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Beer lovers hope bill doesn't go flat

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This is a sipping drink, meant to be served with aged cheese and gourmet chocolate. It's not wine. It's not spirits. It's beer. And it's missing in North Carolina. Beer sold in North Carolina cannot have more than 6 percent alcohol by volume, excluding about one-third of world beer styles from being sold in the state.

But, if House Bill 392 passes this session, it will erase the ABV limit for beer sold and brewed in North Carolina.

The bill was introduced on Feb. 28 with bipartisan support.

"I think we need to open up North Carolina markets," said Rep. Steven LaRoque, R-Greene, who is a sponsor of the bill. LaRoque said he is a beer drinker and would be interested in drinking specialty beers not allowed under North Carolina law. "Forty-five other states don't have a 6 percent cap. I think it's time for us to get rid of it."

Sean Wilson, president and co-founder of Pop the Cap, a grassroots organization working to lift the 6 percent beer ABV limit in North Carolina, said the law is preventing "beer geeks" from enjoying products they can buy in most states.

"The beers that are illegal in North Carolina are the cream of the crop beers, they're specialty beers," said Wilson. "These are the excellent beers that are meant to be sipped and savored and aged like fine wine."

Beers such as Three Floyds' Dreadnaught, 9.5 percent ABV, and Celebrator Dopplebock, 6.7 percent ABV, belong to the specialty category of beer. In North Carolina specialty beers comprise only 1 percent of the beer market, while the national average is 3 percent.

Wilson said North Carolina businesses would gain from increased beer selections that could elevate the specialty beer market to the national average. Many specialty beer retailers and small breweries are supporting Pop the Cap's efforts.

Robert Poitras, owner and operator of Carolina Brewery, said his brewery would experiment with higher ABV beers if the bill passes.

"This is about quality and choice for the consumer," Poitras said. "These beers have more flavor and are made with higher quality ingredients. Higher alcohol beers won't be best sellers, but they will be tried and enjoyed."

Supporters of House Bill 392 say that the high price and strong flavors of high-alcohol beers only appeal to a niche market. For this reason, Pop the Cap has said that House Bill 392 should not increase underage drinking in the state.

However, North Carolina politics has a history of being anti-alcohol, and the bill is expected to be opposed by some members of the General Assembly.

There has been a mixed response from local organizations. Mothers Against Drunk Driving has taken a neutral position, but the Christian Action League of North Carolina has spoken out against the bill.

"Young people are going to drink this beer and they are going to buy it," said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. "Some people seem to believe that beer is a benevolent alcohol, but it is not."

But for supporters, this bill is about victory for the "beer geeks."

"I'd like my local brewer to be able to brew a barley wine and I'd like to be able to go to my local retailer and buy a Victory Storm King," Wilson said. "There are elements of elitism because beer has been seen as a beverage of the working class, while wine and spirits have been the drink of the elite."

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