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Friday, November 6, 2009

Beer with extra buzz on tap up to 16%

Beer is served at Sprecher Brewery in Glendale, Wis. Beer is served at Sprecher Brewery in Glendale, Wis.

By Morry Gash, AP

A growing number of states are moving to allow higher alcohol content in beer, despite concerns from some substance-abuse experts.

Alabama and West Virginia have passed laws increasing the legal alcohol-by-volume cap for beer from 6% to as high as 13.9% this year. Similar efforts are underway in Iowa and Mississippi, two states with very restrictive limits on the sale of high-alcohol beer, said Sean Wilson, former president of Pop the Cap, North Carolina's successful grass-roots effort that raised the state's limit in 2005.

The average alcohol content in beer is 4.65%, and in wine 11.45%, according to a 2002 study by the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, Calif.

Twenty states still place some kind of limit on the amount of alcohol in beer, Wilson said.

Paul Gatza, director of the national Brewers Association based in Boulder, Colo., said limiting alcohol content restricts flavors and styles because "you can't put as much malt or other sugars in your beer as you may want to."

Some efforts to change beer laws are led by consumers, Gatza said. In Iowa, for example, the Iowa Brewers Guild and a consumer group called Lift the Limit are working to change the state's law on alcohol content in beer, Guild President David Coy said.

David Rosenbloom, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in N.Y., said the more alcohol, "the faster you get drunk and the longer you stay drunk. ... There's no evidence that people will drink less, or fewer beers."

Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said, "Our chief concern is that (higher-alcohol brews) be properly labeled so people understand it takes fewer beers to become intoxicated."

Gatza said consumers of specialty or microbrewed beers, also known as craft beers, "don't drink to get drunk. They drink to appreciate the flavors." Ohio was among the first to raise beer alcohol-content rules when it pushed the allowable alcohol-by-volume to 12% in 2002, Gatza said. Georgia followed in 2004, then North Carolina in 2005 and South Carolina in 2007.

Alabama passed the Gourmet Beer Bill in May, state Rep. Thomas Jackson said. The bill increased the cap from 6% to 13.9%.

West Virginia upped its maximum legal alcohol content for beer in April from 6% to 12%.

Vermont raised the cap to 16% and Montana to 14% last year.

Craft beers, typically stronger, tend to be more expensive. An average case of Budweiser costs $17.76, according to Information Resources, a market research group. Midrange higher-alcohol beers cost $24-$40 per case, Gatza said.