010. All told, NY State garnered around $4.5 million in sales taxes plus the addition of permit fees. Perhaps some other states (ahem, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) should take note. Oklahoma: A commission tasked with examining how the state might sell strong beer and wine in grocery stores has disbanded…after two meetings. The reason cited: they didn’t believe a consensus could ever be reached among such a contentious group. So, residents of Oklahoma, it’s now up to you to tell lawmakers what you want. Also in Oklahoma: legislators consider a bottle tax, which would add five cents to the cost of beer bottles and cans, which consumers would get back if they returned them to a recycling facility. Pennsylvania: Exciting news for drinkers in the Keystone State: the new head of the Liquor Control Board, Skip Brion, has declared that he is pro-privatizing the state store system. Just after his swearing-in ceremony this week, Brion said he’ll do what the legislature decides, but that he personally supports getting the government out of the liquor business. Wisconsin: All that stands between Wisconsin residents and buying booze earlier is a signature from the governor. Last week, the legislature passed the measure that would allow liquor stores to open up at 6 a.m. -- two hours earlier than current law allows. Texas: The beer world is fired up with the announcement that Jester King—an Austin based brewer—has filed a lawsuit against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. They argue that the state's laws violate their 1st and 14th Amendment rights. Under current Texas law they are legally prohibited from advertising which stores carry their products (unlike wineries). Additionally, a silly state definition of malt beverages being any alcohol over 4% alcohol by weight (about 5% ABV) requires many beer makers to alter their labels for sale in Texas. For example, when Brooklyn Brewery wanted to sell its lager in the state, they were legally obligated to have “malt liquor” on the label, as it is higher in alcohol than 4% ABW. So the brewery titled their beer “Brooklyn Lager, In Texas Malt Liquor,” which is distributed in many states other than Texas, but lets the whole country know how absurd that state’s alcohol laws are. Utah: Utah's Hospitality Association has filed an antitrust lawsuit against the state asserting that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the dominant religious outfit in the state, has been involved in crafting legislation for Utah’s lawmakers. Again, this suit has the potential to set an interesting legal precedent.