Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Texas judge slaps down labeling requirements

A Texas judge, in a ruling issued Monday, slapped down the state's inane labeling requirements that required brewers to mislead their customers as to what they were drinking.

Until now, beer sold in Texas that exceeded 4 percent alcohol by weight had to be labeled "ale," while beer under 4 percent ABW was labeled "beer." This of course made no sense because ale is a type of beer defined by the sort of yeast used and the manner in which fermentation occurs. Ale, as it has been known for centuries, has nothing to do with alcoholic strength.

This led to absurdities.

Of local concern, Ska Brewing Co., which distributes in Texas, had to label its Mexican Logger with text that read, with admirable bitchiness, "Ale, in Texas." Mexican Logger is a lager and not an ale, so Texas was essentially requiring Ska to mislead its customers in order to sell beer in the Lonestar State.

Now Ska, and other breweries that sell their beer in Texas, may label their lagers lager and their ales ale. In another part of the ruling, Federal District Court Judge Sam Sparks (now doesn't that sound like a solid Texas name?), ruled that the state could not prohibit breweries from telling their customers the level of booze they were drinking. Under Texas law, breweries could not say "5.2 percent ABV" or "strong ale" or anything of the sort. Paradoxically, Texas required distillers to tell customers the strength of their hard alcohol.

Sparks, in a comedic judicial ruling, as far as such things go, chastised the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission for failing to vigorously defend its own rules.

Many of these rules date from the immediate post-Prohibition period, when states that had no clue how to regulate alcohol came up with a ridiculous maze of stupid, ineffectual and counter-factual laws. Breweries, and the consumers who love them, are forced to contend with far too many of these laws to this day. In my native state of Oregon, bars are not allowed to advertise happy hour specials, as the specter of people enjoying relaxation after their daily labor is far outweighed by the state's interest in prohibiting free speech.

Sparks' ruling rested on First Amendment grounds. Essentially, he ruled that Texas can't force breweries to include untruthful speech on their products, and also can't force them to hide useful information like alcohol content levels from customers.

It's really quite remarkable that we're still dealing with Prohibition 78 years after it ended. It's good on Sparks for defending our First Amendment rights. It's good on Jester King Craft Brewery of Austin for fighting the good fight, hiring the legal muscle to get this done.

And maybe, just maybe, this ruling will send a message to mediocre, stale and arbitrary bureaucracies elsewhere that their interventions are neither necessary nor welcome.


  1. Glad you're back Soggy Coaster! This case is indeed great news- a follow-up to Coor's suit a few years ago which invalidated post-prohibition federal rules that prohibited beer makers from printing alcohol content on bottles and cans (which is why you only see this on some beers still- many brewers are still catching up). The original theory was that people would buy stronger beers and get drunker if they know which ones they were; modern reality born that to not be true for a number of reasons (see the populuarity of light & session beers).

    The happy hour thing has nothing to do with promoting a state interest in prohibiting free speech (which of course there is none), but in preventing DUI. As a liberALtarian I wouldn't vote for such a law personally, but at least it's not as completely nonsensical as the 4%=ale, or can't-print-alcohol-content-on-beer-cans, rules.