FEATURE ‌ Beer Buzz 

A high gravity beer bill is brought down to earth by the legislative summer recess

What's better after a long day of work than a nice cold beer? A nice cold beer in the middle of a long day of work, of course. A lunchtime brew is just one of the perks Ed Falkenstein enjoys as co-owner of Charleston's own Palmetto Brewing Company. Falkenstein and partner Louis Bruce started the brewery in 1993 after spending time in Oregon and discovering the microbreweries along the Columbia River.

Microbrews started popping up in the late 1980s in the Pacific Northwest, where the climate is ideal for growing hops, one of the key ingredients in beer-making. Since then, more than 400 breweries have opened nationwide, and the industry pulls in more than $3.7 billion a year. Palmetto was South Carolina's first brewery to open since Prohibition.

Falkenstein and head brewer David Merritt took the City Paper on a tour of their immaculate production warehouse on Huger Street. The brewery produces four different kinds of beer — an amber ale, a lager, a pale ale, and a porter. "People want to try different things," says Falkenstein. "Everything you purchase has greater variety now — cars, soap. You take it as a matter of course. Beer isn't any different. The drinking mentality is changing. You don't order the same beer you've been drinking your entire life anymore. It is more like wine drinking, you won't order the same wine every time you go out."

An area of microbrewery production that has garnered increasing attention is the distillation of high gravity beers. Traditionally produced in Belgium, high gravity beers are full-bodied craft beers that require extra ingredients and extra time to produce, resulting in bigger, more pronounced flavors, and frequently, a bigger price tag.

David Merritt, head brewer at Palmetto Brewing Company, likens the varieties of beer to those of wine. "Your pale ale is your Chardonnay. A high gravity beer is like drinking port. It's bigger and richer."

The extra effort put into producing a high gravity beer also produces an extra bang for your buck. High gravity refers to the difference in gravity between the stew of ingredients at the beginning of the brewing process and the final brew. The greater the difference in gravity from beginning to end of the fermentation process, the higher the alcohol content. Some Belgian ales tip the scales at double digit alcohol content, equivalent to that in a liqueur, or a jammy wine or port.

Currently, South Carolina law limits alcohol content in beer to no more than 6 percent. Only three other states have such prohibitions -- Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Georgia and North Carolina have both increased their accepted alcohol percentages in the last two years, with new limits set at 15 percent. In the first month after changing their regulations, 250 new brands of gourmet beers were registered with state authorities in North Carolina. The local industry has seen a great amount of financial growth, but microbrews are still a very small portion of the nationwide beer market — three percent of the $50-billion-dollar industry.

A bill introduced by state Rep. James Harrison (R-Richland) would amend the 6 percent alcohol limit on beer and raise it to the widely accepted 15 percent. Lawmakers intended to put the bill to a final vote last Wednesday, but Governor Sanford's budget veto got in the way, and the Senate spent the entire day making overrides, amendment by amendment. Now, the earliest the Senate is likely to hear the bill will be next January, when it will start the process all over again.

A spokesperson from Rep. Harrison's office indicated that the only thing the bill had working against it was time, and that hopefully next year it will sail through without issue.

Jamie Tenny works as a lobbyist for South Carolina's Pop the Cap organization, a major force behind efforts in North Carolina to increase the allowable alcohol percentage. Tenny calls the restrictions "archaic," and hopes that the General Assembly will make a point to hear the bill again next January.

State Sen. Phil Leventis (D-Lee and Sumter) is also a proponent of the bill. He dabbles in beer distribution and believes that the new alcohol limits would be a financial boon for the state. According to Sen. Leventis, the odds look good for the bill's passing. "There are two ways a bill gets passed," says Leventis. "Either there is overwhelming support for it; or there is not a lot of opposition, but there is a well-informed, small group of people who will push the bill through." He believes that the latter is the case in this situation.

The minority who oppose the bill primarily do so for two reasons. They believe that increasing the alcohol limit will in turn increase the incidence of alcohol-related violence, accidents, or crime, and they are worried that the big three beer producers — Anheuser Busch, Miller, and Coors — and their lobbyists will be put out by the new limits.

If commercials and the introductions of new flavored beers are any indication, the big three have already begun adjusting to increasing interest in specialty beers and to the changing demographics of beer drinkers. With more being spent in their companies on marketing and promotion than on actual beer production, the beer makers are virtually impervious to shifts in the market.

Concerns about the increased potency of high gravity beers have also been debunked.

"If someone wants to go out and get trashed, they aren't going to invest in a high quality, high price, high gravity beer. They are going to go and buy a case of cheaper beer," says Pop the Cap's Tenny.

Seven different styles of high gravity beer are brewed at Moon River Brewery in Savannah. "The high gravity beer has always represented a niche in a niche market," says Moon River owner John Pinkerton. "They are not our biggest seller, but we are pleased to be able to do them. It adds variety to our menu. These beers are all about taste, they are not alcohol delivery systems."

Palmetto Brewery owner Falkenstein says, if given the option to create and distribute high gravity beers, "We would definitely offer them. It is a small niche to offer and it just opens up more variety."

There are many styles of beer that are considered high gravity. Bocks, doppelbocks, imperial stouts, barley wines, India pale ales, and most traditional Belgian beers that are produced by monasteries are all high gravity. According to Falkenstein their popularity is assured with the younger crowd, and he could see both restaurants and retailers doing very well with the gourmet beers.

Head brewer Merritt agrees, adding that the opportunity to bring high gravity beers to South Carolina would be a great thing for both beer makers and beer lovers. "America is the frontier for beer. We don't care as much as the Europeans do about beer heritage, which lets us be true beer flavor innovators."

This is not the only "archaic" alcohol law that is found in the South Carolina lawbooks. Until last year, airplanes and South Carolina were the only two places in the country required to serve alcohol from the adorable mini-bottle. As a holdover from Prohibition and backwoods bathtub moonshiners, it is cost-prohibitive to distill hard liquor in South Carolina — a law that forces local businesses like Firefly Vodka to outsource its distillation. Then, of course, there are the Bible-beating regulations outlawing the sale of alcohol on Sundays — the bane of none-the-wiser, ill prepared, tourists.

If you would like to see South Carolina drinking laws accommodate themselves to the 21st century, contact your local state legislator, or check out South Carolina Pop the Cap at www.popthecapsc.org.


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