Chalk one up for tavern owner, sensible drinking


March 15, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

When you go into Racers' in Parkville, you see the things you would expect to see in a neighborhood tavern:

Nicotine-stained walls and ceilings, some industrial-strength tile on the floor, a bunch of stools up against a walnut-paneled bar, and row after row of bottles.

But up on a chalkboard behind the bar, you see one thing you rarely, if ever, see in a saloon:

The alcohol content of each beer served.

"Before we put it up on the board, I would ask people what they thought the alcohol content of beer was," said Gil Osenburg, who runs the place along with his brother, Richard. "And they'd guess everything from a tenth of 1 percent to 25 percent. But they never guessed it was different for every beer."

It is?

"Oh, yeah," he said. "And in Maryland you can get beers that are as low as 2.41 percent and as high as 15.5 percent. And you don't know. You just don't know."

But isn't it on the bottle?

"Take a look," Osenburg said.

So I did. And I invite you to do the same. Take a look at any beer bottle you've got. You won't find the alcohol content on it.

If it's a light beer, you'll find the carbohydrate content and calorie content and fat content. But not the alcohol.

Now take a look at any wine bottle you have around. Even the fancy French ones that you can't read. On that, you will be able to find the alcohol content. In English.

The same is true with hard liquor. Pick up a bottle of scotch or vodka and it will tell you the alcohol content.

But not beer.

This has always bothered Osenburg, who thinks bar owners get a bad rap in general.

"I don't pry open people's jaws and make them drink," he said. "This is a neighborhood bar. It is a business based on regulars. And I don't want my customers going out of here drunk and getting in accidents. That's not good business.

"So I think people should know what they're drinking. I'll tell you something: A little while ago, I was at a bull roast and they were serving Heineken on draft. Well, that stuff is rocket fuel. That's not what they should be serving at a bull roast. They should be serving the lowest alcohol beer they could."

Osenburg took his concerns to Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County, and Boozer is now sponsoring a bill and a joint resolution to make beer alcohol content available to the public.

"These are consumer education bills," Boozer said. "They are based on the belief that the public has a right to know what it is drinking."

Senate Bill 634 would require beer wholesalers to provide beer retailers with written beer alcohol content information per container for each brand of beer sold in Maryland. It is hoped that the retailer will then pass this information along to the consumer.

Senate Joint Resolution 14 asks the Maryland delegation to Congress to support national legislation to put the alcohol content on all beer labels.

Why isn't it there now? Well, you probably aren't going to believe it. I didn't at first, so I called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to make sure.

"It goes back to 1933," said Tom Hill, a BATF spokesman. "Prohibition had just ended and Congress felt that breweries would compete to put out the most 'potent' beer for the public. So they banned that information from beer labels."

Which no longer makes much sense. Yes, some people still vTC might wish to buy a particular beer because it has a high alcohol content. But many more, I believe, would pick a beer because of its lower alcohol content.

This, anyway, is what Osenburg has found.

"Our beers on tap right now are Harp at 4.96 percent, Guinness Stout at 5.8 percent, Budweiser at 4.82 percent and Coors Light at 4.36 percent," he said. "And Coors Light is our No. 1 seller."

(Osenburg's information comes, he says, from a study done by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven and also from the breweries themselves. Different containers of the same brand beer sometimes test out at different percentages.)

As you can see, the percentages are pretty close. But as proponents of labeling point out, blood alcohol levels are measured in the hundredths of 1 percent.

So if you get stopped by the police and they take a breath test and you are over the limit even by a hundredth of a percent, you are in big, big trouble. And you should be.

So don't you think it would be a good idea to know what you are drinking? Don't you think it would be good to know how much alcohol you have actually consumed?

The state of Washington thinks so. In August last year, it became the first state to require alcohol content on beer labels. Some breweries supported this and some opposed it.

But the Washington requirement is legal. The BATF rule just forbids labeling nationwide. However, Adolph Coors Co. has sued the federal government to overturn that rule. Coors won in U.S. District Court and the matter is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Senator Boozer began hearings in Annapolis on his bill and resolution yesterday, and so both have a long way to go.

"If you want to get blitzed, you're going to get blitzed anyway," Boozer said. "But I'm hoping most people want to know the alcohol content so they don't get loaded up on alcohol."

It is going to be a tough fight, however.

"One of the beer wholesalers jumped down my throat on this recently," Gil Osenburg said. "He said: 'We don't need another warning label!'

"And I said: 'Hey, this is an information tool. If the customer doesn't know how much alcohol he is drinking, how does he know when to say when?' "

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