A bill that would allow higher-alcohol specialty beers in the state hit a roadblock in the N.C. Senate last week. House Bill 392, which would raise the state's legal limit on the amount of alcohol-by-volume in beer from 6 percent to 15 percent, went to the Senate floor on July 7. Senator John Kerr of Pitt County re-referred it to the committee on finance for further evaluation. The N.C. House, which passed the bill in May, found the bill to be revenue-neutral when put under fiscal assessment.
Julie Bradford is the editor of All About Beer magazine and co-founder of Pop The Cap, an organization lobbying for the raise. To show what negligible effects the change would have overall, she pointed to recent evidence from Georgia and Ohio. Both states recently popped their 6 percent caps, and Bradford said that they've seen no drop in state revenues, no shift in market share between the large beer distributors, and no increase in DWIs, all of which are aspects concerning opponents of the bill.
"If you were drinking Budweiser last month you'd still be drinking it after the bill passes," Bradford says. "Nobody's sacred cow is gonna get gored."
Even if the faction of specialty beer drinkers is small, though, it's passionate. Kenny Smith is the beer buyer for the Durham specialty store Fowler's. He talks to two or three customers daily who are excited about the possible additions to the beer case.
The legal definition of beer in North Carolina dates back to the repeal of prohibition in the 1930s, when the alcohol limit was originally set at 5 percent. In 1980 it was changed to 6 percent, and North Carolina is one of only six states in the union with such a limit--the others being South Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi. The remaining 44 states have limits above 6 percent or no limit at all.
"There's no logical reason in the current economy for this law to exist, and yet it does," says Smith, who drives bi-annually to Virginia and buys $50 worth of beer not found in-state.
And Bradford said some of the new beer would be locally brewed, since there are brewers in North Carolina with the capability and the desire to make higher-alcohol beers, like the familiar-labeled DuckRabbit brewery in Farmville. "We've got some outstanding craftsman here in the state," Bradford says. "I'm excited by what will happen when we cut North Carolina breweries loose."
Jay Murrie is a beer enthusiast and the wine buyer for A Southern Season in Chapel Hill. If the bill were to pass, he says, the store's beer selection would increase by about 50 percent, adding several dozen items from around the world.
Many of those beers would come from Belgium, a region with many small-production breweries. One Belgian specialty is Lambic beer, or spontaneously fermented beer, which typically matures in oak for two years prior to its release.
Alex Doyne, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, has been to his share of keg parties but said he's excited about drinking beers like Lambic and heavier English stouts in the future. "These beers aren't for getting drunk off of. They're for having one or two out of a glass and enjoying them," he said.
But, he says, most college students won't be able to afford the specialty beers, which cost significantly more than your average Miller or Coors Lite and will be found in gourmet food and wine stores and some upscale bars.
The bill will hit the Senate floor again in the upcoming months, and next time, Bradford says, she is hopeful the cap will pop.