Bill would restrict sale of “fortified” drinks

May. 02, 2013 @ 07:02 PM

North Carolina craft brewers are worried that a bill targeting “fortified malt beverages” sponsored by state Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, might be gaining traction in the General Assembly.

It would allow only state ABC stores to sell drinks that contain 9 percent to 15 percent alcohol, are brewed using methods “not generally recognized” as traditional, contain added flavors and have a federally approved formula.

Luebke and other supporters say the measure is intended to take away the ability of convenience stores to sell “alcopops” – flavored drinks like Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

“We feel the best place for them would be in ABC stores,” said Wanda Boone, an activist who’s worked with Luebke on the bill and who heads a group called Durham Together for Resilient Youth.

Luebke filed the bill April 10. It initially seemed still-born. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, assigned it to the House Rules Committee, a place speakers before him have sent measures they wanted to see die.

But on Wednesday, the bill was reassigned to a subcommittee of the House Commerce and Job Development Committee. That caught the attention of Sean Lilly Wilson, founder of Rigsbee Avenue’s Fullsteam Brewery and president of the N.C. Brewers Guild.

Wilson said the guild’s members with “a pretty unified voice” feel “this is not a path we want to see legislation go on.”

The bill “takes us down a path of uncertainty,” he added, pointing to the bill’s mentions of alcohol content, flavoring and non-traditional brewing methods.

But Luebke denied any intent to hit craft brewers. “It has nothing to do with craft beers and I’m quite certain it’s drafted that way,” he said in a recent interview.

The craft-brewing movement has grown in popularity in North Carolina over the years, gaining momentum after a 2005 bill that Luebke co-sponsored legalized the sale of beer, ale, porter and other malts that have up to 15 percent alcohol by volume.

Craft brewing has also been important in the revitalization of downtown Durham, with brew-pubs like Fullsteam and Bull City Burger and Brewery emerging as popular gathering places.

But Boone – whose group campaigns against alcohol and drug use by youth – has at the same time argued for a crackdown on convenience-store sales. She and like-minded activists worry flavored beverages can entice teenagers to drink.

Boone’s influence with local policymakers waned for a time after she in 2010 publicly backed a Georgia billboard company’s request for the relaxation of city and county rules against digital billboards. The company had donated free advertising to her organization.

Her role in the billboard dispute angered among others former City Councilman Mike Woodard, who’s now a state senator. But Boone picked up a major ally in 2011 with the election to the City Council of Steve Schewel, a former school board member and newspaper publisher.

Schewel emailed Luebke last November to urge him to help Boone with alcopops legislation.

“I would think that even with the GOP in control [of the General Assembly], this issue might get some traction since I imagine people of any party would object to the current situation,” Schewel advised.

Luebke took the hint, and wound up enlisting House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, as a co-sponsor of the bill.

Starnes is among a number of “anti-alcohol Republicans” in the legislature and “is from a dry area of the state,” Luebke said.

Caldwell County is in fact one of the 30-plus counties in the state that bar the sale of all forms of alcohol in rural areas, a number that points up the fact that nearly 80 years after the repeal of Prohibition, the availability of alcohol remains a deeply controversial issue in North Carolina.

That’s so even in the Triangle: Voters in suburban Johnston County in 2002 narrowly rejected a referendum that would have allowed rural-area beer sales.

Luebke said he and Starnes looked into the possibility of implementing the measure administratively, without a vote of legislators. But the new chairman of the state ABC Commission, former Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, told them they could act only by changing state law.

Boone supplied Luebke with a copy of a Utah regulation that formed the basis of the eventual bill. The Utah rule is, however, less strict than what Luebke and Starnes filed: it allows the sale of “flavored malt beverages” by “on-premise retailers,” meaning by bars.

Like Luebke, Boone discounted any possibility that the bill could affect craft brewers.

“I don’t see craft breweries in that definition, distinguished by flavor,” she said. “What flavors do craft breweries add to their beverage?”

But Wilson noted that added flavoring is actually common.

“We make a persimmon beer with flavor ingredients, and it’s 10 percent alcohol,” he said, alluding to a Fullsteam offering. “Could craft beer get caught up in the mix, if not now but in the future, if the definition is extended or unclear?”