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Real Hop-sicles

A friend and colleague sent me this story from his local area around Washington, D.C. (thanks Gregg). Rustico Restaurant & Bar, a great beer restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, began serving “beer-sicles” last week. They make frozen beer pops shaped like the Popsicles you remember for $4 or a larger cone size for $6. They’re made from 99% beer using all-natural ingredients, executive chef Frank Morales claims, and he created the new pops with the help of the restaurant’s Beer Director, Greg Engert. Don’t you just love the idea that a restaurant has a beer director?

Executive Chef Frank Morales with his new beer-sicles.
photo © Associated Press

So far, four flavors have been offered. Fudgesicle (made with Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout), Raspbeer-y (made with the very sweet St. Louis Framboise), Plum (made with Chapeau Mirabelle) and Banana (made with Chapeau Banana). Since their debut last week, they’re a big hit with customers, and men especially, Morales noted. Apparently they worked on the right combination of ingredients for weeks before being satisfied, so I guess that 1% ingredient is quite an important one. So what otherwise seems like a simple idea — freeze beer in a Popsicle mold — may actually hinge on a particular secret ingredient. Of course, I’m open to experimentation.

Unfortunately, according to the AP story, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control believes that “the beer-sicles might violate state regulations” which state that “the law requires beer to be served in its original container, or served immediately to a customer once it is poured from its original container.” Apparently the Virginia ABC is investigating, but their initial reaction appears to be that it violates state alcohol law.

This is apparently because the purpose of that law is so the ABC can keep tabs on where the alcohol goes along it’s journey from manufaturer to consumer. According to Philip Disharoon, the special agent in charge of the Alexandria division, he’s worried that he “would have no way of knowing where the beer product came from.” The idea that they may have to stop making these just because the Virginia ABC can’t track the path of the beer from bottle to mold to freezer to customer, all in a single location, strikes me as bureaucratic nonsense. I imagine that may have been more of a concern during bootlegging days, but I have a hard time believing it’s much of an issue any longer.

Virginia’s alcohol laws do include an exemption for beer used for “culinary purposes” (3VAC5-70-40), which would appear to make it legal for Rustico to continue selling beersicles. Since it appears that they’re already using beer in many of the dishes served at the restaurant, perhaps they’re already covered. The regulation does give the ABC broad authority to “refuse to issue or [t] suspend or revoke such a permit for any reason” which seems rather unfair, to say the least. But that’s the nature of many alcohol laws, in which fairness is rarely a priority. Also, alcohol used for cooking must be kept completely separate from beer that’s for sale to patrons, which also seems quite ridiculous.

But the more you examine each state’s own arcane alcohol regulations, you realize that over time they’ve become bloated bureaucratic gibberish that few people can understand, even among the state employees charged with interpreting them. I know firsthand that in some states ABC employees will give different interpretations to the same regulation, leaving brewery and restaurant/bar owners completely baffled as to what the law actually says or how to comply with it. And even relying on one state employee’s interpretation can land you in hot water if another’s interpretation is different. That certainly seems fair, doesn’t it? At the very least, you’d think they could either get their stories straight or at least respect their colleagues interpretation that someone relied on in good faith. But sadly that’s not the way government works, especially when it comes to the hot button issue of alcohol.

But the idea of beer-flavored Popsicles seems a natural. Perhaps the folks that own the trademark on the name Popsicle, which is Unilever (although in 1993 they changed their name to the more appetizing Good Humor-Breyers® Ice Cream Company) could make beer-flavored Popsicles for adults that we can all buy at the grocery store. Can you just imagine the hue and cry from neo-prohibitionists when beer pops show up in the frozen food section? It would almost be worth it just to see them come unglued. Plus, I just love the idea of a green, 100 ibu, real honest-to-goodness Hopsickle.

UPDATE 7.22: Two new news sources also include video of the beersicles so you can see what they look like and see a bit more about how they’re made. The first is from WLBZ in Bangor, Maine and the second is from CBS 3 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

UPDATE 7.22 – #2: Courtesy of Reason magazine, Senior Editor Radley Balko went to Rustico this afternoon hoping to try a beer-flavored Popsicle but was told “they’re no longer serving them. At least until the state alcohol control tyrants give them the okay.” Apparently they’re trying to figure out how to cook the beer and/or add more ingredients so it will fall under “culinary purposes” as I detailed above. Sounds to me like the Virginia ABC has lost touch with reality. If freezing beer in a mold, with a stick, and serving it as a dessert doesn’t qualify as a culinary use, then I have to conclude it’s not about the law anymore, but about control. That’s the word everybody forgets in “ABC,” but it stands for “Alcoholic Beverage Control.” State agencies take that part of their job perhaps most seriously of all in their zeal to do their job. These agencies really should work with alcohol manufacturers and retailers because for the most part all they want to do is comply with the law. But many times, because of the nature of bureaucracy, an adversarial relationship is created over time and the agencies spend more of their resources on enforcement and punishment, forgetting that they’re charged with keeping alcohol in society in a safe manner, not controlling it to the point of killing it.


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