Wholesalers reveal beers' alcohol content--to retailers


State Sen. F. Vernon Boozer calls his bill to require beer wholesalers to provide retailers with written information on the alcohol content of the beers they sell a "matter of the consumer's right to know."

But that doesn't mean people should rush down to their local beer meister to find out exactly how much wallop their favorite brand of brew packs.

The law, which took effect Monday, doesn't require liquor store and tavern owners to display the information. And they don't seem to be in any great rush to do so.

"What I'll do, I guess, is make copies of the sheets and have them available for the customers if any of them are interested," said Jim Falcone, the beer manager at Wells Liquors on York Road.

Richard Dobrow, the manager of Super Cut Rate Beer, Wine and Liquor on U.S. 40 at Old Frederick Road, figured he might post the information he's gotten from wholesalers, "in case a customer asks."

But beer drinkers don't seem all that interested in how much kick they get with their malt, yeast and hops.

John J. Snead, a regular at the Sunset Lounge in Glen Burnie, says he has "no idea" how much alcohol is in the Coors Light that he drinks and doesn't much care. "I only drink so much, and then I stop," he explained. "It might be nice to know, just out of curiosity."

John Raymond, who frequents Racers' Cafe on Harford Road in Parkville, drinks Molson's Light, not so much because of its low alcohol content -- 2.41 percent by volume -- but because he likes it, he said. "It's a good light beer."

The idea for the measure came from Gil Osenburg, Racers' owner.

Customers began asking him about the alcohol content of their favorite beers, explained Mr. Osenburg, who now posts the information on a chalkboard behind the bar and on the price list of keg beers he sells in the liquor store next door.

But he didn't know, nor did the distributors he asked, nor the managers of national restaurant chains, nor bartenders. Even the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal disagreed on the alcohol content of one malt liquor in an editorial in the former and an article in the latter.

"If they don't know, what's a customer to do?" he asked, noting that domestic beers range between 4 percent and 5 percent alcohol by volume, but imported beers and ales can go as high as 9 percent alcohol.

He went to Mr. Boozer, a Baltimore County Republican, who agreed to sponsor legislation that requires breweries to provide the alcohol content information to wholesalers, who must pass it on to retailers.

Mr. Boozer conceded that the information does little good if retailers aren't required to post it for customers, but he argued that the bill "at least gets the door open" to publishing alcohol content information.

The senator said he had hoped to require the information on beer labels but found that would have run afoul of a post-Prohibition-era federal regulation that forbids such labeling on beers sold in interstate trade.

Congress passed the law in the 1930s, fearing beer wars among breweries competing to put out the most potent brew, but the law is no longer relevant, Mr. Boozer said.

G. Heileman Co., which produces Powermaster Malt Liquor among others at its Halethorpe plant, is pushing for a labeling law in Washington state. And Adolph Coors Co. has sued to overturn the federal regulation.

Coors won in U.S. District Court in Colorado, but the government has appealed, and the case is pending, according to Janet Solberg, a company spokeswoman.

Mr. Boozer argued that beer drinkers want to know about alcohol content because of "the crackdown on drunken driving."

But others say they aren't so sure the customer really cares.

"We've been here since 1977, and I can count on one hand the number of customers who asked about beer alcohol content," said Barry Steller, owner of Northway Liquors on Route 3 in Millersville.

Even Mr. Osenburg's regulars don't seem too concerned about the alcohol content. Donald Peterson shrugged when he was asked if he knew the alcohol content of the Miller he was drinking.

"I think it's a little higher than some," he said. "But I don't care. I like the flavor."

What's in the beer

Beers vary wildly in alcohol content. They can range from as low as 2.41 percent to 9.51 percent and higher. Here is a list of a dozen popular beers, along with their alcohol content.

Molson Light 2.41%

Amstel Light 3.85

Coors Light 4.36

Rolling Rock Premium 4.39

Budweiser 4.65

Miller Genuine Draft 4.85

Coors 4.92

Michelob 4.95

Molson Canadian Beer 5.19

Heineken 5.41

Schlitz Malt Liquor 6.29

McEwen's Scotch Ale 9.51

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