While in line at this year’s release for Amsterdam’s Barrel Aged Double Tempest, I asked one of the employees about the noticeable reduction in the beer’s alcoholic strength. Whereas 2013 and 2014 editions were bottled at an eye-watering 15% abv and 14% abv respectively, 2015 was being sold at a (relatively) subdued 11.9%. I was curious as to whether the brewery was attempting to make the beer more accessible or whether the idiosyncrasies of the barrel aging process had simply produced a less potent ultimate product. To my surprise, I was told flatly that the beer had been capped due to legal reasons. Apparently, the previous two editions had been skirting the rules slightly, but with BADT quickly becoming a big-time event, the brewery had been forced into strict compliance. Thinking back, I had seen that somewhat curious figure of 11.9% before; both from craft products,like Great Lakes’ Behind the Wavy Wall, and the dayglo-coloured “malt beverages” sold at The Beer Store such as Mojo Shot.
What rule might be the source of this cap? It seems to be routed in the definition of beer in the Excise Act, s.4 which defines beer or malt liquor as something which does not exceed 11.9% abv. This definition appears to have crept into Ontario-specific legislation like the Liquor License Act and its associated regulations. However, as an Ontarian, you may have seen a number of beers for sale which were above this limit. Indeed, this rule only seems to affect beers sold out of brewpubs or, more specifically, brewery retail stores which are only licensed to sell ‘beer’ in the legal rather than factual sense. This is why, presumably, The Beer Store (formerly known as “The Brewer’s Retail”) adheres to this limit as well.
Some might not see a need to remove this cap. Leaving aside the prohibitionist / alarmist argument that high strength beer will necessarily lead to irresponsible consumption, there are compelling reasons to support an upper limit. For instance, it might be argued that an upper limit would force brewers to concentrate on quality and balance rather than trying to get attention with ever bigger numbers. I will freely admit that none of my top 10 favourite beers are above 11% abv, and that I actually found this year’s edition of BADT much easier to appreciate right out of the bottle (we’ll see after 3-5 years how it stacks up with its bigger siblings).
The problem is, the cap only affects Ontario brewers and specifically those who do not use the LCBO as a distribution network (Ontario brewers can, and do sell 12%abv+ products through the LCBO). In practice, this means that smaller, local brewers who depend on experimentation and attention grabbing products to get by, are disproportionately affected by the regulation. While companies like AB InBev can pay for a special launch party for the 13.6% abv Bourbon County Vanilla Rye (more on that in another post), your local independent brewer likely cannot.
Another argument might be that the LCBO is simply the most responsible place to sell high strength products and thus brewers should be forced to go through them if they want to make something of extreme alcoholic content. After all, with the right techniques, beer can be made as strong as distilled spirit (just ask Brewdog) and a brewer who is only properly meant to sell beer shouldn’t be able to get around that through fractional freezing. However, even if one accepts that LCBO employees are truly the most qualified to sell wine and spirit-strength drinks, this argument would only work if they were the only people who could. But, as anyone who has been to a dive-bar on shots night can attest to, this is not the case. Indeed, many brewpubs also have a full liquor licence meaning that while they can’t sell you a bottle of 13%abv bourbon-barrel imperial stout to enjoy at home, they can sell you 45% abv straight bourbon.
Thus, the most fair and consistent options would be to either make the cap apply to all beer in Ontario or to get rid of it. Alberta tried the former option, to rather predictable results. The final Albertan plan of simply taxing ‘imitation spirit’ at a higher rate would be a halfway solution. That way those who fear $3 cans of 25%abv beer being sold can rest easy while brewers can still make whatever they want.
Ultimately, my real issue with the cap is its arbitrary and ineffectual nature. There is no magic in the 12%abv line. I seriously doubt anyone buying Faxe Extra Strong or Crest Super is planning to enjoy it more responsibly than someone buying Mikkeller Black or Samichlaus. Further, I could probably count on my hands the number of beers I’ve seen in Ontario this year which have met or exceeded 11.9%. While I don’t think most beers improve once they go over 12%, I think consumers should be given the opportunity to make that choice themselves and if we are licensing someone to sell alcohol, we should be confident that they can responsibly sell it at any strength.