Iowa’s Ridiculous Beer Laws

One of my goals over “spring break” (I put in quotes since the week consisted of six inches of snow on saturday, then a week of cold rain and wind and then blizzard warnings the next saturday–it’s cold and windy again today as we head back to class) was to go to Madison or Chicago for some serious beer hunting. At the least, I wanted to cross over into Illinois for some different beers, but alas the week slipped away from me, so I went down to Iowa City for a visit to John’s grocery for some good beer and, as much as I like John’s (it is a fine selection of beer, although I think that many beers stay on the shelf long past their prime), I found myself a bit depressed about it. What I was really in the mood for were some good west coast IPAs or Strong Ales, but really they barely make the shelves here.

The reason? Iowa’s stupid beer regulations. Now, I know plenty of states with silly laws on the books. For instance, when I was tending bar in Vermont, the law was that you could not have more than 16 oz at one person’s disposal. So no pitchers. No shots and a beer.  In fact, the latter meant that the bartender would hold the beer chaser while the patron took the shot and then the bartender could hand them the beer.  It was incredibly stupid since what I really saw was people drinking the end of beers pretty quickly when someone else wanted to buy another round–yes, very effective.  Here in Iowa, the stupid rule is that “beer” is defined as below 5% abv.  Wine is anywhere between 6% and 17% but anything over 5% for beer means that it is a liquor.  This means 25% markup/excise tax and that all higher alcohol beer is distributed by the state (and stored in very improper conditions in most cases) rather than by the private distributors.  In effect what it means is that beer lovers don’t have access to many, many beers that other states do.  Brewpubs can not brew stronger beers; it’s an exception to have a stronger beer brewed rather than a rule as it is in most truly great brewpubs–it’s too expensive.

What’s the effect of all this on the state? We lose income. People like me will gladly drive when we’re able to another state for a beer run. The Des Moines register recently had a fine article citing people who will drive to Michigan for their beer runs. And why is all this?  Supposedly it puts the brakes on binge drinking and underage drinking. Give me a break. Underage drinkers are not interested in higher alcohol specialty beers. These beers are by the nature (without the “help” of the state) expensive; college students and the party drinker is much more concerned with a cheaper beer that they can buy readily enough anyway. According to data from MADD, states with no alcohol by weight restrictions actually have a 6% LOWER RATE of alcohol-related fatalities than the national average. This doesn’t necessarily show  a causal link, but the data refutes the argument that allowing strong beers will increase the number of drinking-related incidents.

As notes, there are important reasons to Lift the Limit:

  • Improved business climate for breweries, brewpubs, wholesale beer distributors and retailers within our state.
  • Allows Iowa breweries and brewpubs to produce a wider variety of beer styles.
  • Increased availability and selection of “gourmet” beers.
  • Reduced prices by eliminating the State Excise Tax (25% price markup).
  • Increased sales — Volume increases in sales of the more expensive gourmet beers. Those who already consume beverages in this category (obviously), but also those who were simply deterred by the excessively high prices. If the price drops by just over 20% (elimination of the liquor excise tax) these beers will be more in line with mainstream beer prices.
  • New customer base, as borderline/occasional buyers of gourmet beers try and buy these beers. Sales of gourmet beers would be expected to increase dramatically.
  • “Fresh” Beer to Go.
  • Better image of Iowa from domestic and foreign visitors.

In my humble opinion, this law is just one more shortsighted policy that helps keep Iowa in the backwaters. If 17% is a reasonable limit for wine, then it’s just as fine for beer (and really, 20% is the virtual limit for beer anyway).  Come on Iowa, there are plenty of people who will gladly put good money into the system if you give them the option; otherwise, they’ll just go elsewhere.



6 Responses to “Iowa’s Ridiculous Beer Laws”

  1. jeff Says:

    For the West Coast beers, your best bet is either ordering online or a trip to northern/central Illinois. In those parts of Illinois you can get Green Flash, Lagunitas, Lost Abbey, Port, Bear Republic, Anderson Valley, etc. How far a drive is that for you?

    But I hear you. Things here in MO have gotten so much better in the two years we’ve been here. So many new things coming to the state. Our new challenge is to get retail/distribution to move more of it into Columbia and not just St. Louis.

    • GJF Says:

      Yea, I definitely order online (although my stock had run out recently) and I get to Illinois/Wisconsin when I can (I like Madison since I can also stop by New Glarus on the way back) but it’s frustrating to know that the beers that stop at the Illinois line are in large part stopped because of this stupid law.

  2. Nathan Says:

    I live in Iowa City and frequently go to John’s Grocery and understand exactly what you mean. There are many beers that Iowa can no longer get due to the liquor laws. Bell’s Expedition Stout comes to mind. I could get it about three years ago and now I cannot. I asked the one of the guys working in the beer room and he said that until IA changes their laws beers higher than 5% are considered liquor. Last I checked 12 oz of a crap beer like Bud Light and 12 oz of whiskey don’t have the same affect. Maybe it’s just me.

    We are even losing breweries because they don’t like how their beer is stored before it reaches the stores and don’t like the taxation that is in affect.

    I have a friend that lived up in MN and every time we were up there we stocked up on good beer so living in a beer poor area would be bearable.

    Iowa is losing business to states that have it. If you don’t like the price of gas at one station you go down the street. Sadly states are a little farther apart but people go where they must to get the desired product.

  3. History of Beer in Iowa | Thoughts on Beer Says:

    […] movement several years ago to raise this limit, and was created.  This encouraged others to speak out about the law.  Because of movements like these, and the growing acceptance of craft brewing, in early 2010, SF […]

  4. Andrew Shaffer Says:

    Governor Chet Culver will sign SF2088 at 11:30 AM Wednesday–the 5% cap will be lifted to 12% in Iowa. Viva la beer!

  5. mdthompson77 Says:

    I’m an Iowa City resident that recently had the fortune of visiting Bell’s brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. They had some killer brews on tap, all above 5%, and therefore won’t be making it to Iowa. And of course we can’t get some of the better New Belgium products, for the same reason.

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