The politics of non-alcoholic beer - a continuing saga of misinformation

When our number 1 son, Wesley, left for college in 2011, we were pretty sure we gave him the skills to avoid the "Animal House" style of binge drinking.  Except for 1 or 2 times over 4 years (that he admitted), I think we were successful.

At the University of Utah, as with all state colleges and universities in Utah, there is a policy that prohibits drinking on campus:

"Under University policy, students are subject to discipline for use, possession, or distribution of alcoholic beverages of any type on University premises except as expressly permitted by law and University regulations."

The regulations for the dorms are even more specific:

"The University of Utah is a dry campus. Use, possession or distribution of alcoholic beverages of any type, including beer, on University premises is prohibited except as expressly permitted by law and University regulations. This includes empty alcohol containers, as well as alcohol paraphernalia, such as, but not limited to, bottles or cans that have contained alcohol, bongs, empty multi-serving containers and kegs."

One of the strategies we worked up was to encourage Wesley to stock non-alcoholic beer in his dorm room.  That way, when drinking went on, he'd at least have an alternative.

There are a number of non-alcoholic "beers" on the market.

I sent a request to an official in university housing, and got back this reply:

"In the state of Utah, you have to be 21 to purchase non-alcoholic malt beverages. As the beverages contain alcohol, though a low amount, they have not been allowed to be consumed within the residence halls."

Need to be 21 to buy non-alcoholic beer? Isn't that like saying you have to be 21 to buy a soda? What do the laws in Utah say about this? Now, this is Utah, mind you, and some argue that Utah has the most restrictive alcohol laws in the country. The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) replied to my query, writing "Non-alcoholic brews such as O'Doul's contain less than .5% alcohol by volume and as such do not fall under regulation by the DABC. So as far as the alcoholic beverage control act is concerned, you do not have to be 21 years old or older to purchase an O'Doul's because it is a non-alcoholic beverage." 

 I sent this information back to the housing official, and eventually received this response:

"We have confirmation from University Police Department that Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County do not regulate this category of drinks. You are able to consume them in the residence halls and on campus.  The residence hall policy re: empty bottles/containers in the room still applies so as to not attract bugs."

So, they were wrong.  I'm not sure about the policy regarding empty bottles and bug infestations, and why it was brought up.  Wonder how that works with recycling containers!  

So, Wesley can drink O'Doul's!  But can he buy it?  

I once had a problem with this at a Chili's restaurant in Utah.  I was teaching on Monday nights at a regional campus, and it had been my routine to stop by our local Chili's to watch the last half of Monday Night Football.  The law in Utah at the time (this may have been changed for beer purchases) was that you could only order an alcoholic drink if you also ordered food at the same time.  I was running late, and the game was well into the fourth quarter.  Rather than order a beer and dinner, I just ordered an O'Doul's.  "Sorry sir... you have to order food with that."  What?  I left.  I wrote.

Later, I got this apology from Chili's: 

"With regards to the question of whether or not O'Doul's does in fact have to be served with a meal, the answer is "no". I do have to admit that we did have to do some research on this as in some states it is actually considered and regulated as an alcoholic beverage. In Utah however, we have been told that it is not considered as such and is in the same category as a soda. I appreciate you bringing this to our attention and want to let you know that all of the Utah restaurants have been made aware of this and moving forward will not card for an O'Doul's or require people to have a meal with one."

Wesley and I went into a Smith's grocery store (a division of Krogers) and asked if he could buy O'Doul's.  The answer?  No.  Why?  It's still got some alcohol. A couple of weeks later, a manager told me that Kroger's changed their restrictions, but Wesley never tried to buy it there again, so I don't know anything more about their policy.

That "...contains less than 0.5% alcohol by volume" statement is problematic.  It means that there is no more than 0.5% alcohol by volume, and may mean less.  For O'Doul's, the alcohol content is actually 0.4%.  For some other brands, like Becks NA, it is closer to 0.1%.  But it is a number above zero, and that terrifies people.  The terror comes in 1 of 2 forms.  There is the demon alcohol issue, and there is the demon regulator issue.  No distributor wants to be penalized, or lose their license, because they sold O'Doul's to a person under the age of 21.  And, yes, some alcohol is not the same as no alcohol...or is it?

Some people have tried to get drunk drinking O'Doul's.  It doesn't work.  One writer, after drinking a 6-pack of a non-alcoholic beer, concluded his research by writing, "Non-alcoholic beer is the premature ejaculation of beverages—the job is done, but boy what a price I’ve paid. I’m not drunk, but I will be spending the rest of the night face down on my bed.  Conclusion - I hate myself and I want to die."

There's a reason that the label states "...contains less than 0.5% alcohol by volume."  That number was defined by, yes, Prohibition.  The 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1919, stated, "After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited."  Congress passed the Volstead Act to enact the intent of the 18th Amendment. The Act "defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume..."  Thus, non-alcoholic "beers" were invented.  Even the Temperance Movement agreed that 0.5% was harmless... water the beer down!

Non-alcoholic brews are still brews.  For example, O'Doul's is brewed as a beer, the same as most beers.  However, before bottling, most of the alcohol is removed through heating and vacuum.  Then a bit of CO2 is added for the bubbles, and, voila, you have non-alcoholic beer.  Actually, the word "beer" doesn't appear on most of these products... they are "malt beverages."  Truth in advertising!

"But there is still alcohol in it," one might argue.  Yes, but have you inspected your pantry?  Numerous products have some alcohol, especially when yeast or sugar is involved.  Take a look at these comments regarding alcohol in juices and breads:

"In reality, there is more alcohol in a glass of orange juice or English muffin than in a glass of non-alcoholic beer or wine."  

"It was found that all brands tested of apple juice, grape juice and orange juice contained detectable amounts of ethanol..."  

"A person would have to consume about 3 pounds of bread... to get an amount of alcohol equivalent to that contained in one 4%, 12 ounce beer."   S
o, I calculate a 0.4% O'Doul's would be 0.3 pounds of bread, or 4.8 ounces. I think there's about an ounce per slice for many breads.

Small amounts of ethanol abound.  Harmful at this level?  Probably not, but caution is warrented.  We already know that alcohol consumption is a known risk factor for cancer, with almost 6% of all cancers worldwide attributable to alcohol use.  Drinking alcohol raises your risk of getting 6 kinds of cancer: mouth and throat, voice box (larynx), esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, and breast (in women).

I mention this just because of what these non-alcoholic brews provide as benefits:

•  ethanol consumption no greater than found in many other regularly consumed foodstuffs
•  no drunkenness
•  reduced risk for cancers compared to traditional ethanol drinks
•  probably no increase in risky behaviors or excess food consumption

Yay for the non-alcoholic brews!  But getting one is still difficult for young adults.  In Utah, even though these non-alcoholic brews are not regulated by the state, at least one city (St. George) has banned their possession and sale to people under the age of 21:

"It is unlawful... For any person under the age of twenty one (21) years to purchase, possess or consume any low alcohol beer, or for any person under the age of twenty one (21) years to have any detectable amount of alcohol in the blood or system as a result of having consumed any low alcohol beer, and as determined from a totality of the circumstances, including any breath or blood test or the administration of field sobriety tests."

How is that for an anti-alcohol creed?  From age 18 to 20, you can drive, get a pilots license, vote, serve in the military, run for the position of mayor of St. George, carry a concealed firearm, and more... but you can't purchase, possess or consume an O'Doul's.  Maddening!

My search for the non-alcoholic truth started in about 2009 (Chili's). Almost 10 years later, I was in a Trader Joe's in DC, looking for a specialty non-alcoholic brew (Guinness Kaliber... yes, THAT Guinness company).  They didn't carry that brand, but a manager was standing there, so I asked about it, then asked about age requirements.

"You have to be 21," he said.  I asked, "Is this a store policy or the law?"  The law, of course.  I contacted customer support at Trader Joe's, and got this reply:

" Every state has their own state liquor laws. Depending on the state, it is required to be of a legal drinking age in order to purchase non-alcoholic beer. This is because beers that are labeled "non-alcoholic" still contain very small amounts of alcohol."

Maybe.  But what about the District of Columbia?  DC's Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) tells me, "The District's alcohol laws apply to all beverages and food products that have an alcohol by volume equal or greater than .05 percent. Beverages below .05 percent are not covered by the laws that ABRA regulates; therefore, a beverage with an ABV lower than .05 percent may purchased by a person under the age of 21. The laws and regulations that ABRA administers does not reference products carrying the label of "non-alcoholic beverage." Please note that nothing in ABRA's rules and regulations prevent retailers from adopting a policy of not selling products labeled "non-alcoholic beverages" to minors."

So a person under 21 is allowed to buy an O'Doul's in perhaps the most liberal area of the country (DC) AND in the most conservative area (Utah).

How about in the freedom-loving wilds of Alaska? "Non-alcoholic beer and wine (containing less than 0.5% alcohol by volume) are not considered alcoholic beverages. Legally, non-alcoholic beer and wine are no different than coffee, tea, or soft drinks."

And on cruise ships, interestingly, if you get the alcohol-free drink package (juices, sodas, coffees, smoothies), it probably won't include non-alcoholic beers.  Weird!

So, the saga of non-alcoholic beer involves politics and history, the US Constitution and Congress, the fear of running afoul of regulations, passing the buck, and misinformation.  I may send a note to all 50 states, and update the Wikipedia entry on low-alcohol beers (I've edited parts of this entry already).

But I'm over 21, so why bother?  Well, I'm interested in the topic.  Also, increasing numbers of athletes, even Olympians, are turning to non-alcoholic beers as recovery drinksOne study involving marathon runners concluded, "Strenuous exercise significantly increases the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) caused by transient immune dysfunction. Naturally occurring polyphenolic compounds present in food such as non-alcoholic beer (NAB) have strong anti-oxidant, anti-pathogenic, and anti-inflammatory properties."  This was after the marathoners "...downed a liter to a liter and a half — about two to three pints — of their assigned beverage every day, beginning three weeks before the race and continuing for two weeks afterward."  That's more than I drink, but perhaps I should up my game.

Now if the damn drinks would only have more of an IPA taste!  Microbreweries, time to step up!


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