Ohio has proven itself on multiple occasions to be an innovative leader in the craft beer movement — the Buckeye State’s brewers compete and challenge themselves, and its consumers continuously pursue palate development and beer IQ. The whole scene is really quite progressive and exciting. However, as I’ve mentioned recently, Ohio’s burgeoning craft brewing community has achieved its success while under the shadow of a regulation that limits the amount of alcohol in all beer brewed, bought or sold within the state to 12 percent. (For some perspective, consider that your standard can of Budweiser measures about 5 percent ABV, while a more high-octane craft product like Stone Brewing’s Double Bastard Ale comes in at 10 percent ABV.)
Nationally, fewer than a dozen states impose any limit on alcohol in beer, and many of Ohio’s immediate neighbors, including Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania, have no such rule, putting the Buckeye State at a competitive disadvantage.
Some feel that Ohio’s restriction is antiquated, and many freely admit that 12 percent is about as strong a beer as they’d brew (or drink), but the limitation nevertheless persists.
That could soon change: On May 11, Ohio State Senate President Keith Faber carried forward a plan to remove the ABV cap. The Senate passed Faber’s proposal in a unanimous 32-0 vote — a pretty definitive indicator of common sense behind the amendment. (The measure still requires the approval of Ohio’s House of Representatives.)
My Wednesday had proven fairly normal until around noon, when I noticed the Ohio Craft Brewers Association tweet:
— Ohio Craft Brewers (@OHCraftBeer) May 11, 2016
Just last month, this was the punchline of a cruel April Fool’s joke, but seeing the tweet inspired the same kind of excitement I felt on Christmas morning, 1993, when it dawned on me that the Super Nintendo I hadn’t even hoped to receive was beginning to reveal itself with every tear of the wrapping paper.
A little historical context: Ohio’s ABV limit was set at 12 percent in 2002, before which it was 6 percent. Since 2002, there has been a growing legislative and grassroots push aimed at raising the limit yet again, as was the case in Alabama and other states with active craft beer movements. Bill upon bill upon bill has been submitted, all focused on raising the ABV cap, so finding out (from a tweet) that the Senate passed a measure that would completely remove the cap was quite the shock.
How do local brewers feel about the impact such a legislative shift may have on them? I spoke with Actual Brewing CEO and brewer Jonathan Carroll, brewing engineer Kris Fry and production manager Chris Moore, and all agreed that it probably wouldn’t impact them too much. “Bigger brewers or those who might be focused on that type of higher-ABV beer, like Zaftig, will probably be pretty successful with it, but that simply hasn’t been what Actual’s been about,” said Carroll.
Fry stressed the fact that to brew beer above 12 percent is actually quite challenging, particularly for smaller brewers, for whom much of the brewing process remains largely manual. “It already takes us a full day of brewing to produce our Fat Julian Imperial Stout [10 percent ABV]. We’re filling and emptying our brew kettle twice, same with our mash tun,” he said. “If we wanted to push that to 15 percent or 20 percent, you’re looking at a much longer period of straight brewing. At bigger breweries you can just push a button, but at our size there are still a lot of manual steps.”
Moore added, “As brewers, it would be cool to know that we had the freedom to brew above 12 percent. Sometimes there might be a barrel-aged product that gets up there, but we don’t intend to head in that direction regularly, so if there’s excitement to be had, it’s more on the consumers’ end.” In short, the market might be flooded, at least at first, with every brewer’s attempt at a high-octane beer simply to to satisfy the hype of beer lovers especially excited to buy something over 12 percent produced by the home team.
Columbus craft beer pioneer Lenny Kolada of Smokehouse Brewing explained that if his operation were to brew something above 12 percent, “it would be more for marketing — we’d probably keep a keg of something around. But higher than 12 percent is going to be thicker and sweeter, and people aren’t going to drink as much of it.”
Gavin Meyers of North High Brewing (whose pale ale was recently awarded a Silver Medal at the 2016 World Beer Cup at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia) echoed those sentiments: “It won’t really impact what we do. It’s actually really difficult to brew something above 12 percent, although one beer we had analyzed clocked in at 11.97 percent, so we named it ‘Barley Legal.'” (Cue laughter and applause from brewery tour guests.)
Larry Horwitz, brewmaster at Four String Brewing, requests that those who take the brewery tour contact their state representatives and relay support of bills removing ABV caps, stressing that it’s an issue of consumer choice. When asked if he’d brew above 12 percent, Horwitz said, “Oh yeah, man, we’d do it just because we could. It would be fun to experiment. If nothing else, it would be nice to not have to worry about the restriction if we did happen to produce something above the limit.”
Having learned the perspectives of some of my local brewers, my own opinion shifted from unabashedly excited to cautiously optimistic. It’s easy to get caught up in “the principle of the thing” and convince yourself that not having all possible freedoms is unacceptable and will kill the industry. The reality seems to be that while a 12 percent ABV cap is still a hindrance to consumers and larger brewers with means and intent to brew further into the alcoholic stratosphere, it simply doesn’t hit smaller brewers as hard as I assumed it did. Due to the extra work, expertise and raw materials required, high-octane beers are not what most small brewers are looking to produce. Running their businesses and consistently creating quality beer are their priorities.
Now to be clear, Ohio’s not out of the woods yet. As the Ohio Craft Brewers Association tweet indicated, this amended definition of what can legally constitute “beer” to be sold or brewed in Ohio has only achieved Senate approval. At the time of publishing, the measure still needs to clear the House of Representatives. So if you’re an Ohioan, contact your representative and be the change you wish to see (and drink) in the world! It’s expected that if the Senate-approved measure passes, it will most likely happen in the next month — stay tuned!