Hoppy days: High-gravity beer bill moving through Legislature

Nathan Baker • Apr 12, 2014 at 9:07 PM

A bill nearing approval in the General Assembly could mean Tennessee shoppers will soon see more craft beer options on grocery store shelves.

Senate Bill 0289, intended to redefine beer in state law by raising the allowable alcohol content from 5 percent alcohol by weight (6.3 percent alcohol by volume) to 8 percent ABW (10 percent ABV), passed on a full floor vote Thursday 22-7.

Its companion, House Bill 0047, is expected to be taken up for a full vote this week.

The sponsors, Murfreesboro’s Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Ryan Haynes of Knoxville, said the alcohol bill will complement the wine in grocery stores statute signed into law last month and will allow Tennessee’s smaller breweries more opportunities to conduct business.

Currently, beer with alcohol contents higher than 5 percent by weight are defined as high alcohol content beer by the state, can only be sold in retail package stores and can only be manufactured by first obtaining a distillers license, which is much more stringently regulated.

By upping the allowable alcohol percentage, the bill, if approved, paves the way for expanded beer options on store shelves.

Steve Smith, president and CEO of K-VA-T Food Stores, parent company of Food City, said he welcomes the passage of the law.

“I think we would certainly favor the ability to be able to take care of our customers who want to buy those products in our stores,” Smith said. “It would definitely be a good thing.”

Similar to the CEO’s argument to bring wine into food stores, Smith said the availability of the higher alcohol content products in Food City stores in Virginia, where there is no cap on the amount of alcohol in beer, siphons customers from Tennessee.

Currently, 20 states have restrictions on the alcohol content of beer.

North Carolina raised its cap to 15 percent ABV in 2005, and enjoyed a flood of new suds from startup breweries from across the state.

Since 2002, at least seven states, including several of Tennessee’s neighbors, have increased the allowable alcohol content in beers.

Michal Foster, the owner and brewer at Jonesborough’s Depot Street Brewery, said he’s excited by the prospect of the state’s alcohol percentage proposal.

“There are a lot of beers we’d like to make that are a little higher gravity,” he said. “We could make some IPA’s or some more Belgian-style beers – it opens up a lot more beer for us.”

Like Smith, Foster said he’s facing competition from out of state, namely North Carolina and Virginia, where alcohol laws are more lax.

A distillers license would cost him much more in state fees than he’s paying now just to make a variation of what he already brews, he said.

“Beer should be beer,” Foster said. “Not just one level of it at a certain alcohol content.”

The House bill should be considered this week for passage. If it’s approved, it will go to the governor for his signature before becoming law.

Follow Nathan Baker on Twitter @JCPressBaker. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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