State Alcohol Administrators Slam Alcohol Justice

You probably knew that each state has some form of an ABC, an alcohol control organization that after Prohibition was created to administer their state’s laws regarding alcohol. Not surprisingly, they also have an organization where the professionals in these state organizations can get together and share information, how they do things, and generally learn from and help one another be better at their jobs. It’s called the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators, or NCSLA. Their stated purpose is:

The purposes of the Association shall be to promote the enactment of the most effective and equitable types of state alcoholic beverage control laws; to devise and promote the use of methods which provide the best enforcement of the particular alcoholic beverage control laws in each state; to work for the adoption of uniform laws insofar as they may be practicable; to promote harmony with the federal government in its administration of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act; and to strive for harmony in the administration of the alcoholic beverage control laws among the several states.

They have an annual convention where they get together, along with other events throughout the year. Also, in addition to the obvious members, it’s also open to distributors, suppliers, retailers, law firms, health organizations and anyone else with an interest in the administration of alcohol at the state and federal level.

Well. Earlier this week, Alcohol Justice posted a press release entitled Big Alcohol Dominates Alcohol Regulator Meeting, which touted an article in the new edition of the journal Addiction that they claim “Documents Unhealthy Influence of Alcohol Industry over State Regulators.” Not surprisingly, the author of the article, Sarah M. Mart, is the Director of Research for Alcohol Justice. So they created the propaganda, then promote it is as if it’s news and/or impartial information and it’s not surprising that it just happens to support their agenda. Is the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy lost on them?

In this case, the article, Top priorities for alcohol regulators in the United States: protecting public health or the alcohol industry?, purports to examine the “NCSLA Annual Meeting [that] took place 20–24 June 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.” Smart claims as a “finding” that “[m]ore than two-thirds (72.2%) of the 187 conference attendees were from alcohol producers, importers, wholesalers, retailers or their attorneys. Nearly two-thirds (65.0%) of the 40 panelists were from the alcohol industry. The author of this paper was the only attendee, and the only panelist, representing public health policy.”

In the press release, Alcohol Justice spins it this way.

In a peer-reviewed article in the February 2012 issue of Addiction, Sarah Mart, director of research at Alcohol Justice, has documented the alcohol industry’s excessive involvement in a 2010 annual conference of state liquor administrators.

“With alcohol use being the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S, you would think state regulator meetings would focus on the most effective and cost-effective ways to reduce alcohol-related harm,” stated Mart. “But this event was really about the industry’s agenda.”

Mart’s article details her experience at the annual National Conference of State Liquor Administrators (NCSLA), which took place in June 2010. More than two-thirds (72%) of the 187 meeting attendees, and 65% of the panelists, were from the alcohol industry. The rest represented state alcohol control systems and federal government agencies. Mart was the only participant representing public health policy.

“The NCSLA is dominated by the global companies that produce, import, distribute and sell alcohol,” said Mart. “Not surprisingly, the Association’s liquor control agenda lacks public health considerations.”

On average, 79,000 deaths annually are attributed to alcohol consumption. In 2005, there were over 1.6 million hospitalizations and 4 million emergency room visits for alcohol-related causes. Alcohol-related costs to state budgets are staggering, yet this trade organization of state regulators, which could play an important role in reducing the harm, has no stated position supporting public health.

“Big Alcohol panelists actually sent regulators a warning message: Be industry-friendly. Don’t rock the boat of commerce with public health concerns, or your job may be on the line,” reported Mart. “The Federal officials that were present also spoke about supporting the industry, instead of protecting public safety. That was a disappointment.”

Sounds bad, right? Well, the NCSLA sees it a different way. They’ve now responded with their own press release telling the other side of this story.

NCSLA, The Inclusive Crucible Of Alcohol Policy Issues, Dismayed By Inaccuracies Of “Sour Grapes”

When requested to comment on the recent press release from an entity named “Alcohol Justice”(formerly known as The Marin Institute), NCSLA President William A. Kelley, Jr. today said,

“The National Conference of State Liquor Administrators (“NCSLA”) has for decades been the only organization of the 50 states with the sole clear, transparent and inclusive purpose of effectively controlling alcoholic beverages. That purpose cannot be effective without input from all interested parties. Indeed since this Nation was founded, the fundamental principle of American government has been to make decisions with the consent of the governed. That requires substantive communication with and consideration of the concerns and competing interests of those who would be subject to regulatory action by the federal and state government. This is the hallmark of a real democracy.

The NCSLA is dismayed at the conduct of any organization which has chosen to re-brand itself and seeks to create relevance for its new brand by pandering for headlines, while taking no real, affirmative action to support and defend the federal and state beverage alcohol regulators in the executive, judicial and legislative branches of state and federal government. These federal and state regulators stand alone as they fulfill their lawful obligations to strike a balance between the protection of the common good and the service of the public demand for the different sorts of alcoholic beverages made available by this legitimate, responsible industry.

The agenda of self-promotion by “Alcohol Justice” is obvious and unavailing. The telling fact is that the now re-branded entity formerly known Marin Institute has repeatedly chosen not to become a member of the NCSLA despite the numerous invitations that have been extended to them and the years of courtesies from the NCSLA they have enjoyed in the form of expense-paid attendance at NCSLA conferences and participation on NCSLA panels. It is equally telling that this statement comes when further special treatment has been denied this re-branded entity while at the same time it was directly invited and encouraged to join the NCSLA, take a seat at the proverbial table, but on the same terms as those long met by other public health and public advocacy groups. It is disheartening when any entity with substantial financial resources, yet without the economic hardships endured for years by state beverage alcohol regulators, appears content to do nothing.

The silence of this re-branded entity is deafening in the national dialogue that continues as Congress, The President of the United States, the people of the state of Washington and the representatives of the people in all the 50 states grapple with the modern issues of beverage alcohol control. This struggle is the American legacy of that failed experiment named “Prohibition.”

I look forward to the honor of leading the NCSLA when it convenes in Washington D.C. to continue its efforts in fostering principles and techniques of balanced alcoholic beverages control. Unfortunately it appears that this re-branded entity chooses to continue to sit on the sidelines in its complacency, fermenting in its sour grapes. Perhaps sometime soon the reality will be recognized that much is expected from those who are given much.”

Nicely said, Mr. Kelley. Nicely said.

Jester King Sues Texas Over Antiquated Beer Regulations

The Jester King Craft Brewery in Austin, Texas, is my new hero, but then I’m a fan of their Don Quixote kind of crazy. The windmill they’re currently tilting at is the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC).

Like most states, and the Federal government, most of the laws regarding alcohol were written in the months following the passage of the 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition. Unfortunately, most laws and especially regulations, are rarely updated or amended. And while that may be fine for most laws, after 78 years the beer landscape in America is vastly different than it was when the regulations were implemented. Then, the different kinds of beer being made were significantly more modest than today. A lot of the laws that currently govern how beer is defined, sold, distributed and labeled are incredibly antiquated.

I didn’t know specifically how bad it was in Texas, but I was certainly aware of the federal regs and several other states that have similar inconsistencies between their regulations and reality. Essentially, these laws make it mandatory that brewers lie about what their beer is and/or force them to omit information that consumers would undoubtedly find useful. So Jester King, and two other unnamed co-plaintiffs, is suing the TABC in federal court.

Below is their press release explaining what they’re trying to do:

Jester King Craft brewery, maker of artisan farmhouse ales in the beautiful Texas Hill Country on the outskirts of Austin, has filed suit against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC). On Wednesday, attorneys representing Jester King Craft Brewery and two other co-plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment in federal court asking that the case be decided in our favor.

We have sued the TABC because we believe that its Code violates our rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Under the Code, we are not allowed to tell the beer drinking public where our beer is sold. We are also not permitted to use accurate terms to describe our beers. We are often forced to choose either to label them inaccurately or not to make beers that we would like to brew. Under the bizarre, antiquated naming system mandated by the TABC Code, we have to call everything we brew over 4% alcohol by weight (ABW) “Ale” or “Malt Liquor” and everything we brew at or below 4% ABW “beer.” This results in nonsensical and somewhat comical situations where we have to call pale ale at or below 4% ABW “pale beer” and lager that is over 4% ABW “ale.” The State has arrogantly and autocratically cast aside centuries of rich brewing tradition by taking it upon itself to redefine terms that reference flavor and production method as a simple shorthand for alcoholic strength.

At the same time, the State prohibits breweries from using other terms that accurately reference alcoholic strength like “strong” or “low alcohol.” That means you will not be seeing any Belgian or American Strong Ale in Texas. Further, the State restricts the contexts in which we can communicate the actual alcohol content of our beers. We are not allowed to put the alcoholic content on anything the State considers advertising, which includes our website and social media. We are simply seeking to exercise free and truthful speech about the beer we make and strongly believe that the State has no interest in keeping you from knowing the type of beer we make, how strong it is, or where it’s sold.

Our claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, maintains that breweries, like wineries, should be able to sell their products directly to the public. Right now in Texas, we cannot sell our beer at our brewery. We can only sell beer through a retailer or distributor. When people visit Jester King and ask to buy our beer, we have to tell them, “Sorry, it’s illegal.” Brewpubs are faced with an equal and opposite restriction. They can sell beer on-site, but cannot sell beer through a retailer or distributor. Texas wineries on the other hand are allowed to sell on-site and through retailers and distributors. We are suing because the State has no rational interest in maintaining special restrictions aimed at limiting the sale of beer.

Finally, the lawsuit challenges the State’s requirement that every foreign brewery wishing to sell beer in Texas obtain its own separate license. Foreign wineries and distilleries are not burdened by this requirement. They may simply sell their products in Texas through an importer that has one license for all the wine and spirits it brings into our state. The result is that small, artisan beer makers often have their beer kept out of Texas by unduly burdensome fees.

When we started Jester King, part of our plan was to help other small, artisan brewers, from both the United States and abroad, sell their products in Texas. This is something that we remain interested in doing at some point, which is where our material interest in this part of the case comes into play. Our much larger interest, however, is in allowing Texas beer drinkers to have access to the beers that helped shape our desire to build an authentic farmhouse brewery in the Texas Hill Country and that have had a direct influence on the type of beers that we have set out to brew. Many of these beers are from small overseas breweries whose products are currently being sold elsewhere in the U.S., but not in Texas because of exorbitant licensing fees. We would like to have the ability to purchase these beers in our local market and would like for all Texas beer drinkers to be able to do the same.

We have chosen to pursue these matters in federal court after witnessing the lack of progress that has resulted from previous attempts to address the inequities of the TABC Code legislatively. During the last legislative session, there were bills aimed at giving breweries and brewpubs similar rights to Texas wineries, but these bills never even made it out of committee.

We cannot say how likely we are to succeed in this lawsuit. The State has only to show a rational basis for restricting our freedom and the freedom of beer drinkers in this matter. However, as long as there is a TABC Code in Texas that discriminates against and puts undue burdens on breweries both home and abroad, we will continue to do everything in our power to fight for a more just and free system for us and for beer drinkers in our state.

As they say, their quest is a difficult one and the likelihood of success somewhat unlikely, sad to say. But the effort of bringing attention to these problems may increase awareness of them, both in Texas and elsewhere, and long term might start down the long road to changing them and bring them in line with reality. It may be a long quest, but hopefully it’s not an impossible dream.


Good luck, Jester King. This kind of thing should be happening in every state.

The OLCC’s “How To Throw A Party”

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) has produced a couple of PSA videos about safe drinking during the holiday season. The latest, How To Throw A Party is hilarious. With wonderfully cheesy music, faux grainy 8mm school film quality, and purposely groovy language it manages to get across a relatively good message about safe drinking over the holidays and even includes some decent party tips. Enjoy.

A week earlier, the OLCC debuted Safe Oregon Holidays. While not quite as retro as How To Throw A Party, it does still include a few gems.

Not to be snarky, but I especially love the designated driver … on horseback. Are they suggesting that’s how she’ll transport her drunk friends home?

Philly’s Beer Police State

If this doesn’t make you shudder, you’ve got eisbock running through your veins. It appears the Volstead Act is alive and well in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. According to an account of Pennsylvania’s Beer Storm Troopers entitled Troopers Raid Popular Bars for Unlicensed Beers, by Don Russell, with Bob Warner, earlier today in the Philadelphia Daily News. What happened was three Philadelphia bars were raided simultaneously, Swat team-style, looking to confiscate — gasp — unlicensed beer brands. The police raid netted a few hundred bottles of beer, much of it lawfully registered. The cops simply couldn’t find many of the beers on their list because the names didn’t match exactly. For example, they took bottles of Duvel because the bottle reads “Duvel Belgian Golden Ale” but the PLCB (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) has it listed as “Duvel Beer.”

Perhaps more unsettling is the raids were prompted by “a citizen complaint,” but authorities are refusing to reveal the complainant. Whatever happened to the right to face one’s accuser as guaranteed by the 6th Amendment? [As Andy Crouch, lawyer by day, points out, the 6th Amendment pertains to criminal proceedings, which this was not.] That aside, what possible motive might someone have? Jealous competitor? Rabid neo-prohibitionist? Annoyed neighbor? I’m perplexed.

From the article:

“No actual investigating was done,” [bar owner Leigh] Maida said in an e-mail to the Daily News. “The police sent a shoddily typed list to the PLCB, some drone fed it into the machine verbatim and returned what came back, without . . . even trying to offer us the benefit of the doubt by double-checking on some of the so-called unregistered beers.”

“My main beef with this whole convoluted situation is that the PLCB is the sole regulator of a set of products that they do not even know the names of,” she said.

The State Police has given the bar owners until this evening to prove the beer was licensed, in effect making them prove their innocence. So in this case they’re presumed guilty unless they can show otherwise. Am I missing something? Isn’t that supposed to be the other way around? Either way, the confiscated beer will be held for 6-8 months. Given that it’s unlikely it will be stored cool, most of it will likely be ruined in that time, anyway.

No matter how you slice this, it sure seems like we’ve stepped into some alternate universe where McCathyism is going strong, only its target is no longer Communism, but beer.


UPDATE: Jack Curtin has some more information on this incident in the form of an e-mail from bar owner Leigh Maida with additional details.

UPDATE #2: Lew Bryson has some great stuff about the incident on his No PLCB Blog.