Have you noticed how I always include the alcohol-by-volume (ABV) numbers for the beverages I review? I’ll assume you have, since you hang on my every word. Now, have you ever wondered why I do it?
Well, do you want to talk sensibly at the bar and then drive home safely? Or do you want to reveal you innermost secrets, send texts to your ex and find yourself stopped in the parking lot saying “Why, Hello Offisher! Thass a shiny badge ya got, Offisher!” and doing what Robin Williams once called “Fosse-Fosse One, Fosse-Fosse Two” as you try to dance down a straight line? It’s your choice.
A smart lawyer-friend once told me she thought there were three categories of adult beverages — beer, wine and hard liquor — and alcohol content was pretty-much equal within a category. Wrong.
Sure, Budweiser and Coors weigh in at roughly 5 percent ABV (Bud and Coors Lights are 4.2 percent), your typical Napa Cabernet sits comfortably around 13 percent and whisky averages 40 percent, so those boundaries are clear. Stone Brewing Company’s Ruination IPA has 8.2 percent alcohol, though; Lagunitas’ Lucky 13 Anniversary Release has 8.9 percent, Flying Dog’s Double Dog Double IPA has 11.5 percent, and if you want a total beer-category-buster (I do, I do — but it isn’t sold here yet) Dogfish Head’s 120-minute IPA has 15-20 percent ABV, depending on the batch. In the wine department, some German Rieslings are no stronger than 8.5 percent, while the Italian and Spanish sparklers Prosecco and Cava hover around 11 percent.
So, basically, if I’m drinking Riesling while you’re drinking Double Dog, don’t assume you’re soberer than me. But again, why am I telling you all this? After all, it’s the law that breweries print the alcohol content of beers on their labels, and you can all read, right? Wrong. Well, of course you can read (only occasional lip-movement), but there is no law requiring breweries to display ABV on beer labels. Nope, none.
There’s some interesting history behind ABV on beer labels. Soon after Prohibition ended, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act made it illegal for brewers to display their beers’ alcohol levels on labels. Illegal. The FAA wanted to prevent “strength wars,” (Beware the dark side, Luke) — a hypothetical situation in which consumers would buy only the highest ABV beers and brewers would compete to brew ever stronger beers. The FAA thought the smart thing to do was to keep drinkers in the dark, for our own protection. How nice!
The law prohibiting brewers from printing ABV levels on labels didn’t change until 1995, when the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment allowed brewers to display ABV. What hasn’t yet been passed, though, is a law requiring ABV to be displayed. The Federal Tax and Trade Bureau has been working on such a law since 2007, but it’s failed to gain traction with many brewers because the law would also require listing nutritional information and a back label to show all this data — which small brewers say they can’t afford. Meantime, New York and some other states still prefer the FAA’s original law and prohibit beers sold in their states from displaying ABV. (Yep, the state that put calories on menus and tried to cap soda sizes at 16 ounces doesn’t want folks to know how much alcohol is in beer. Go figure.)
If you think all this sounds like typical bureaucratic rubbish, listen: It could be worse, and it may get worse. Have you ever read that women should consume only so many glasses of alcohol per week, while men can safely consume a few more? The question is: What’s a glass? Is it a tumbler, like you have at home — or an itty-bitty thimble like you get in a restaurant? Let me introduce the “unit” of alcohol. It’s a calculation based on the size of the glass and the ABV of the beverage, it’s widely used in Europe and I’m betting (OK, yes, another vice) it’ll be here soon.
“Units” matter because they can help you calculate how much alcohol you’ve drunk, whether you’re worried about “Mr. Offisher” or about your health. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met very few adult beverages I didn’t kinda like, but we all know the rule about “too much of a good thing.” Some governments think their citizens can’t follow the rule, though, so they are passing laws requiring “units” to be displayed on bottles, cans and “branded barware.” Soon, pint glasses in Britain will not only be hallmarked as pints, but glasses bearing beer logos will show how many “units” they hold, based on the ABV of the lager, stout or ale.
We don’t hallmark our glassware by volume, but I still bet this “unit” idea catches on. The Brits are considering pricing drinks based on the number of “units” they contain, and you’ll doubtless have noticed American brewers already charging more for their high-alcohol brews. Is this because the higher ABV beers are truly higher-end beers? Are they more difficult to make, so naturally more expensive? Or are they being taxed more? Or is Big Brother trying to stop us from getting hammered, by making us pay extra for the privilege? Watch this space for answers.
Anyway, all this bureaucracy makes me want a beer. I mentioned Lagunitas earlier, so let’s pour. Made in Petaluma, Cal., the Lagunitas Brewing Company’s IPA is a gorgeous golden color with a lightly fruity fragrance. I know it’s supposed to be grapefruit, but I get some peach, too. Taste-wise, the hops are there but they don’t mow you down — there’s a decent balance with the malt. The dry, slightly bitter finish isn’t all from the hops, either; there’s a pleasant burnt-toast edge from the malt.
With an overall medium body and moderate carbonation, this is good stuff. The ABV (printed on the label) is 6.2 percent. Try it with burgers or brats. (Six-packs widely available at grocery and package stores and wine shops; $9.)
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