adventures in craft beer and real food

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Not Funny

I think everyone that knows me well knows one thing about me: I love comics. When I was little, I read Garfield and Peanuts voraciously. Then I got into The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbs, and Doonesbury. And I've always had a thing for political cartoons. When done well, they're clever depictions of complicated issues. As something simple, they can be incredibly powerful statements of opinion. Just look at Thomas Nast.

So I can take a joke.

But I think Joe Heller's recent political cartoon about free beer samples in grocery stores wasn't funny.

At stake is Wisconsin Assembly Bill 122, which would allow free samples of beer to be given out at grocery stores in Wisconsin. Specifically, it allows a maximum of two 3-ounce portions to be given to a person of legal drinking age between 11 AM and 7 PM unless specifically prohibited by municipal government.

The bill, sponsored by State Senator Pat Kretilow, passed the Senate Affairs Committee unanimously and is to be scheduled for a vote on the senate floor.

The way the law is now written, two 3-ounce portions of wine may be given free of charge to an individual of legal drinking between 10 AM and 6 PM (AB122 changes the times to 11-7):
(a) The provision of wine taste samples of not more than 3 fluid ounces each, free of charge, by a "Class A" licensee to customers and visitors for consumption on the premises. No "Class A" licensee may provide more than 2 taste samples per day to any one person. This subsection applies only between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Notwithstanding s. 125.07 (1) (a) 1., no "Class A" licensee may provide taste samples under this subsection to any underage person. No "Class A" licensee may provide as taste samples under this subsection wine that the "Class A" licensee did not purchase from a wholesaler.

(b) Notwithstanding par. (a) and s. 125.10 (1), a municipality may prohibit the provision of wine under this subsection.
A play-by-play analysis of the exact changes proposed in the current version of AB122 is provided here (PDF, 20kb). In its current form, it proposes that section 125.1 be revised from
(1) Every municipal governing body may issue Class "A" licenses for the sale of fermented malt beverages from premises within the municipality. Subject to s. 125.34 (5) and (6), a Class "A" license authorizes retail sales of fermented malt beverages for consumption off the premises where sold and in original packages, containers and bottles. A license may be issued after July 1. That license shall expire on the following June 30.
to (changes noted in bold)
125.25 (1) Every municipal governing body may issue Class “A” licenses for the
sale of fermented malt beverages from premises within the municipality. Subject to s. 125.34 (5) and (6), a Class “A” license authorizes retail sales of fermented malt beverages for consumption off the premises where sold and in original packages, containers, and bottles. A Class “A” license also authorizes the licensee to provide, free of charge, to customers and visitors who have attained the legal drinking age fermented malt beverages taste samples that are not in original packages, containers, or bottles and that do not exceed 3 fluid ounces each, for consumption on the Class “A” premises. No Class “A” licensee may provide more than 2 taste samples per day to any one person. Taste samples may be provided under this subsection only between the hours of 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Any other provision of this chapter applicable to retail sales of fermented malt beverages by a Class “A” licensee also applies to the provision of taste samples, free of charge, of fermented malt beverages by a Class “A” licensee. A license may be issued after July 1. That license shall expire on the following June 30.
So basically all Assembly Bill 122 does is make legal for beer what is already legal for wine.

Yet, here's Joe Heller portraying a bunch of men standing around a grocery store chugging beer at a grocery stand resembling a bar. The figure behind the "bar" resembles a young store clerk. By portraying someone who might potentially be underage serving beer implies that there's no check to make sure that all samples are given to people of legal drinking age. And it could be construed to imply that the underage clerk himself might have access to beer, and help himself.

There are four empty cups littering the floor around the men. This depiction implicitly suggests that individuals who would sample beer at a store are irresponsible.

Moreover, there are two women in the cartoon. With a dour look on her face (the other woman merely looks condescending towards the men), one of them says, "He never wanted to come to the grocery store with me... now I can't get him to leave!!" This further implies that all beer drinkers are men, and that men love beer more than their spouses. It also implies that there's no limit to the number of free samples, or that the serving sizes are large. And indeed, the cups don't appear to be tasting portion sized. As a result, it seriously misrepresents the AB122.

Finally, the caption reads "Wis. legislature considers allowing grocery stores to hand out beer samples." Again, there's no indication that responsible alcohol service is legally mandated by the bill.

The hue and cry about AB122 is beyond absurd. I will first address Heller's apparent criticisms, then I will respond to the arguments of other opponents of the bill. Finally, I will argue in favor of AB122 and strongly urge its approval without delay.

First, grocery stores providing beer samples will have to do so in a responsible manner. Regulations surrounding who can and cannot serve alcoholic beverages will apply to the distribution of free samples. And more than likely, the grocery store won't set up a bar. It might have a small table, which draws far less attention.

While people do litter, I question the apparent causal relationship between a free beer sample and litter in grocery stores. You can't tell me that everyone who takes a toothpick of Mystery Sausage at the grocery store puts the toothpick into an approved trash receptacle. You also can't tell me that men are more likely to litter than women. Or that beer drinkers are more likely to litter than wine drinkers or Mystery Juice drinkers.

With serving sizes limited to two 3-ounce pours, individuals trying a free beer sample would have to leave at some point because there's no reason to stay. It wouldn't lead to massive crowding at grocery stores. It wouldn't lead to public drunkenness. It wouldn't lead to neglected spouses. And let's face it: the times I've had a sample of wine at retail locations, the pour was more like one ounce. The volumes given are maximums, not The Exact Amount Which Must Be Poured and Then Consumed.

Having read numerous press accounts of the AB122 controversy, I found some more criticism of the bill. Nearly all of them go like this, "AB122 promotes drunkenness, alcoholism, and increases the chances of underage drinking and alcohol-related traffic fatalities. In addition, AB122 could be harmful to children and recovering alcoholics."

To be fair and balanced, I'll allow the critics to speak in their own words.

As quoted by Patrick Thornton of the Green Bay Press Gazette, Portage County District Attorney Tom Eagon says, "There are a lot of places in our community for people to get a drink." Yes, but if I wanted to go out and get a drink I want to go out and get a drink. What I wouldn't do is cruise around to grocery stores walking up and down each isle to see if free tasting samples were being distributed. And even if I found a grocery store that was providing tasting samples, I'd get at the very most six ounces (half a bottle) worth of beer. Given the amount of time and effort that an individual would have to spend obtaining a ridiculously small amount of beer, Mr. Eagon's argument is absurd. It is also an irrelevant point because people could already go out to grocery stores and get free tasting samples of wine.

Lauri Rockman, coordinator of Portage County's Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, is quoted as saying, "The environment we create for our young people is critical to their long-term health. We need positive adult modeling. Making alcohol part of a trip to the grocery store is just another way to make it so pervasive and casual in our culture." Of all the arguments against Assembly Bill 122, I think this is the most outrageous. Like a lot of things (sugar, salt, fat, etc.), alcohol is not inherently bad. Perhaps that's why her organization has the word "Abuse" in its title, not "Consumption." Anyway, I agree. It's extremely important that adults provide positive role models for their children. I just disagree with Ms. Rockman that the consumption of alcohol in moderation sets a bad example. Beer is a beverage with ancient roots, and strong traditions in many european countries (and a strong tradition here in the US). It can be incredibly complex and highly refined. To be honest, if I have kids someday I hope they have an appreciation for real beer as adults. If she doesn't want beer, she doesn't have to buy it or support retail locations that sell it. But please, Ms. Rockman, don't tell me that I can't or shouldn't enjoy it.

Mr. Eagon continues, "People with alcohol issues can't stop at one or two. One of the ways they deal with their problem is to avoid situations where they will be tempted. A grocery store should be a safe place." Ok, I get that argument. But where do you draw the line? If I recently had a heart attack, should I be tempted by fattening meats, whole milk, and candy bars in the checkout? If I suffer from celiac disease, should I be tempted with gluten-containing products? And furthermore, it stands to reason that economics would balance this out. If a store provides free samples of beer and you couldn't resist, then don't go there. If the grocery store loses enough business, it will be forced to stop providing free samples of beer.

But again, Mr. Eagon's argument misrepresents the issue. If grocery stores had a keg in the middle of the produce section and were handing out beers by the pint, I'd understand his comment about not being able to stop at "one or two." But let's face it. Six ounces of beer maximum is not a lot. And if you're talking about ethanol content it's far less than six ounces of wine. Let's say most beers come in around 4% alcohol by volume while most wines come in around 14% alcohol. That means in 6 ounces of wine, there's about 7 grams of ethanol for beer as opposed to 25 grams for wine. So you're going to end up consuming more than three times as much alcohol drinking the already-legal tasting sample of wine. And it's not like grocery stores don't already sell beer, wine, and hard liquor which could potentially compromise the safety of a store for a recovering alcoholic.

Assembly Bill 122 deserves to become law without further ado. The homebrewing and microbrewing revolution in the last twenty to thirty years in the United States has lead to the creation of some amazing breweries and world-class beers. Facing a dizzying variety of beer choices at a store (go to Woodman's Market or Steve's Liquor in Madison if you don't believe the selection could be intimidating), many customers won't know what to choose. If the retail location periodically provides free samples of beer, it helps beer drinkers try new styles without committing to a six pack. As a result, more people are more likely to try more beer.

This is a great for craft brewers who often survive on razor-thin margins. Paul Graham, president of the Central Waters Brewing Company, acknowledges this when he is quoted as saying, "Some people are hesitant to spend money on a beer they haven't tried before. This would give them a chance to sample our product before they purchase it." This legislation could potentially help smaller craft brewers compete with the macrobrewers.

This is great for the beer movement in the United States. For a long time, beer meant american light lager (e.g. Miller Lite). Then it meant american light lager and stout (e.g. Guinness). Then it meant american light lager, stout, and pale ale (e.g. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale). Now it pretty much means every kind of beer from every brewing tradition on the planet, plus experimenting with new ways of doing things. Helping people understand that beer can taste like fresh cherries (e.g. New Glarus Belgian Red) to espresso (e.g. Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Stout) and everything in between will help maintain diversity of brewing portfolios. And it may be exactly what is needed, given that the Capital Brewing Company discontinued Capital 1900 and Kloster Weizen, two worthy and unique offerings by a local craft brewer.

And finally, it helps raise the profile of beer drinking by making it placing it rightfully as wine's equal.

Assembly Bill 122 is a good measure that will help Wisconsin business, benefit Wisconsin residents, and maintain Wisconsin's reputation for beer. Although it has been assailed by critics, their arguments are very weak compared to the tangible benefits that AB122 provides. The state assembly should not delay its passage.


xenobiologista said...

*shrug* That's the problem with Americans being so tightly wound about Malaysia nobody bats an eye at kids drinking shandy with adult supervision, and in Jamaica, according to Khadine, drinking age is "as soon as you can see over the bar".

But I think you're overreacting to the cartoon. It's more making fun of the stereotypes surrounding middle-aged family dynamics.

RSA said...

It is equally important for businesses to have a responsible service of alcohol. No responsible alcohol service can have a devastating effects on business, especially if customers injure another person while under the influence of alcohol.