Vermont breweries want to expand market for high-alcohol beer

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(Host) Vermont’s micro-breweries want permission to sell specialty beers with higher alcohol content at convenience stores and supermarkets.

Right now, the high-test brews are only available at state liquor outlets.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Most beers contain 4 to 5% alcohol. But some specialty brews – like certain European varieties – can pack a bigger punch, with 8% alcohol or more.

(Miller) "This is a Weizenbock style. It’s made with an authentic German hefeweizen yeast and has a banana and clove aroma.”

(Dillon) Steve Miller works for Harpoon Brewery in Windsor and he came to the Statehouse armed with a 22-ounce bottle of the German-style beer. The bottle remained un-opened, but it was Exhibit A for the brewers’ argument that they should be allowed to sell their gourmet beers at Vermont’s 1,200 supermarkets and convenience stores.

(Miller) The true beer connoisseurs are looking for these styles. And really it’s about staying true to a particular beer style. A style like a barley wine ale wouldn’t be true to its roots if it were made under 8%.

(Dillon) Under current law, beers that contain more than 8% alcohol have to be sold at state liquor outlets. For the beer companies, that means much less exposure to showcase their craft.

Morgan Wolaver, the president of Otter Creek Brewing and Wolaver’s Organic Ale in Middlebury, said the gourmet beer is more expensive to make, but it’s also more profitable.

(Wolaver) "To try to sell 100 barrels of this beer takes a lot of exposure … It would add maybe 2-5% to our revenue, not huge, but the profit margins are 50 to 100% more. So that’s significant for a business owner.”

(Dillon) Vermont is one of just a handful of states that strictly control the sale of these higher alcohol specialty beers.

Last year, the House passed a bill that allow beers with up to 16% alcohol to be sold in convenience stores and supermarkets. The measure is pending in the Senate.

The Department of Liquor Control testified against the bill because of concerns about under-age drinking. Commissioner Michael Hogan says if the bill passes, the high-test beers could be available everywhere, not just at the 75 state liquor agencies.

(Hogan) "We’re not against breweries in the state. We want to see them grow and expand. But we do have a concern about high-alcohol beers being available in more outlets and the potential for under-aged people having access to them.”

(Dillon) But Wolaver said the gourmet beers are expensive, and probably wouldn’t be attractive to young drinkers.

(Wolaver) "People are not going to sit down and try to pound a 25-ounce bottle of $10 a bottle of Belgian beer. They’re going to sit down and share it with two, maybe three people.”

(Dillon) The Vermont Grocers Association supports the bill as well. It’s not clear when the Senate will vote on the measure.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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